Building a modular cabin

My wife and I are considering buying a piece of land and building a home for retirement. We don’t need much space, around 2k square feet is more than enough.

We’re looking at an A frame cabin, there is a builder we’ve worked with before who builds them and he does great work. A couple of questions:

  1. Are we nuts?
  2. Is the quality of these type of cabins suitable for long term living?
  3. Do they retain their value?
  4. If you’ve done this, what did you wish you knew before hand?

Thanks for any replies, we’re in very early discussion phase.

It would be helpful to know where in the world you are considering building it. For the record, we built a house in Northwest Montana and considered doing a log cabin-style home. Others in our neighborhood have done it. My biggest concern was the ongoing maintenance involved, especially as I continue to get older.

It would be in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia. We currently own a small cabin near there, thanks.

Not absolutely direct knowledge, but my father and step-mother, both in their 80s, are selling their cabin (1400 sq feet, off city power/water, with solar/batterybank/backup generator) this year. The reasons are several, so some may or may not apply to you and your spouse.

  1. Lack of dependable climate control. In the past year, they were stuck ‘in’ a lot more due to COVID. Which made them draw more power for everything else. And with climate change, it was much warmer in the last few years than historically so. Slow overhead fans and other passive cooling (to the extend possible in such a structure) was not cutting it. Probably the same issue during winter months, but they don’t stay there during the winter. Without city utilities, you have a lot more vulnerabilities, whether cooling or heating especially during bad weather or transport shortages.

  2. Lack of easy access to medical. The closest doctor’s office was over 45 minutes away. The closest equipped hospital, was about 2 hours drive away. Their health has not been what I (or they) would like. Having to take a 2 hour drive each way every other week or so to check with a specialist was getting to be a major chore, but one they could not neglect.

  3. Isolation. Especially during COVID, they were very isolated. They couldn’t easily eat out (a favorite hobby), easily get books and entertainment in the local library, and internet was extremely limited (basically they’d have to come into town for data using purposes). They do like to be away from people, far more than the norm, but with the combination of factors of location and COVID, it was just to much.

  4. Time/Resources. Originally, they had 3 residential properties. The cabin, for a retreat from people and for cooler climate (they had a cabin in Colorado prior to my father’s lung capacity issues, and the altitude became too much for them), a ‘urban’ home in Las Cruces NM, and a summer townhome on the beach in Mexico. They had a property manager for the Mexico properties, but going back and forth from the other two residences every month or so was getting to be a pain, even at only a 2 hour round trip. Now your stated intention is that this cabin is going to be your primary (only?) residence, but if it is, and its isolated, you won’t have to worry about this point, but the others will become more important.

Not all of these will apply to you of course, but they should all be considered. Largely, I’d say go for it as long as local medical is reasonably close and you have sufficient planning for power and climate control. If it’s isolated, I’d absolutely make sure that you look into some form Sat. internet or other option to keep you in touch with everyone and everything. And I’d absolutely put in multiple redundancies for key utilities (power/water/climate control).

A frames look cool, and that is about it. Friends have an A frame house. When you are heating the house all of the heat will rise into that big open space up toward the ceiling while you sit there in the cold waiting for the whole room volume to warm. If your sleeping quarters are in a loft up there get used to sleeping in the heat.

And those cobwebs way up there? Just get used to looking at them or rig up a 20 foot swifter device that you will soon get tired of using.

Thanks, the issue with isolation, lack of access to facilities isn’t an issue, this is near a town with a hospital and stores, etc.

It sounds like you can’t put central air in an A frame. What about a different design?

Are modular cabins a bad investment and/or nightmare to maintain? We could build a traditional house on the lot, but that would be more expensive, of course.

A 2000 SF A-frame is huge unless it has a basement contributing to that square footage. As already mentioned, that is a lot of volume to condition. Good for shedding heavy snow loads though.

You mention retirement. A-frames also typically have stairs to the loft. I don’t want any steps that lead to things that we absolutely have to get to like laundry, cooking, sleeping, and bathroom. The house my wife and I will retire in has all the necessities on one floor that doesn’t require a single step to get to from a parked car in the garage. There is a downstairs, but it doesn’t have necessities (well, it will have my shop and that is almost a necessity for me :wink:

I don’t know enough about other modular/pre-built cabins to give a recommendation.

Thanks, we’re just starting to think about this and what might go on the lot. The property popped up this weekend and it’s pretty much right we’re we would want to live. We’ve been looking for a house and this came up during our search. We’ve completely renovated two house but have never Built anything on an un improved lot.

I lived in an A-frame for a few months about 30 years ago. It was a real big one by A-frame standards.

Some draw backs. Furniture will need to stay away from the sloping walls. Cause, well they slope. Sort of the same problem a round floorplan has. Hanging a picture on a sloping wall takes a lot more thought too. If it’s a real painting with a frame and glass, well…

The A-frame I rented had two bedrooms on the main level, and one loft bedroom. I liked the loft bedroom but there was no bathroom on that level. Even when I was younger, it was a royal pain to get out of bed to use the bathroom downstairs.

My Wife and I are currently in a 2 story plus an office loft. Works great for now, but we will be looking for a place to retire in a few years. That will be a single story. Maybe a walkout basement or something, but most living space will be on one level.

I’m not at all wed to an A-frame. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with modular cabins, or cabins from kits that are assembled on site. The A-frame was just idle speculation.

The location is perfect for us, just trying to decide if we could/ should build here, or wait for something to go for sale.

I think this should be a big consideration. My parents are able to age in the same house they moved to when I was a preschooler because it’s a ranch on one level (well, one tiny step up from the garage level and the washer/dryer are in the basement).

My experience with A frames is I lived in a few of them in my 20s.

The “vertical wall” thing can be an issue. One had windows on the ends only. I just built that slope into two long closets & had one large living area.

I have lived in another that had a loft over half of the 1st floor. That bedroom & bath were the warmest ones in both the summer & the winter. It can be nice, but in a warm clime in the summertime, it can be brutal. It did have an elevator, though we rarely used it.

2,000 square feet is a fair amount of space. I have worked in airplane hangers that were smaller than that. That is 50 ft X 40 ft!

I raised two kids in a house that was 980 square feet. OTOH, we have five acres, a barn & several out buildings. We live outdoors a lot.

Many of the houses I grew up in were less than 2000 square feet. I have seven sisters & one brother. That is 11 folks living in less room. Yes, I played outside a lot.

It is your land & your money, so do as you please. Just curious, how many square feet is your current home?

Log cabin kits work well & most floor plans are well thought out. I may be a bit biased as my cousins used to build these kits. I have helped erect them & lived in one for a summer. I really liked it.

They retired from that about ten years ago. They now live in one of their kits on the acreage that their dad deeded them 30+ years ago. They still help out at the “factory” when so inclined.

I saw/see few downsides to them. Yes, they need maintenance & it is different than what a stick built home needs. Yet, I do not believe it is more then that. They look cool. Plus, if the eave overhang is large enough, the amount of the maintenance is reduced. Just like steeper roofs need less attention, homes with longer eaves also need less attention.

My experience with modular homes is less then stellar. I live in one now & I would not recommend them to anyone. They are not as well built as a stick built home, nor a log home. Some of the higher end ones are better than ours is. However, I would spend the money to have a site built home before I would buy another modular home. If you want a maintenance hog, buy one of these.

You asked for our input, this is mine.

IHTH, 48.

Good stuff, thanks. I’m not sure on the nomenclature, I think I’m using terms like modular imprecisely. A lot of the cabins that people have around the area re probably built from kits. I’ve never had a home built from scratch, the idea of finding a builder is intimidating. Thanks again.

I’m a little thrown by the terms “modular” and “cabin.”

I have a little experience with prefabricated homes. IME, they can be very high quality and very affordable. You must consider access to the building site, as well as the cost of connecting utilities.

If living there full-time, pay special attention to access to groceries, health care, services. And figure in the m maintenance of any remote property - whether done by you or others.

And I agree with the others, that an A-frame is impractical for the reasons stated.

Finally - 2000 sq ft?!

I’ll chime in on that in regard to what my Wife and I will be doing.

2000 sq ft sounds about right. We are at about 1700 now. When we are both retired, and spending more time at home we will both want our own office space, AND a guest room or two.

My MIL lives in a custom-built straw bale home in southern Indiana. Doesn’t have or need A/C, heated by central fireplace. I’ve spent a lot of time there in both the middle of winter and summer and it’s more or less 70F inside their house year-round. They’re not off the grid but they could be. Just a thought.

Yeah, we went through the same process when we “downsized” 6 or so yrs ago.

Our first thought was to go very small, but then we decided we would like some ability to not constantly be right on top of each other. We ended up w/ a 3 berm split level w/ 2.5 baths. It has an addition that we weren’t looking for, and a subbasement which I imagine does not get calculated into living space - even tho that is where we house our occasional guests on an inflatable.

I still say 2000 sq ft is quite a bit of space for 2 aging people. Extra footage needing to be furnished, cleaned, maintained … Plus, money spent on raw footage is money that can’t be spent on design, detailing, etc.

If building instead of buying, one has the opportunity to plan efficiently - possibly including space that can serve multiple purposes, and ways to give the impression of separation. I’m a big fan of the Susan Susanka’s not so big approach.

Finally, realize that if you have guest rooms, you run the risk of - ugh - GUESTS! :wink:

Square footage is such a challenging statistic as to be nearly meaningless, dependent so much on how different people calculate it.

Yeah, that’s just a rough gues in footage. Our rowhouse in DC is about that. As for location, it’s a small rural town the lot is 15 min from grocery store and 20 min from hospital/doctors’ offices. We’re meeting with a builder in a couple of weeks, he’s done some work for us at our cabin. He builds cabins, mostly for the rental market.

My concern is that this is a completely unfinished lot, it’s just woods off the road. The location is absolutely perfect and the price isn’t bad, but we’ve never built a place from scratch

I built a conventional house “in the woods off the road” and removing trees and grading the pad wasn’t as big a deal as you’d think. If your lot is mainly trees make sure you have a 50+ foot perimeter around the house in case of a wildfire. Also keep in mind that trees sometimes fall down, especially in strong winds, so remove any tall, diseased, or old trees that could possibly hit your house if they fell. For heating and cooling, we went with geothermal since it was the most efficient system we could get at the time. It worked great and required only a small amount of electricity to pump liquid buried out on the property. If you want to be 100% off the grid that requires a reliable water source and some way to generate electricity.

Bit of a cultural shift from a D.C. rowhouse, isn’t it?