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Business Profile

Portable Cedar Cabins

"Go big or go home." You hear that expression a lot. But most of the time it's meant merely rhetorically -- as if "going big" is the only acceptable option in that equation.

But there's a lot to be said for going tiny. Just ask Dave Bates. Five years ago, as the North Idaho resident was winding down a decades-long career spent hanging drywall, shingling roofs and building custom homes everywhere from California to Montana, he started to look for another way. "I'm getting old, and I'm done traveling," he recalls thinking. "I gotta think of something I can do right here at the house."

So in 2010, Bates founded Portable Cedar Cabins at his home in Spirit Lake. Together with a crew of 15 contractors, he builds about 15 different models of tiny, rustic cedar cabins on wheels, at sizes ranging from 144 to 400 square feet, and prices from $29,000 to $56,000. There's the 10' by 24' "nostalgia cottage," with a quaint front deck and a pergola overhang. The chic "urban cabin," with a shed-style roof and loads of windows. Even a double-decker with two sleeping lofts and an office (this one was featured on HGTV).

"Every one is custom," Bates says. "There's not one that is the same on this lot."

His first step is to meet with his customer and get their wish list. You need air conditioning? Granite countertops? You want upstairs and downstairs decks? You want THREE lofts? Bates pencils out the particulars, comes back with a quote, and INB arranges the financing. In as few as six weeks later (though probably more, the way that business has been going), you could have the lake cabin of your dreams delivered on a trailer to your back door. All you have to do is run a 50-watt electrical line out to it and hook up the plumbing somewhere.

It's the flexibility of going tiny, Bates thinks, that has fueled the well-documented trend in diminutive dwellings. They're reasonably priced enough to appeal to the empty nesters who are done caring for a big house and ready to cash in. They're also small enough to plant your in-laws in the back yard.

And because Bates's cabins are designed under recreational-vehicle codes and built to live on a trailer, you can take them anywhere. And Bates delivers them everywhere. He said their busiest period was when oil was booming in North Dakota; farmers there were snapping up his cabins and charging itinerant oilmen $1,500 a month for quaint temporary workforce housing. A guy in California, Bates says, just contacted him about buying four cabins to put up as part of his trailer park. Bates has shipped cabins to Alaska, Texas, New Mexico -- even New York.

Of course, it hasn't always been easy for the business. "It was a slow start, just like anything," Bates says. But at 66, he's turned a profit on a turned-around expression: sometimes going home means going really, really small.