When you’re looking for a rental home in Hawaii, you’ll probably have lots of questions for landlords when you inquire about their available properties: What’s the square footage? How many bathrooms? Does it have air-conditioning? Do you allow pets? Are utilities included? Is there a yard?
These are all great questions, and I encourage you to take an active role in gleaning information from prospective landlords. There are a few more questions you should probably ask that might not cross your mind, especially if you’ve never lived in Hawaii before. You can’t rely on landlords to tell you everything you need to know about a property — as locals, they might assume you already know about certain domestic issues and ways of living that are common knowledge and widely accepted in Hawaii. Or they might be looking out for their best interests.
Either way, it’s up to you to bring up certain issues and ask the necessary questions to find out everything you need to know about a rental home you’re considering. Here are 8 things your prospective landlord might not tell you up-front (or at all), and that you should ask about.
1. “You’ll be sharing the property with other tenants.”
High-density housing is common in some areas of Oahu (like Honolulu), and I’m not talking just about condos and high-rise buildings. For example, in the older residential district of Kaimuki in Honolulu, most of the property lots that once held a single family home now also contain a second, third, and sometimes even a fourth cottage squeezed onto the same parcel of land. Sometimes these “ohana cottages” or “ohana units” are attached to the main house, and sometimes they’re detached and located behind or to the side of the main house.
Another common shared-housing setup is a “duplex,” which in Hawaii means a large house that has been divided into two homes: One upstairs, the other downstairs, each with its own entrance. Usually there is complete privacy between the two floors (any interior stairway is blocked off), but utilities are often shared.
If you don’t want anyone living above or below you, and don’t want to share any walls or your yard with other tenants, it’s important to ask the landlord right away if the home is completely detached, or if it shares a lot with any other homes. There are so many different shared-housing setups here that you can never assume you’ll have a place all to yourself.
2. “I live next door/upstairs.”
If the home you’re inquiring about does share a building or lot, your neighbor very well might be the landlord. Some renters might see this as a plus, because they like knowing that the landlord is nearby in case they have any problems or issues with their home. Others might feel self-conscious, like they’re being “monitored,” knowing that their landlord lives so close by. Since it’s common in Hawaii for landlords to live on the same property as their tenants, it’s definitely something to ask about.
3. “You’ll be sharing the property with critters.”
Even if you find out that there are absolutely no other tenants on your rental property, you’re still likely to be sharing your space with other living things. Some of them – like geckos, cockroaches, ants, and termites — are found in virtually every house or cottage in Hawaii, and it’s nearly impossible to be rid of them completely. They’re just a part of life here, and you learn to live with them to some extent. Anyone who’s ever lived in the islands knows that the sight of an occasional cockroach scurrying across your floor doesn’t mean your house is dirty — it just means you live in Hawaii.
There are certain other critters that you do need to be more concerned about, though. If you have small children or pets that go outside, ask the landlord if they’ve seen any Bufo toads (also known as “cane toads”), mongooses, centipedes, or scorpions in the area.
Bufo toads are the most dangerous, especially to pets, who are likely to pick them up in their mouth. When threatened, the toads secrete venom from glands behind their ears, which is quickly absorbed through a dog’s or cat’s gums, causing seizures and often death within minutes. Children who touch bufo toads can experience hallucinations, bodily pain, nausea, and vomiting; if they were to lick the toad or put it in their mouth, life-threatening symptoms could result.
Mongooses, centipedes, and scorpions are less dangerous, but still a concern. Mongooses are known for being vicious fighters when threatened by another animal, so it’s important to keep pets away from them. Bites from a centipede or scorpion are not common, but when they do occur, they cause burning pain and swelling — the severity of the symptoms varies from person to person.
4. “Your pets aren’t allowed outside.”
Just because a rental ad says that pets are allowed doesn’t necessarily mean that pets are allowed outdoors. If you have cats that you want to let outside or dogs that you want to take outside on a leash or allow to run free in a fenced yard, make sure that’s OK with the landlord first. For example, some condo homeowners associations have rules against allowing cats to to roam beyond their yard/patio, and others have restrictions on where you’re allowed to walk your leashed dog and how long its leash can be. Find out exactly what the rules are up-front so you can avoid any problems with your landlord or other tenants later.
5. “The property is at risk for weather/geological hazards.”
Most of the time, Mother Nature leads a peaceful and beautiful existence in Hawaii. But once in a great while, she will wreak havoc in the form of flash floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, and lava flows. As you look at those oceanfront homes with the gorgeous views, keep in mind that they are the most vulnerable if a tsunami or hurricane hits Hawaii. The recent tsunami in Japan showed that tsunami warnings can sometimes come too late if the epicenter of the earthquake that generates the tsunami is close by. Thankfully tsunamis and hurricanes are rare in Hawaii — the last deadly tsunami was in 1975 and the last deadly hurricane was in 1992.
Also uncommon are lava flows that are large enough to threaten Big Island homes and residents. The Mauna Kea and Kohala volcanoes are considered dormant since they haven’t erupted in thousands of years. Hualalai Volcano hasn’t erupted since the 1800s, and is therefore a low-hazard area. Mauna Loa and Kilauea, however, have had relatively recent eruptions — check the USGS’s lava zone maps to see which areas of the Big Island are in the most danger of possible lava flows from these volcanoes.
Flash floods are a much more common natural hazard in Hawaii, but are nothing to make light of. Use the Flood Hazard Assessment Tool to see if the rental home you’re considering is located in an area that’s prone to flooding.
6. “The monthly rent doesn’t include all costs.”
Additional fees and uncovered expenses can add several hundred dollars on top of your quoted monthly rent price. Ask the landlord if the following expenses are included in your rent so you can determine what your “real” monthly rent actually is:
- GE Tax: State law requires a general excise tax (roughly 4.5%, depending on the county) to be collected from renters. Ask the landlord if they’ve already included this GE tax in their quoted monthly rent price.
- Utilities: Are the costs for any utilities — water/sewage, electricity, propane, cable TV, Internet access — included in your rent? (Note: Maui County is currently the only county to charge a fee for curbside garbage collection. This service is free on Oahu and Kauai, and is not available on the Big Island and Molokai.)
- Pet deposit: Does the landlord require an additional deposit to cover any permanent damage your pet may cause to the property?
- Pet rent: Will the landlord add an additional monthly charge on top of your “human rent” because you have pets?
- Yard service: Is landscaping maintenance included in the rent, or are you responsible for that?
- Pool service: Are you expected to pay for the necessary chemicals and maintain the pool yourself, or is that included in the rent?
- Reserved parking: Is there any additional charge for a guaranteed parking spot on/near the rental property? (This is usually an issue only in high-density areas where parking can be hard to find.)
7. “This home is currently for sale.”
When a homeowner is having a hard time selling their property for the price they want, sometimes they rent out the property while they leave it on the market. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you have a lease agreement in writing that allows you to remain in the home until the lease period ends. Before you sign any lease, ask if the property is going to be listed for sale while you rent it. If it is, make sure you come to an agreement with the landlord about when and how often prospective buyers will be allowed to view the home. You may end up deciding that this would be too much of an invasion of your privacy, in which case you’d be better off not renting the property.
8. “I’m willing to negotiate.”
Even though they might not come right out and say it, most landlords are willing to be flexible about some terms of their rental agreement. If you find a property that meets most of your criteria except for one or two, don’t be afraid to ask the landlord if they’re open to negotiation on those issues. Especially if you take the time to “sell yourself” first by pointing out your strengths as a tenant (good credit, glowing references, steady job, etc.), chances are they’ll be willing to meet you halfway. Here are some terms you might want to negotiate a landlord:
- Pets: First point out your pets’ good qualities (litter-box trained, doesn’t bark, neutered/spayed, on monthly flea-control treatment, etc.). Ask the landlord if they would consider allowing your pets if you paid a pet deposit and agreed to certain rules or restrictions.
- Length of lease: Would the landlord be open to a shorter lease if you paid a higher monthly rent?
- Monthly rent price: Would the landlord be open to a lower monthly rent if you signed a longer lease? Or if you took responsibility for yard and pool maintenance? Or if you paid for your own utilities? Or if you allowed another tenant to share the property with you?
- Amenities: Is it possible to add a dishwasher to the kitchen? Can an air-conditioning unit be added to the living room? May you use the private community pool?
For more information on the legalities of rental agreements, security deposits, landlord obligations, renter obligations, and more, the State of Hawaii has a Landlord-Tenant Information webpage with a downloadable landlord-tenant handbook and the phone number of an information hotline.
For more up-to-date, detailed info on moving to Hawaii, check out my e-book: Moving To Hawaii: A Step-By-Step Guide