Tips for Buying a Home in Hawaii

Buying a home in hawaii

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One of the dilemmas you may face when Hawaiian house-hunting is whether to choose a local real estate agent to represent you or to hire the listing agent of the property, who represents the seller. Not every Hawaii real estate agent knows every neighborhood on every island, and listing agents typically need to accompany showings in parts of Hawaii anyway. So you may feel it's easier and cheaper to go with the latter.

On the other hand, it's always a good idea when homebuying to have your own representation. Also, given Hawaii's distance from the continental U.S., you may be relying on your agent a lot more than you would when purchasing a getaway on the mainland. For example, you might have the agent do the final walkthrough before closing.

As you peruse different premises, here are some topics to discuss with your agent, the listing agent, or both. Some are typical of home-hunting anywhere, some more unique to buying a house in Hawaii.

Establishing the Home's Price

Even though your agent should have supplied comparable sales, they can vary widely in some areas, especially based on the location and view. Ask how residential prices have fluctuated in the neighborhood over the years. You can also look at the tax records from a title company. They do not show the complete picture of the real estate market, but you should note whether prices are moving up or down.

Asking About Upgrades

Sellers are often known for trying to get back the full price of any improvements they make. In reality, that shouldn't happen. Many upgrades are really just good maintenance or can depreciate. Ask about utilities in particular. Many homes have solar panels on the roof, but they might not provide electricity; some are just used to heat water.

Negotiating for Furnishings

Let’s face it, you can’t haul a sofa on a plane with you to Hawaii. Shipping is expensive, as are the local prices for furnishings (the cost of island life, where so much has to be imported). Negotiating for furniture and commodities to be included in the sales price is not uncommon.

Dealing with the Homeowner Association

Many homeowner associations in Hawaii restrict rentals to a 30-day maximum or have rules about pets. On the other hand, HOAs are productive, too: In condo situations, they're often responsible for the exterior and front yard of the residence, maintaining the exterior siding of the home, the roof, and the windows.

If buying a condo or townhouse, be sure to ask how many other owners are in the complex or sub-division. You might not be able to obtain financing if the ratio of investors to owner-occupants is too high.

Getting Maintenance People

Even though you’re absent for a good part of the year, lawns still need mowing and gardens need to be cut back and watered. If your HOA doesn't handle it, line up maintenance services before leaving the island, as well as emergency help. Who will fix a broken window, for example, if a flying coconut hits it?

Expecting the Unexpected

No place in paradise is immune to Mother Nature. But some places are riskier than others. The Big Island of Hawaii, for example, still has earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanoes. So be sure to inquire about the frequency of natural disasters—and what insurance will and won't cover. (Remember, you still need a homeowner's insurance policy, even if you pay cash.)

Don't neglect the topic of taxation either. Property taxes in Hawaii are relatively low compared to the mainland, but be aware that part-time residents pay about three times more for property taxes than full-time residents do. 

Working Remotely

If you are buying a home in Hawaii, be prepared to move fast, and be comfortable with remote transactions. Unless you're able to fly back and forth a lot, you'll probably have to do paperwork and sign closing documents online, as well as wire-transfer funds to the bank or the closing agent.