Buying a Second Hand Log Cabin

A Novice’s Guide to Buying a Second Hand Log Cabin

You want to buy a log home, but, you don’t really know what you are looking for and how to check if the cabin is in good condition.

Whether you’re planning on buying a log cabin in Alaska or buying a log cabin to rent; there are lots of things to consider when buying a used log cabin.

Unfortunately, you will probably find that most home inspectors don’t know much about log homes, so how can you make sure that you buy the right log home?

Even if you are able to find a local inspector who specializes in log homes, it will become very expensive for you to have every single log home you view, inspected.

In all my experience of the hundreds of log cabins I have seen or offered advice on, I am yet to see one which is past repair. Perhaps a more appropriate question is not whether a cabin can be repaired, but the cost of the repair.

We would suggest that you follow the checklist below, before reading the article for more detail. Once you understand the key areas of a log cabin to inspect, and narrow your search down to one or two log homes, then you can consider paying for an inspection.

Checklist # Category Inspection Area
1 Exterior Inspection Staining
2 Exterior Inspection Logs in contact with the ground
3 Exterior Inspection Rot
4 Exterior Inspection Overhangs/Exposed Logs
5 Exterior Inspection Gutters
6 Exterior Inspection Insect Infestation
7 Exterior Inspection Chinking
8 Exterior Inspection Checking
9 Exterior Inspection Decks & Porches
10 Interior Inspection Light & Air Infiltration
11 Interior Inspection Insect Infestation
12 Interior Inspection Chinking
13 Interior Inspection Key Questions

Exterior Inspection

You can expect a log cabin to perhaps look a little dirty and even expect to see some flaking on the finish, but when does this become a concern?

Let’s take a look at all nine of the exterior elements you should inspect at before buying a log home:

Condition of Log Cabin Staining

Log Cabin Stain Exterior Inspection

Water is the number one enemy of log homes. Not that it’s a problem for logs to get wet – that’s fine, they dry.

The issue is when they don’t dry and then start to rot, this is why most log homes are stained or have some weatherproofing.

It’s quite easy to tell how good the staining is, usually just by eye.

  • What does the staining look like? Can you see exposed wood anywhere (i.e. wood without stain)? Is the staining patchy?
  • Pay attention to the south and west walls of the cabin – are they faded? Are the logs a different color on the top than they are at the bottom?

Don’t be afraid to ask when the home was last stained, if it was over 15 years ago, it could be a very expensive job to corn blast the home and then re-stain.

If the stain is even but just really worn down, this won’t cost much to fix. Check out our maintenance guide for details on how to stain it and costs.

Top-tip

A simple way to test how effective the staining is is to splash water on the logs. The water should bead up – this shows the finish is still effective.

If the water is absorbed – the stain is no long effective.

This does not mean that you should avoid the cabin, you should just factor the cost of re-staining into your offer.

Logs Touching the Ground

Raised Log Cabin
Be very cautious if you see that the base of the log home is in contact with the ground.

When I talk about the ground – I mean dirt and mud.

Logs that lay on the ground will soak up the moisture which will cause the logs to rot.

The Cabin should be raised off the ground using a correct foundation (as seen in the picture above).

Not only do logs on the ground wick up moisture, they will also make a nice home for insects, giving them easy access into the cabin.

Top-tip

Make sure there is at least a six inch gap between the ground and the logs.

If any logs are in contact with the ground, find out if they are pressure treated. Logs that are pressure treated have a better chance of resisting everything that wants to eat it (insects, bacteria, fungi etc…).

If the logs in contact with the ground have not been pressure treated – this is a deal breaker, stay clear!

Rotten Logs

Rotten Log
If you have found logs in contact with the ground, or inadequate staining, it is very important to consider this step thoroughly.

To start with, in a more obvious example, you will see black marks on the outside of the log.

This is not a good sign.

It’s likely that the log will have rotted from the inside out and therefore won’t have much life left in it. STAY AWAY!

Sometimes, logs may look completely fine from the outside, but have hidden rot on the inside. But how do you tell?

Top-tip

  1. Take a hammer with you and ask for permission to tap on the logs. You’ll be able to hear a difference between a log that is rotting and one that is not.
  2. A log that is rotting will produce a hollow sound compared to a solid log. Also, some logs with interior rot usually bounce the hammer back, whereas a solid log with stop the hammer.
  3. If you suspect that logs are rotting, the only solution is to replace them which can be very costly.

Overhangs/Exposed Logs

Large Roof Overhangs

It’s important for a log home to have an overhanging roof to keep the rain and other elements away from the logs and the foundation.

How Much?

Ideally, there should be a minimum 24 inch overhang for a one story cabin, and 36 inches for a two cabin story house.

Having a shallow overhang is not great because as the water runs off, it will hit the ground and splash back on the lower logs of the cabin.

Gutters

Log Cabin Gutter Inspection

While gutters don’t really add much to the aesthetic beauty of a log home, they are an important part of preventing water from contacting your logs.

You should make sure that the gutters are in good condition and are clear from debris.

Check that the downspouts drain the water away from the house and the foundations.

To test them, take a jug full of water and pour this into the gutter. Make sure the water drains properly.

Insect Infestation

Carpenter bees on a log home

What are the signs of insect infestation, aside from the obvious insects themselves?

Tell-tale signs include bore holes (each insect makes a different size and shape) and chalky, powder like residue.

A single, one-off, hole is expected, it’s when you see a close grouping of holes that there is a problem.

Carpenter ants, carpenter bees, powder post beetles and termites are just a few of the insects that are common insects to infest log homes.

Carpenter ants and bees both shed their wings before entering the holes so you may also find wings.

Most insects invade log homes because they like the moisture, therefore the most effective way to reduce insect infestations is to get rid of rotten logs and replace them.

Chinking and Checking

Bad Log Cabin Chinking Example

Chinking is the sealant between the logs. In particular, you should check the condition of the chinking and that is it all intact.

If there are: chunks missing; gaps or tears; or if the chinking is messy, this shows the cabin hasn’t been maintained very well.

Chinking is easy to remove and replace, so poor chinking is not an indicator that you shouldn’t buy a log home, rather, an indicator of poor maintenance.

Remember, older cement-based chinking requires far more maintenance than today’s supple elastomeric chinking that moves with your cabin as it settles – You can read more about log cabin chinking and cabin maintenance

Checking
Checks are splits or cracks in the cabin’s logs. Checking is a normal part of logs drying out.

The only time it becomes a concern, is if the cracks are over 1/4” in size, or if they lie on the upper side of a log, making it easy for water to infiltrate them.

Cracks and checks can be filled with chinking very quickly. However, you should first check that water damage has not already been done.

Settling & Shrinking

Log Cabin Roof Collapse During Settling
All log homes are likely to settle and shrink slightly in the first few years; as they adjust to their climate and change moisture content.

Most log home builders will take this into account and allow for shrinkage.

Signs to look for that a log home didn’t settle properly include windows and doors sticking or not opening and windows and doors bowing from the weight of the walls.

Look at partition walls, which are normally not logs, if a settling allowance wasn’t made there will be a big problem that the exterior walls will have shrunk and will now be putting a lot of pressure on the interior walls, which in the worst case scenario could cause them to fail and collapse.

Check that the roof doesn’t have any humps or dips. This could also be a sign than the property didn’t settle properly.

Foundation settling issues are a deal breaker. Cabin’s that have subsidence issues can consume huge time and money.

Take an expert’s opinion on settling and read about log cabin foundations.

Decks & Porches

Porches are a great addition to log cabins – they shelter the logs and reduce the wetting and drying cycle, whist protecting the logs from natural elements (i.e. rain and sun).

With the benefit of porches and decks also comes a downside.

If the overhang is not large enough, or if there is no roof on the deck, then water will drip down from the roof and splash back on the cabin.

Use the techniques above and check these areas for water damage and rot.

Interior Inspection

Log Cabin Interior Inspection

Once inside the cabin, you should be looking for all the same things as you did on the exterior, but you will also want to check for light and air infiltration between the logs.

Look in particular at the joining between the wall and the roof, and the roof rafters, purlins and ridge beam. Again, you should be checking the chinking and for any signs of insect infestation.

Staining is not as important on the interior as it is on the exterior, but I still recommend it so you should therefore also be checking for water and mold.

Documentation

It is also useful to visit the local town clerk’s office to find out how many times the house has been sold and how often. A log home that has changed hands often may be a sign that there are problems with the home that people don’t want to deal with. In contrast, a home which hasn’t had many owners is likely to have been well looked after and maintained better.

Questions you should ask

When performing your log cabin inspection, other questions you can ask when you go to view a log home are:

  • When was the last time the cabin was stained/chinked
  • Is the log cabin insured? if so, who with?
  • When was the cabin built?
  • How many owners has the cabin had?
  • Who built the cabin?
  • Are there any disclosures that need to be made, specifically on rot, insects and drainage?

Summary

Let’s have a quick recap on the most important areas to check when you’re thinking of buying a log home.

Check the exterior logs for staining, chinking, checking and water damage. Check the roof for humps and dips, and that is has appropriate gutters.

Check for insect damage and how the log home has settled.

Remember that water is the number one enemy of log cabins, as this is where most of the problems stem from, so ensure that you buy a watertight and waterproofed log home.

Once you have used this article to narrow your choices down to a couple of homes, I would suggest paying a log home specialist to inspect the property.

Good luck on your journey to finding a log home and we hope this guide will help aid you on your way. If you have any questions then please comment below.

Comments

  • Hi I’m considering buying a beautiful log cabin that was built over 100 years ago in NE. its 7500+ square feet. (once used as a summer camp) Inside it looks like its in great condition, but will be going from room to room checking with tooth brush precision.

    The logs on the outside are light brown to fading light gray. There was definitely rot on the back side where there is less sun (the long building stretches faces north to south the western side is facing the hill its seated upon.)

    There is a good solid stone foundation but on one side the logs are close to the ground, 1/2 to 3/4 of the cabin has a wrap around covered deck (original design) protecting from rain and water.

    But would like to send some pictures and greatly appreciate any advice. I have read all recommendations above, and have not had a chance to water test, poke, look closely everywhere for mildew, Its far enough north to be free from termites, not sure about carpenter ants though at first look I did not see any evidence of them.

    I realize its likely going to be expensive and a lot of yearly bi yearly work to maintain, but wonder since its over 100 years old, perhaps the wood is from first growth forest with tighter grains and thus likely to last longer? Any thoughts?

    thanks in advance,
    Brahma

  • I had asked a question about horizontal cracks on my log cabin. I forgot to mention that these seem to be surface cracks. Not like air is coming thru wall, thanks again Vicki

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