(Note: If this article looks familiar, it’s because it was originally published in my newsletter. I have since changed the format of my newsletter and have moved all articles previously published under the old format to my blog, where they can be more easily found.)
Once you’ve figured out how much you can afford to spend on monthly rent and have an idea of where you want to live in Hawaii, you’re ready to start actively looking for a home.
Finding rental housing in Hawaii can sometimes be challenging, especially if you’re a pet owner, or if you’re trying to conduct your search while you’re still living outside of Hawaii. When I was looking for my home, I had both factors working against me. Here are a few things I learned along the way that I hope will help in your own search.
1. Check rental listings regularly.
Even if you’re not ready to move right away, start browsing rental listings at least once a week. (And if you are ready to move right away, I recommend checking listings at least once a day so you can pounce on a hot property right away before it’s snapped up by someone else.)
Ideally, you should browse rental ads weekly for a few months before you’re ready to move. That way, you can learn what kind of properties fall into which price ranges, and how location, size, amount of privacy, condition, and amenities determine a home’s monthly rent. Then, when you’re ready to move, you’ll be able to recognize a diamond in the rough among all the other rental ads.
2. Consider getting a Hawaii phone number.
If you’re conducting your home search while living out-of-state, you might want to get a cell phone number with an 808 area code before you actually move. I did this a few months before I moved, while I was still living in California, because I didn’t want landlords to dismiss my email inquiries about rentals upon seeing my out-of-state area code.
I don’t know if it made a significant difference in helping me to find a home in Hawaii, but it certainly didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t difficult or costly to do. I just went to a Verizon store, bought the cheapest pay-as-you-go cell phone I could find, and asked the salesperson who set up my cell phone to assign me a phone number with an 808 area code. Simple as that.
3. Proceed carefully with rent-to-own ads.
While browsing rental listings, you’re bound to run across ads proclaiming that you can own a home without having to qualify for a bank loan or make a large down payment up-front by entering into a rent-to-own agreement. While this can be an attractive option if you find a home you might eventually want to own, make sure you fully understand the terms of the agreement before you proceed.
Most rent-to-own agreements involve the renter paying an option fee up-front that goes toward a down payment if they choose to buy the home at the end of the lease period. The renter also usually pays a monthly rent premium that goes toward a down payment. However, if the renter decides they don’t want to buy the home at the end of their lease, then that money that went toward the down payment becomes income for the landlord.
HowStuffWorks has a good article that explains the rent-to-own process, and the pros and cons for both the renter/buyer and landlord/seller.
4. Remain flexible.
It’s good to have a clear idea of what you’re looking for in a home, but it’s even better if you can separate the “must-haves” on your wishlist from the “wants.” Because the more you’re willing to compromise on those “wants,” the more easily you’ll find a rental home you can afford in Hawaii. Being flexible with any of these factors will make your search easier:
Location: Rents can vary greatly depending on the city, town, or neighborhood. The more geographic options you’re willing to consider, the greater the likelihood you’ll find a home with all your “must-haves.”
Type of housing: Is it absolutely necessary that you live in a single family home with a backyard? Or would a duplex, townhouse, or condo suffice if there were parks nearby?
Size: If you don’t spend a lot of extended time at home or live alone, you might be willing to compromise on the square footage of your rental. In Honolulu, studio apartments and condos abound, and some are very swanky but still affordable because of their tiny size.
Amenities: Most rental homes in Hawaii come with a private bathroom, running water, and a living/sleeping area. But all other amenities can be quite variable. Ask yourself if you’d be willing to live without:
- A full kitchen — I’ve seen many ads for homes with a “kitchenette,” which usually means a smaller-size refrigerator, microwave, and hot plate. If you live alone, don’t cook much, or would rather barbecue outdoors instead of using an indoor oven in Hawaii’s warm climate, a kitchenette might suit your lifestyle just fine. I’ve also noticed that many “full kitchens” in Hawaii don’t include a dishwasher, so if you can sacrifice just that, your home search will be easier.
- An inside laundry area — Coming from California, where shared laundry facilities are the norm in rental housing, I was surprised at how many rental units in Hawaii come with a private washer and dryer. However, these private washers and dryers are often located outdoors, like on a lanai or inside a carport. So if you can live without an indoor laundry area (or better yet, you’re willing to share a washer and dryer with other tenants), you’ll have an even easier time finding a home.
- A garage — Enclosed garages can be difficult to find here, especially in older homes — carports are more common. In densely populated areas like Honolulu, some rental units come with only street parking. And in really densely populated areas like downtown Honolulu and Waikiki, you might have to pay extra for a reserved parking space in an underground lot.
- A yard — In a place like Hawaii, where there is so much outdoor beauty and recreation all over the place, ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary that you have your own private yard. If you’re a pet owner or have small children, it might be. But if you can live without a yard, you’ll have many more housing options, especially in Honolulu.
Living alone: If the thought of living in a 300-square-foot studio apartment utterly depresses you, consider getting a roommate so you can afford a more spacious home. And if you have luxurious tastes but a meager budget, sharing a home with several roommates might be your ticket to living in your Hawaii dream house — I’ve seen ads on Craigslist in which a group of like-minded people are seeking additional roomates to split the rent on a palatial, oceanfront estate.
Other major expenses: If you’re having a difficult time finding a home you can afford in Hawaii, it might be time to ask yourself if there are any other major expenses that you can cut out of your budget. One expense that immediately springs to mind is a car. Owning a car can be especially expensive in Hawaii, where gas prices are among the highest in the nation, auto theft is rampant, and (in some areas, like Honolulu) parking comes at a premium price. Depending on where you live in Hawaii, a bicycle, scooter, or small used car might better suit your needs — and your budget.
Price: I left this for last, because I don’t want to encourage you to spend more on rent than you can truly afford. But if money isn’t a primary concern for you, then agreeing to spend more than you’d originally planned might be the key to finding a home that meets all the “must-haves” on your wishlist. Hawaii, after all, does have the highest average rent in the U.S., so you’ll have to pay a pretty penny to get everything you want.
5. Be wary of ads that sound too good to be true.
Scam artists are notorious for targeting Hawaii rental seekers, who are often trying to find a home while living out-of-state and are more likely to pay deposits on properties they haven’t seen in person to landlords they haven’t met. If you spot an ad with a rental price that is much lower than it should be, that’s a red flag. If a landlord says they are unable to meet you in person because they live outside of Hawaii and want to conduct business entirely by email and/or phone, that’s another red flag. And if a landlord asks you to send any kind of payment (deposit, application fee, credit check fee, etc.) via Western Union, that’s a really big flag. Unfortunately (and embarrassingly) I learned all this from personal experience.
6. Plan to make at least one trip to Hawaii to view properties in person.
If you’re living outside of Hawaii while conducting your home search, it is imperative that you view a property and meet the landlord in person before you sign a lease agreement or pay any kind of deposit. (Why? Read above.)
When I was home hunting while living in California, I started responding to rental ads about a week before my planned trip to Hawaii. I made arrangements with several landlords to view their properties when I arrived. And once I arrived in Hawaii, I made further inquiries about other properties and lined up a few more viewings during my week’s stay. I did end up renting one of the properties I saw during that week, but if I hadn’t found anything I liked, I would’ve probably made a second trip a month later to view more properties.
7. Consider staying in an extended-stay hotel or short-term rental at first.
If you don’t have the time or money to make a trip to Hawaii to view properties before you move, or you don’t find any homes you like during your home-hunting trips, you can always move first and then look for a rental home. Luckily, in Hawaii there’s no shortage of hotels, vacation rentals, and short-term rentals that you can stay at while you look for a long-term rental. You might pay a higher price for these temporary accomodations than you would on a long-term rental, though. For a list of websites that list short-term rentals, see the “Accomodations” section of my post “Try Living In Hawaii For A Week.”
8. Broach the issue of pets after you’ve introduced yourself.
Finding rental housing in Hawaii that allows pets can be very difficult, especially in Honolulu. If you come across an ad that doesn’t specify whether or not pets are allowed, don’t ask the landlord about it until you’ve had a chance to tell them about yourself when you first contact them. Chances are they’ll be more receptive to the idea of pets after they’ve heard about your excellent references, good credit score, clean-living habits, likeable personality, or whatever else you can offer to sell yourself as a good tenant.