Building A Log Home – Part 1, Lot Search

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Posted by Hermann Thoene | Posted in Building A Log Home | Posted on 12-12-2009

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When I decided to build up an EcoLog business on the West Coast, it was clear that I had to have a “show home”. Ideally this home would be at a location not too far away from where I live now, and easy to reach by interested customers.

I started my lot search around Feb. 2009 in the Greater Victoria area. My realtor setup an automatic MLS search using my search criteria, and I got listings offered every week. I looked at some lots, but mainly to get an idea what I really wanted. And thankfully I didn’t come across my “dream property” at this time: I didn’t have financing approved yet, and wouldn’t have been able to buy at that time.

Getting Financing in 2009

I thought it couldn’t be too difficult to get financing for an interesting building project, with quite a bit of equity available for security. But I guess I was wrong with that. It turned out that no bank wanted to take any risk – no matter how small it was. I went from one institution to another and told my story: I’m starting a new business, have some good equity in my nearly mortgage free home, and want to build another home. Equite sounded good for the banks – but as soon as they heard that I had no regular income, but was building a new business, they shut their doors. I couldn’t even get 50% of the building lot as a mortgage. So much for the effect of the US housing crisis in Canada !

I finally found a very engaged lady at Bank of Montreal, who listened to my plans and believed that my ideas could work. She put a lot of effort into preparing my case, and presenting it to the bank’s risk managers. After several weeks she succeeded not only in getting a stepped mortgage plan approved, but even offering some really good rates. As part of the deal I moved all my financial business (daily banking, financing, mortgage for existing house) to BMO.

Getting Serious

On June 15th my financing was approved, and that’s when I started to look more seriously for building lots. I looked at many lots, from Sooke over Metchosin to Saanich, even around the Malahat and Shawnigan area. On July 2nd I found a “good fit” at a reasonable price through the http://propertyguys.com website. The lot was a subdivision of a bigger property, and was located in a good location in Central Saanich. It was a private sale, and my “house realtor” was on vacation. I got in touch with the seller on a Friday, and they told me they were expecting to get 2-3 offers over the weekend. Was that a bluff to get me to act?  I don’t know, but the seller sounded trustful, so I started to prepare an offer.

Building lot at Stelley's Cross Road

Building lot at Stelley's Cross Road

I bought and sold several homes before, but I always had my realtor help me. I contacted the delegated colleague, but I quickly got the feeling that he wasn’t very interested in helping me with a private deal.

Just a few weeks earlier I had gone to various Twitter meetings in Victoria, where I met lots of nice people – among them Scott Garman, from http://www.garmanandassociates.com. I was desperate to get some help and contacted Scott. He agreed to help me, even though he knew there was no commission for him. He even refused to take any money, and didn’t ask for anything in return for his help. He provided me with advice on the lot, and created a detailed report to help me compare the lot to other recently sold properties and homes in that area. Scott made me feel more comfortable with the deal, and on Saturday I sent an offer to the seller.

My offer wasn’t the highest, but the sellers were local people, and they liked my idea of building a log home and building a new local business. That’s why they accepted my offer over others, even though I had lots of conditions attached to the offer.

Over the next weeks I worked on removing those conditions: Get an estimate done for the bank, clear financing, make sure no old oil tanks or other obstacles are burried there, and most importantly have lots of talks with the municipality to make sure that I could build the home I was planning to build.

The seller also had some open issues, as they had not fully completed the subdivision process yet, and they had to get the title officially registered. After several weeks all issues were resolved, and I was proud owner of a piece of land in Saanich.

Lot Search Learnings

Here is a summary of things I find important when looking for a building lot:

  • Get financing pre-approved before you start you lot search. Otherwise you may end up loosing your “dream lot” to other bidders. If you want to get a “good deal” on any property, you need to be well prepared and act quickly !
  • Sewer service: For lots without connection to public sewer systems, make you know where and how you can put in a septic field. Costs can vary drastically depending you your lot, ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 (and higher)
  • Hydro/Power: Where is the connection located? Find out what the costs will be to get power to your house. My lot had “all services at the lot line” – but I only found out later, that I still had to get a power pole on my property to connect Hydro. With connection permit costs I payed >$3,000 to get power. If you need multiple poles, a “rule of thumb” would be to calculate around $2,000 per power pole.
  • Check development plans for surrounding area: This is probably the most important point. Go to the municipality responsible for your desired lot, and ask them about short and long term plans for anything going on around your desired area. I once looked at a lot with a beautiful ocean view, directly beside a park. Not cheap, but gorgeous. When I talked to the Municipality, they showed me approved plans for the neighbour property to build a 7 story condo complex! No ocean views once that goes up….
    Other important aspects to check with your municipality are design and building rules: My lot had a covenant attached with lots of design rules, and I had various discussions to make sure that I could build an EcoLog home.
  • Water: Another point for non-serviced lots: You can get water nearly anywhere – but it can be really expensive. I looked at some lots which offered pre-drilled wells.  Not bad, I thought – but some research showed, that getting water out of a well can be really expensive, depending on the depth! Get expert advice on the flow capacity, water quality, and costs to get to your water !
  • Get expert advice: Review your plans of buying a specific lot with some experts: Get a realtor to help you evaluating the place, and work with your lawyer in reviewing the title and other legal matters around you property !

The overall experience I had was positive. It’s fun to go “property shopping”. In the process you will see many interesting areas, and meet a lot of interesting people.

After completing this part of my new “project”, I  now had to focus on creating detailed plans for my new home!

To be continued…

Unit Converter for home builders and trades people

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Posted by Hermann Thoene | Posted in Website Tools | Posted on 11-12-2009

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Canada is officially metric, and children in school learn how to measure and calculate using the metric system. But did you ever work in any construction related job and use metric units? It’s all about feet and inches, yards and some other measurements like boardfeet. Most plans, material and “talks” are in imperial units. But not all… Surveyors for example work “mostly” in metric, as their resulting plans are official documents – and officially Canada is metric, right?

If you are planning to build your own home, or to get it built, you will soon realize that you need to cope with this unit chaos. You will have to calculate the size of your windows in inches for your builder, but your window company may ask you for metric measurements. Your architect will tell you the building hight in feet, but your municipality will have maximum hight requirements in meters. Your builder tells you to order “5 yards of concrete”, but the concrete supplier tells you prices per cubic meter.

To ease this chaos a little bit, we provide you with a nice little gadget: A website based unit converter. Check it out, it’s right here – on the right side of this page.

I tried to find such a converter for WordPress or Joomla – but there was hardly anything available.

With my background in the IT industry I decided to have one developed. I’m not good enough in JavaScript and PHP myself, so I wrote a requirements spec, and posted it to eLance. After a few weeks my little project was completed.

If you have your own Joomla or WordPress based website, and want to provide a Unit Converter for your visitors: Feel free to use it. I hope the little tool will soon be available through the official WordPress and Joomla extension directories, but until then you can download it from our website here:

http://www.ecolog-homes.com/articles-and-links/41-tools

Update Januaray 2010: The unit converter is now also available through the official Joomla and WordPress.org extension directories – just search for “unit converter”.

Bringing EcoLog Homes to the West Coast

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Posted by Hermann Thoene | Posted in EcoLog | Posted on 05-12-2009

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Picture HermannMy name is Hermann Thoene, and as you can see on my LinkedIn profile, I have spent a significant time of my “professional life” in the computer industry. For various reasons (maybe I’ll write about that some day in a more personal blog) I had to do something new and different – and that turned out to be manufacturing and building log homes. My family and friends were quite stunned, and during the first months nobody really thought that I was serious about this new business.

Why would somebody with no background or experience in construction want to start a new company manufacturing and building log homes??? And all that during the most difficult economic times, where especially the construction industry has been hit hardest!

I was always fascinated by log homes. To me they are very natural buildings, where you can still smell and feel nature. Most of the material in a log home is wood – a very natural and renewable material. When I first told my friends in Germany that I was planning to move to Canada, many thought (in a more or less serious way) that most Canadians live in the woods, trap animals and live in log homes. Of course I was a bit disappointed after moving to British Columbia in 2000, to see that this is not totally true – but my interest and fascination with log homes remained.

In the summer of 2008 I once again visited my friend Peter Schleifenbaum in Haliburton, Ontario. He manages Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserve – a company with many diverse business areas. If you live in Ontario or visit Ontario, I strongly recommend that you check out the many interesting attractions available at Haliburton Forest. It’s worth more then one visit for sure…

Sample EcoLog Home

Peter developed the EcoLog concept about 10 years ago, when he was looking for ways to create high value  products based on wood from his certified sustainable forest. Haliburton County is the most famous cottage country with prestine forests and hundreds of lakes, and many people from all over Ontario enjoy cottage life in the Haliburton region. Peter wanted to address the cottage market, and took old pioneer building methods and tweeked them to fit modern building standards and regulations. The result were EcoLog building kits, which were soon loved by many customers. Very much to Peters surprise, most of the customers wanted pretty big building instead of small and cosy cottages. The reason was that many people not only wanted to use their “cottage” for weekends or vacation, but were building it big enough to be used as their retirement residence. Over the last 10 years Peter and his company have sold more then 100 EcoLog homes of various sizes, and the charming “EcoLog look” is so popular in Haliburton county that people even start imitating it by putting “fake EcoLog siding” on their homes.

But now back to my visit to Ontario in 2008: That summer Peter told me about the background of EcoLog, and about the success as a business. I had a chance to look at several homes and was fascinated from the beatiful natural look, and from the simplicity of the building concept. We discussed if these homes could be a similar “hit” on the West Coast, as I had never seen any similar homes in BC. Peter offered me the chance to use his ideas and concepts to build a simlar business in British Columbia.

In October 2008 I started with some market research to find out what BC people think about these homes. I presented EcoLog homes at a home show, talked to many interested people, and built a website where I collected more feedback from interested potential customers. The feedback was very positive. People loved the charming look and atmosphere. That gave me enough confidence to decide that it’s time for EcoLog homes to “go West”. I started looking for suppliers, potential business partners and many different trades people. I visited Peter a few more times to learn all the details about EcoLog homes. I looked at many existing homes in Ontario, talked to builders and spent some time on construction sites to see how these homes are erected.

I’m very conscious about our environment, and I like to build and sell “eco friendly” homes. Therefore I like to “go local” wherever possible. I formed a partnership with a sawmill on Vancouver Island to provide the timber from locally grown trees. I built a network of reliable local trades people to provide the necessary materials, and to help me and my future customers build EcoLog homes. Our production process and facilities are ready now, and soon we will start putting our first “west coast” EcoLog home kit together. This kit will be used to build our future show home in Saanich, BC.

The building process for this home will be documented through a series of blog posts on this site… Stay tuned !

Update January 2011:

I think it’s time for a little summary what happened since I first published this blog post 2 years ago.

End of 2010 we finished our West Coast Ecolog show home, and it turned out great! A summary of the building features and pictures are available here. The home is a true “head-turner”, as every person driving by the house in their car turns the head to look in astonishment. It sticks out in a very positive way in this neighborhood with mostly 70’s and 80’s style homes.

This home is not only the show home for my business, but also my home and home office. I live in the home for about 1 year now, and I love it! During the summer I enjoyed the big open deck, and when it got too hot I could retreat to the cool interior of the home. During the winter I heat the whole main level and the loft with my beloved wood stove in the living room. I barely ever use the electric heat. Even on the lowest setting, the wood stove easily heats the whole house, and when it’s not too cold I only turn it on every second day. There is lots of discussion around the “thermal mass” effect in log homes – if it provides benefits or not, etc… I must say in our climate on Vancouver Island the thermal mass really works: Once the walls are heated up they store a lot of energy, and release the heat very slowly over up to 24 hours. This makes for a very comfortable living climate: When the wood stove burns down in the evening and I come down into the living area in the morning, it’s still nice and warm!

During the construction of this home I learned a lot! I spent nearly every day on the construction site – not only to help, but also to understand all the challenges in building a home. Half way down the road during our construction process I found out about a government program to measure energy efficiency of homes, the Energuide Rating System. I liked the idea to be able to measure how energy efficient a home is, and to be able to compare homes regarding their energy use, and signed up to get an Energuide rating for the new home. Normally this process should be started at the design stage, where the overall design of a home can still be optimized to increase the energy performance. But even with our late start we achieved an Energuide rating for 79, which is excellent, especially for a log home.

As energy performance becomes more and more important for new homes I actually took the training in 2010/2011 to become a Certified Energy Advisor. I can now model homes for our customers at the design stage and help them optimize their homes from an energy performance perspective.

On the business side things are moving along very nice. We have many people visiting our show home, and the feedback we receive from our visitors is extremely positive. In April 2011 we participated in a home show, where more then 800 people visited our home on a single weekend.

In 2011 we sold several Ecolog homes in BC, and even one to a Saskatchewan.  We just increased our product portfolio and can now offer Ecolog homes with different wood species: Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir and Red Cedar.

I enjoy working in this industry, and I don’t regret making this move.