Business

Front and Center: Spirit Lake compact cabin builder Dave Bates

Dave Bates has customers from Alaska to West Virginia, but most of his portable cedar cabins end up in North Dakota. (Michael Guilfoil)
Dave Bates has customers from Alaska to West Virginia, but most of his portable cedar cabins end up in North Dakota. (Michael Guilfoil)

SPIRIT LAKE – Dave Bates’ crew is building a custom home for a client from West Virginia.

The customer isn’t moving here – the house is moving there.

It’s mounted on a steel frame outfitted with wheels, and once it’s finished, a trucker will attach the home to a semi and haul it 2,400 miles across America.

Bates owns Portable Cedar Cabins, which specializes in “park model” recreational vehicles – basically, cabins on wheels.

The homes’ footprints are small – no bigger than 400 square feet – but with the help of high ceilings and efficient floor plans, they feel surprisingly roomy.

Last year, Bates sold 32 units, and is on track to match that output this year. During a recent interview, he discussed how the cabins have evolved since he started building them nine years ago, and how much it will cost to tow one from North Idaho to West Virginia.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Bates: Fontana, California.

S-R: What were you interested in back then?

Bates: Construction. My first job was stripping roofs off homes when I was 16. My favorite class in high school was woodshop. I operated heavy equipment in the service for two years, and spent seven years at Cayuse Steel after I got out. From there I went into plumbing, and then homebuilding.

S-R: What led you to launch this business?

Bates: Nine years ago, I told my wife I was done traveling. But I wanted to stay in construction, so I started researching tiny houses. (Editor’s note: The “tiny house” movement is an architectural style with roots that trace back at least as far as Henry David Thoreau.) Those are too small – only 120 square feet. Then I saw these. They’re called park model recreational vehicles. Quite a few companies make them. The nearest one I know of is Rich’s Portable Cabins in northeast Oregon. You don’t have to be certified to build them, but I got certified, so these all are inspected when we’re done.

S-R: The cabins arrive at their destination on wheels. Do the wheels ever come off?

Bates: Not to my knowledge. They’re not supposed to, anyway.

S-R: Was your business a success from the start?

Bates: No, it was a struggle. Then out of the blue four years ago, a guy called me from North Dakota and wanted fourplex units – four individual apartments on one trailer frame. We’ve delivered 12 of those to house oilfield workers.

S-R: How are your cabins different from typical mobile homes?

Bates: These are all 2-by-6 construction, 16 inches on center, just like a regular house. All of ours are custom – we don’t build on spec. We offer electric radiant-floor heat, which is unusual. And these can be modified with a composting toilet, solar panels and a backup generator for homeowners who want to live totally off the grid.

S-R: Who are your customers?

Bates: Regular homeowners. Vacationers. One of my customers just got divorced and said, “I want something my wife can’t take.” So we built him a nice 10-by-20 with a sleeping loft, and he parked it on five acres.

S-R: Where does water for the kitchen and bathroom typically come from?

Bates: Whatever you have available on your property. You can use a cistern or a garden hose. In North Dakota, the water lines are 7 feet underground, so we put an electrical outlet for heat tape where the water supply hooks up to the unit.

S-R: How have your cabins evolved during the past nine years?

Bates: Early on, if someone wanted drywall, we’d do it. But everything now leaves here with the rustic look. For instance, our window sills are thick, live-edge pine I buy from a gentleman up the road who has his own sawmill. If you’re in the mountains, your house should look like you’re in the mountains.

S-R: Was there a moment when you realized you were on to something?

Bates: Oh, yeah. I still think I’m on to something. We’re barging these to Alaska – I run radio ads in Juneau – and right now we’re building one for a customer in West Virginia.

S-R: How much does it cost to ship these?

Bates: About $4,500 to North Dakota, and around $7,000 to Anchorage. Shipping one to West Virginia will cost $16,000.

S-R: Why would a West Virginian pay to have a cabin towed cross-country?

Bates: He said our prices were cheaper than what he’d have to pay back home.

S-R: Do you offer financing?

Bates: No, and bank loans for these are very hard to get. Two customers have gone through credit unions.

S-R: Was the recession a drag on sales?

Bates: Nope.

S-R: What do you like most about this business?

Bates: The challenge. Every cabin we build is different. We can make a bedroom bigger or smaller, add a loft, whatever the customer wants. We just finished one with two decks – one at each end.

S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Bates: Started sooner.

S-R: Have you considered franchising your business or opening another production facility?

Bates: I have, but it would cause too many headaches. Last year, I had 22 employees and went nuts trying to keep an eye on everybody. Now I’m down to seven and we’re more efficient.

S-R: Do people sometimes compare your cabins to playhouses?

Bates: Yes, until they come inside and see how roomy they feel. We make every nook and cranny count, so you’re not sacrificing much. You even get a full bath.

S-R: How big is your own house?

Bates: Six thousand square feet (laughs). But we built it to turn around and sell. Then the bottom fell out of the market and I couldn’t afford to sell.

S-R: Have you ever slept in one of your own cabins?

Bates: Yep. We used to have a nice little two-bedroom unit on a farmer’s property over in North Dakota because I was there so frequently on business. When we decided we didn’t need it anymore I put a sign out, and sold it the next day for $25,000.

This interview was edited and condensed. Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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