Is Hawaii Land a Good Investment?

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Is Hawaii Land a Good Investment?
By

Bart Waldon

Known for its beautiful beaches, tropical climate, and aloha spirit, Hawaii is unlike anywhere else in the United States. As the 50th state to join the union in 1959, Hawaii is the only state located outside of North America, situated in the central Pacific Ocean. It consists of eight major islands - Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau and Kahoolawe.

With its vibrant culture, stunning landscapes, and ideal weather, Hawaii has become a premier tourist destination, welcoming over 10 million visitors per year. It has also attracted many real estate investors, enticed by the prospects of buying a piece of paradise. But is purchasing land in Hawaii really a good investment in 2024? Let's explore the pros and cons.

The Allure of Hawaii Real Estate

There are several appealing factors that attract real estate investors to Hawaii:

Increasing property values - According to the Hawaii Life real estate brokerage, the median sales price of a single-family home in Hawaii increased from $615,000 in January 2021 to $895,000 in January 2022 - a whopping 45.6% jump in just one year. This showcases the rapid appreciation of real estate in the state.

Strong tourism industry - Tourism continues to be the main economic driver in Hawaii, with no signs of slowing down. In 2021, Hawaii welcomed over 6.7 million visitors who spent $17.7 billion - the highest spending ever recorded. This robust tourism industry keeps demand high for vacation rentals and hospitality properties.

Low property taxes - Hawaii has relatively low property tax rates compared to the mainland US. Owner-occupied primary residences are taxed at just 0.28%, while investment properties are taxed slightly higher at 1.28%. This keeps costs low for property owners.

Increasing infrastructure - Major initiatives are underway to improve Hawaii's infrastructure. For example, the Honolulu rail transit project aims to reduce traffic congestion which could facilitate growth outside of the main urban center. Upgrades to airports and harbors are also occurring statewide.

So, in many regards, Hawaii real estate appears to be a strong investment opportunity. However, there are also downsides to consider.

The Challenges of Hawaii Real Estate

Despite the positives, investing in Hawaii land does come with a unique set of challenges, such as:

Expensive property costs - The median price for a single-family home is nearly $900,000, putting homeownership out of reach for many residents. Land values are equally high, especially for parcels on or near the beach.

Limited inventory - There is a finite amount of land in Hawaii with significant barriers to building more housing units. This lack of housing inventory keeps property values inflated.

Volatile tourism economy - While tourism brings prosperity to Hawaii, pandemics and recessions can severely damage the industry which impacts real estate. Hawaii’s economy is still recovering from COVID-19 shutdowns.

Natural disasters - Located in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is susceptible to hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters that can damage properties. Homeowners insurance is costlier here than elsewhere in the US.

Stringent regulations - Getting construction approved in Hawaii can be challenging due to strict environmental codes and local zoning laws which limit development projects in many neighborhoods and districts.

Whether the rewards outweigh risks depends greatly on your investment strategy and which island/location you target.

Oahu - Strong Tourism Market but High Prices

Oahu is the most populous Hawaiian island and where the capital city Honolulu and famous Waikiki Beach are located. It attracts the majority of Hawaii's tourists, keeping hotel occupancy rates high with help from large conventions and events. Nearly half of Hawaii's residents call Oahu home.

For real estate investors, Oahu offers a vibrant tourism economy and steady demand for short-term vacation rentals in areas like Waikiki. Beachfront hotels in prime tourist districts generate excellent average daily room rates (ADRs) which translates into higher valuation.

However, properties on Oahu come at a steep price - from $1,100 per square foot for condos to nearly $1M for single-family homes. And due to its crowded neighborhoods and limited vacant lots available for development, investors should temper their expectations for future property or rental income appreciation.

Maui - Natural Beauty and Small Town Charm

As the second most visited island in Hawaii, Maui allure stems from its famous beaches, scenic road to Hana, epic windsurfing in Hookipa, and whale watching excursions. It contains several distinct towns like lively Lahaina, surf town Paia, and upcountry Kula nestled at 3,500 feet elevation on the slopes of the Haleakala volcano.

Real estate sales are booming in Maui with median home prices rising above $1 million in 2021. New property listings often sell the same week they debut on the multiple listing service (MLS). And Maui continues to have a robust vacation rental market - particularly for large resort condos and luxury private villas.

But similar to Oahu, the high cost of properties presents challenges to real estate investing with extremely inflated land values. There is also a moratorium currently in place for new hotel construction in some parts of West Maui, temporarily reducing development opportunities on that side of the island.

The Big Island of Hawaii - Natural Wonders Meet Affordability

Also called Hawaii Island, the aptly named Big Island is the largest island in Hawaii, providing homebuyers the most space to spread out and a diverse landscape ranging from tropical rainforests to snow-covered mountain peaks. It is home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with two active volcanos - Mauna Loa and Kilauea which has the world’s most active lava flows. The Big Island attracts adventure travelers and those who prefer a quieter, country pace of life.

Median home prices and land values on the Big Island are noticeably more affordable than the other populated Hawaiian Islands. This gives real estate investors more purchasing power for their dollar. According to data from Hawaii Life, the median single-family home price in January 2022 clocked in at $585,000 on the Big Island versus $1.18 million on Maui and $1.15 million on Oahu.

Development opportunities also persist on the Big Island in areas such as Kona where several new master-planned golf communities have broken ground. Yet due to lower tourism activity, investors should set expectations appropriately for vacation rental income potential. Outside of a handful of destination resort areas, occupancy rates hover around 30-40%.

Kauai - Lush Landscapes and Strict Development Regulations

Nicknamed the “Garden Island” thanks to its thriving tropical foliage, Kauai exudes natural beauty with emerald mountains, hidden waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the towering cliffs along Na Pali Coast. It has served as the backdrop for numerous Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean.

While not as built up with resorts as Maui or Oahu, tourism and real estate development have gradually increased on Kauai over the past decade. The north shore around Princeville and Hanalei Bay has become a haven for wealthy second homeowners with mega mansions dotting the coastline.

However, stringent regulations from local community groups have essentially halted all new resort projects here. This limits opportunities for larger real estate investments, but it also helps preserve the laidback character of Kauai. As such, property buyers eyeing land here should focus more on residential projects rather than hospitality or vacation rentals.

Is Hawaii a Good Real Estate Investment?

The answer depends greatly on your financial resources and what type of real estate you plan to purchase - whether its residential, retail, hotel, or vacant land intended for development down the road. Investors have found success with all the above in Hawaii.

It goes without saying that any investment in Hawaii will require ample capital. Commercial properties on bustling strips of Waikiki Beach and hotel units with accompanying residences in Ko Olina Resort can easily fetch $1 million-plus price tags.

Yet those able to afford prime parcels - especially beachfront - stand well-positioned to profit as land constraints limit future development in Hawaii. Properties here tend to hold value over the long run or even continue appreciating faster than the U.S. average despite short-term volatility from external events.

Just temper expectations around sky-high future returns and plan conservatively when evaluating Hawaii real estate deals. While rewards exist, prices sit well above national averages limiting drastic upside from today’s levels. Tourism numbers also may not return to recent highs impacting hospitality assets.

And carefully weigh location tradeoffs – targeting world famous areas like Waikiki and Lahaina for potentially higher rental yields or accepting lower occupancy rates but cheaper land costs on Hawaii Island or Molokai.

Lastly, only work with reputable local brokers familiar with Hawaii’s unique zoning laws, environmental regulations, Native Hawaiian land rights, and surrounding neighborhood dynamics that factor greatly into every deal.

The Bottom Line

Hawaii remains alluring - if not magical - for property investors as one of the premier destination markets globally. Yet its land constraints and already inflated values present obstacles. Upside exists but likely capped compared to other states.

Those financially equipped to withstand Hawaii’s high buy-in costs will discover rewarding opportunities here across various real estate niches. But ample due diligence is advised before committing capital to ensure your investment reaches its full potential in Hawaii’s complex regulatory environment and dynamically shifting tourism landscape.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How expensive is real estate in Hawaii?

Hawaii has some of the most expensive real estate prices in the entire United States. The median home price across the islands is close to $900,000. Beachfront lots and luxury properties easily fetch multi-million dollar price tags. So, buyers should expect to pay premium prices for any property.

Which Hawaiian Island is most affordable for real estate investing?

The Big Island of Hawaii (also called Hawaii Island) currently has the most affordable median home prices at around $585,000. But it does not have as strong of a tourism industry as islands like Maui and Oahu which could impact vacation rental potential.

Is purchasing agricultural land a good idea?

Agricultural land tends to sell for lower per acre costs than residential or commercial zoning. However, there are special rules around developing and subdividing agricultural land that investors must consider. Strict regulations also govern farm worker housing.

What risks does Hawaii real estate investing come with?

Hawaii's remote location makes it vulnerable to natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, flooding and tsunamis which can damage properties. Tourism slowdowns during economic declines also disproportionately affect Hawaii’s economy. And lack of developable land limits new construction.

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