Dick Manning wasn’t thinking about selling his Sleeman Gulch house when he built it by hand in 1991. The Missoula writer and woodworker was thinking about using trees from his land for the house’s beams, about installing energy-efficient windows along the house’s front—and about some day being buried out back. Unlike most Americans, whom he says “are always buying their houses to sell them,” Manning was building his house in Lolo for himself and his wife, Tracy Stone-Manning, to stay in.
And for 10 years, they did. But two days before fire season started last summer, they put the house on the market for $289,500. Since then, several potential contracts have fallen through, and today the house is still for sale, now for $265,000.
“There was nothing specific we can point to that made us say, ‘we have to get out of here,’” says Manning, who now lives with Stone-Manning in the Rattlesnake. “We liked living there. It just occurred to both of us it was time for a new chapter.”
In an early chapter of A Good House, the 1993 book Manning wrote about building the house, he recounts first applying to banker Mike McKee for a $50,000 building loan:
“There were faults in the design that may well have sunk [the house] in a more rigidly standardized market,” he writes, “details like its size, wood heat and single bedroom. McKee, however, knew local real estate well enough to understand there was a niche for my odd little house.”
The “odd little house” has since grown, with a 1999 addition, into a 2,350 square-foot home with three bedrooms, three private acres, a sauna and a combination of wood stoves, radiant in-floor heating and passive-solar design that have made the back-up electric heat essentially unnecessary. In their last year living in the house, says Manning, the average electric bill was $35; a year’s worth of propane cost about $250.
Sounds like a “niche” buyers would be competing to get into—but, as three local realtors who’ve handled Manning’s listing in the past year have found, even an enviable niche is still a niche.
And, at $265,000 in Missoula, that niche gets even smaller.
Prudential owner Sheena Comer Winterer, who had the Sleeman Gulch listing until about a month ago, explains that there is great demand in Missoula for homes under $250,000. Because of that demand, buyers are more willing to compromise on what they get in a house under that price. Over $250,000, she says, people can afford to be pickier.
“Dick Manning’s house is not a typical custom home,” says Prudential broker Casey Smith, who handled the house with Comer Winterer. “It’s custom beyond custom, and it takes the right people. There are one out of every 1,000 who understand the house and appreciate the design of it.”
Manning is just fine with that. While he looks forward to lifting the financial burden of owning two homes, he understands that the market for his house is limited. He draws this parallel: “A lot more people shop at Costco and Wal-Mart than come downtown and shop at Bernice’s,” he says. “We’ll just wait a little longer.”
In the meantime, the house has switched hands from Prudential to broker Lewis Matelich at Gillespie Realty. Matelich had held the listing for about a week when he took the Independent on a tour.
The sunlight in the living room alone was worth the trip out Highway 12 to Sleeman Gulch. The house faces south, with more than 140 square feet of double-paned, low-E windows and 32 square feet of skylights in the fire-proof metal roof. Broker Smith recalls being impressed, on a sunny February afternoon last year, by how the light bounced off the house’s back wall (which is bermed into the earth) and was absorbed by the concrete floor.
Those floors, along with the Cempo insulation in the addition (blocks made of a concrete/recycled Styrofoam mix with an R value of 30) keep the house at a near-constant temperature of about 60 degrees.
Off one end of the living room, an office opens onto a covered patio. At the other end, a den also floods with sunlight. Behind that room lies a wood shop, as well as a storage room where the European-style on-demand water heater is located.
Upstairs, a balcony/study overlooks the living room; the wall separating the study from the master bedroom doesn’t reach the ceiling, so as to let in light from the skylights. Next to the bedroom, a yellow bathroom with dark tiles boasts a wide soaking tub.
A breezeway connects the original part of the house to the upstairs addition, which includes two more bedrooms, a bathroom and sauna. In the bedrooms, antlers are used as closet door handles. In the bathroom, angular pieces of slate are used as shelves.
Outside, wild grasses grow in place of a manicured lawn—a feature of suburban homes that Manning says he hates. At his Rattlesnake home, he’s ripped out the lawn and planted native grasses. What he misses most about living in Sleeman Gulch, he says, is the “absolute silence. There are so few people in this country who know what that’s like.”
Outside the house, Matelich stops to yank a clump of knapweed from the ground. He says that after a few years of rising house prices, the Missoula real estate market is starting to plateau—in part because there are many more houses on the market now than there were a year ago. Manning remembers the “god awful” experience of seeing, bidding on and losing a University-area home all in one day when he and Stone-Manning were buying a house a year ago.
Today, says Prudential’s Smith, homes in the Rattlesnake, University and slant-street neighborhoods still tend to sell in 30 to 40 days. The houses out of town, he says, especially in the $300,000 range, can take six months to a year.
Asked if he’d be bothered by new owners making changes to the home he built so thoughtfully, Manning shakes his head.
“The house has got to evolve, and it’s going to,” he says. “I put my time into the basic structure…but that’s a palette that anyone can come in and make their own house, and I expect people to do that. I’m interested to see how that does happen.”
Anyone interested in touring the Manning house can do so for free on Saturday, Sept. 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., during the second annual Montana Tour of Renewable Energy Homes. For more information, or to get maps for self-guided tours, contact the Sage Mountain Center at 406-494-9875, or e-mail email@example.com.