OUTLET BAY, Idaho – Mike Dolan remembers the Priest Lake cabins of his youth – small and simple. Some even had outhouses.
Not long ago, Dolan built a vacation home here that included a three-car garage and gourmet kitchen. His next project is a narrow, 90-foot-long retreat that resembles a covered bridge spanning two high points on forestland.
Dolan, who graduated from Ferris High School and Washington State University, is among the half-dozen or so Priest Lake builders who cater to their clients’ desire for 21st century “rustic” – for instance, reclaimed heart pine flooring kept toasty by hot-water tubes underneath.
Dolan began his career in mortgage banking, but switched to construction in 1989. Several big projects helped him weather the recent recession, and Dolan has enough work on the horizon that he’s looking to hire more workers.
During a recent interview, he talked about the challenges and rewards of working far from the chaos and convenience of urban life.
S-R: You began your career in finance. What caused you to switch to construction?
Dolan: The savings and loan crisis. That’s when I said, “I’m done with the corporate world and living in cities.” So I moved to Priest Lake, where my family used to come when we were kids. I’ve traveled around the world, and this is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
S-R: Where did you learn carpentry skills?
Dolan: When I was living in Seattle after college, my roommate and I added quite a bit onto his house. And after I moved up here, I worked for a couple of really good builders, Rob Newman and Tommy George, who both taught me a lot.
S-R: Was there work when you arrived?
Dolan: Yes. I started out as a bartender and did construction during the day, and launched my own business five years later.
S-R: You do both remodeling and new construction. Which is harder?
Dolan: Remodeling, because you don’t really know where to stop. Last year I was hired to attach an addition to a house, and we ended up remodeling the whole old house, as well.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who’s considering turning a basic cabin into a year-round residence?
Dolan: Figure out whether it would be better to tear it down and start new, because that might cost a lot less once you factor in upgrading the wiring, the plumbing, windows and everything.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Dolan: I like when I’m finished and the clients are happy.
S-R: Priest Lake used to go to sleep soon after Labor Day and not wake up until just before Memorial Day weekend. Is there work here year-round now?
Dolan: Yes. The last couple of years I was lucky enough to start projects in late fall and then did the finish work after they were buttoned up for the winter. But I’ve also worked outside in miserable weather, when you work until you’re sopping wet and then either change clothes or call it a day.
S-R: Has demand picked up along with the recent rebound in real estate?
Dolan: It has. I have plenty of work for the rest of this year, and am talking to people about projects that could be a year or two off.
S-R: Is there any overlap between your previous career as a commercial loan officer and your current one as a general contractor?
Dolan: In both cases you’ve got to be a salesman.
S-R: Working in Spokane, builders are never far from a supplier. Does your remoteness present a challenge?
Dolan: There is a hardware store up here, but its prices are a lot higher than what you’d pay in town. In fact, nothing is cheaper up here. But Albani Falls Building Supply (in Oldtown, Idaho) sends a truck up twice a week. Sometimes I’ll have to drop everything and drive (90 miles) into Spokane for something, but I try to plan ahead and to keep that to a minimum, or do it on the weekend.
S-R: What are the challenges of working with distant clients?
Dolan: It can be hard to get decisions about fixtures and other things on a timely basis. But having good communication skills is part of what it takes to be a successful builder.
S-R: Is it hard to find good help up here?
Dolan: It can be. Just in the past year I’ve had two employees leave the area, one go with another contractor and one go out on his own. So I’m hiring now.
S-R: What do you look for in potential employees?
Dolan: I want someone who will show up every day, knows what they’re doing and is willing to work.
S-R: How much did lakefront land cost when you moved up here?
Dolan: It was $2,000 a front foot, then it was $3,000 and then $5,000 – always more than I could afford. I’d love to be on the lake, but I have a nice secluded spot with four acres. And when I’m building, I get to see the lake almost every day.