For a tourist, Hawaii often means staying within the gates of a resort, never seeing the neighborhoods where residents live. So when a person is transferred here, (usually it’s Oahu) often they have no idea where on Oahu they will live.
Where you choose to live on Oahu will determine a lot about your lifestyle. Even though Oahu is only about 65 miles across and 111 miles around the perimeter, each section of the island has it’s own personality and quirks. A demographics study of each zip code can be found at www.freedemographics.com . Choose carefully where you will, or you will find yourself stuck somewhere you really don’t want to be. The commute around the island can be brutal, so it’s best to talk to a resident first and find out the best place for you to live.
There are several ways to break down the island, but here’s a general overview from a real estate perspective:
* Town / Metro Honolulu (Waikiki, downtown, St. Louis hts, Nuuanu, Manoa, etc) ~ People on Oahu call it “Town.” What they mean is usually the downtown area of Honolulu, the business districts, and possibly China town. When you arrive at the airport and start heading toward Damond head (east) you are in town. Town could be Waikiki, Kaimuki, Moanalua, even Manoa. People who live in Town are called Townies. Some people who visit Oahu only see Town, the North Shore, and maybe Hawaii Kai if they go to Hanauma bay.
- There are so many different areas of Honolulu that it’s difficult to group them all together. Aliamanu, Salt Lake, Moanalua, Kailihi, Nuuanu, Pali, Kam Heights, Punchbowl, Dowsett, Pacific Heights, Makiki, Kapahulu, Moiliili, Punahou, Tantalus, University, Manoa, St. Louis – these are all areas within Honolulu that are small but distinct enough that we call them by name. You could live in Oahu for 10 years and never see all these neighborhoods.
- Living in Town is a lot like living in an L.A. suburb. It’s crowded, some areas are sort of dirty, and there are about 1000 condo buildings everywhere. If you look around and all you see are high rises, you are in Town. Some areas are run down just like any big city, but what people might miss is that many of the smaller neighborhoods in Honolulu are really great places to live and own a house. There are especially nice areas in Manoa, Pacific Heights, Kapahulu, Old Pali, etc. The easiest way to know if a neighborhood is going to be really nice is by the price. In Oahu more than anywhere else, you get only what you pay for. If you see a house that looks run down for a million dollars, it’s probably in one of the best neighborhoods, but if you see a brand new house for $600k in Honolulu, then it’s probably sitting right on the freeway in the worst part of town. Knowing the neighborhoods is key to finding the right home, which is why you need a real estate agent who understands your needs and the areas that can meet those needs. But if you think you’re going to find a bargain in Honolulu, think again. The median price is well over $800k.
* Windward side (Kailua, Kaneohe, Laie) ~ To many, the Windward side is paradise within paradise. For this reason it has some of the most expensive real estate on the island of Oahu. Some people call it the rainy side, because it seems like it rains almost every day. Thanks to all that rain, Kailua and Kaneohe (and Waimanalo) have the most lush, green, forests and mountains on Oahu. Much of the Windward side looks a lot like Kauai’s north shore, with tall green mountains and thick foliage everywhere you look.
- Kailua has recently been updated, which has made the little town into a very nice place to live. With America’s best beach being Kailua beachpark, it’s easy to see why real estate prices here have skyrocketed well over a million dollars.
- Kaneohe has now received a great upgrade also. Over the last few years it has been renovated, starting with the Windward mall, and so the town feels new again. There are some wonderful homes down near Kaneohe bay, which is a giant body of water where many sharks like to breed. If you’re going to live in Kaneohe, you need to know that it is a highly military influenced town. That’s because of the huge number of soldiers that live at Kaneohe marine corp base.
- Up beyond Kaneohe is Laie, Ka’aawa (not a typo), Hauula, and a few other little towns that are very small, and very far from anything. When I drive through those areas I always wonder where those people work, because it would take them well over an hour to get into Town. Buying real estate up here is primarily for people who want a second home or vacation rental. You could live up there and commute, but why?
* East Oahu (Hawaii Kai, Kahala, Aiana Haina, Kaimuki, Palolo) ~ Right after you pass Diamond Head on H1, the scenery starts to change. That’s because just about everything east of Diamond Head is zoned as residential real estate. That means more homes, less high rises, less condos, and a more upscale feel to the area. Hawaii Kai was the first planned community in Hawaii, and it’s clear as you look around that things are more orderly than in Town. The buildings are nicer, the houses are farther apart than in Town, and the traffic is lighter.
- A lot of people that work in Town live in East Oahu, so sometimes the morning commute is kind of long, but it’s nothing like the commute from the Ewa side (more later). Starting in Kahala, H1 turns into a minor 3 lane highway with stoplights. As you drive down the coast, you see multi million dollar homes perched on Hawaii Loa ridge and Aiana Haina. I think it’s the best part of the island, perhaps because I live in Hawaii Kai.
- Many people moving from the Mainland chose to live in East Oahu, particularly Hawaii Kai. This is probably because it feels most familiar to them. The size of homes, the demographics, the layout of the city – these all add to the familiar feel that mainland transplants appreciate about Hawaii Kai, Aina Haina, and Kahala. I’ll give you a free tour of Hawaii Kai, as long as you’re going to buy a house here 🙂
- Within Hawaii Kai, there are about 20 different neighborhoods, but the best thing is there is brand new construction in Hawaii Kai – the only new construction east of town! Hale Alii is a condo building of luxury condos going up later this year. Also there are 4 other neighborhoods that have been built in the last 4 years, so if you’re looking for fairly new housing, Hawaii Kai is the place!
* West Oahu and the Ewa Plain (Ewa, Kapolei, Makakilo, Royal Kunia, Ko Olina) ~ Ewa is pronounced E’ VA, as in, “there’s so much traffic on my morning commute, it takes fo’ Ewa!” People who live in Ewa drive a lot. Even if they don’t drive very far, they are in the car a lot. That’s because there is exactly 1 way out of Ewa into Town, where most of the 50,000 people in Ewa work. But here’s the positive side – Ewa, Kapolei, and Makakilo are the newest developed cities in Oahu, which means the homes are new, the building and some roads, almost everything is new. So on an island where everything gets rusted and oxidized by the sea air, the new housing can be very appealing.
- People who live in Ewa typically do so because they want more house for their money, and they don’t mind commuting – or at least they put up with it every though they mind it. The main problem is, as you drive into town in the morning, you’re driving into the sun. As you drive home toward Ewa, you drive into the sun. Ewa folks will tell you that they spend half their life driving into the sun, and you can tell it’s very annoying to them. But, if you want a new house with more space than you can get in East Oahu or in Town, then move to Ewa.
- The average 3 bedroom 2bath house will run you about 25%-40% LESS in Ewa than in Town or East Oahu. That is why you might want to check it out. However, make the commute one morning to make sure. Spend the night in Ewa and drive into town, then drive back to Ewa at 5pm. Wow. It’s brutal. The 15 mile drive can take over an hour.
* Leeward side (Makaha, Nanakuli, Waianae) ~ The Leeward coast has a beautiful coastline, but a bad reputation. Check the FBI crime statistics and you will find higher crime than other areas of Oahu. It’s also a little run down, and the houses are generally not well taken care of. It’s also the longest drive on Oahu from Waianae to Honolulu. However there are a few nice areas, especially the Makaha Country Club and Mauna Olu Estates, where you can buy a beautiful custom built ocean view home for about $1.5 million. They have large lots and great views. You just have to drive through all of Waianae to get there. Once you get to Mauna Olu estates, you will be amazed at how nice that area is.
* Central (Mililani, Wahiawa) ~ About half way up H2 on the way to the North Shore, you pass through Wahiawa and Mililani. Mililani is another up and coming town that has a master plan. As such, it’s layout is pretty good, especially in the new areas. There is old and new Mililani, and of course new Mililani is nicer because it’s new! Housing here and in Wahiawa is a little cheaper than town, so a lot of people make the commute down. It’s very green up in this area, and the trees remind people of Japan a little bit.
- Around Wahiawa and Mililani are dozens of little communities. In fact there are so many that I don’t think anyone could ever keep track of them all. There are hillside homes, valley homes, flatland homes, country, city, you name it, it’s there. Also, there is a large military contingent, because of the base right there in the middle of Mililani.
* Pearl City area (Pearlridge, Aiea, Halawa) ~ If you need to live near Town, but you don’t want to live right in it, Pearl City and the Aiea area are a good alternative. With housing prices that are a little lower then Kailua and the East side, there are still great properties for sale here. As you might suspect it’s near Pearl Harbor, and if you can get a home on Halawa Heights or Aiea Heights, chances are you will have a nice view of the harbor. Some homes actually have a view all the way to Diamond Head. From Aiea, you can get a view of both ends of the island, depending on the position of your house.
- The most popular local mall, Pearlridge, is a large center of shopping, eating, and all kinds of industrial and commercial businesses. This area has easy access to all the freeways, and is about as central to Town as anything else. Also, Aloha stadium is here, where you can enjoy all kinds of events, including a U2 concert in a few months.
- Houses in Aiea and Pearl City are mostly older, but there have been a few homes built in the last 10 years. Also, in the older neighborhoods people are starting to tear down old homes and rebuild with new construction. If you can get one of these new rebuilds with a nice view, I think you’ll be very satisfied.
* North Shore (Haleiwa, Sunset, Pupukea, Waialua, Laie, Malaikahana, Mokuleia, Waimea) ~ Big waves, country roads, and multi million dollar houses. Locals will call this area “country,” as in, “I’m giong up country.” Or, “the waves in country are huge!” Life on the North Shore is different than most of the island. It’s a little bit like living in Maui, Kauai or the Big Island, except that you can get to Honolulu in about 40 minutes in no traffic. The famous Pipeline and Waimea Bay bring giant waves in the winter, and about a million tourists a year with them.
- If you’re thinking of living up country, you better not need to commute in Honolulu. There isn’t a lot to do except surf and enjoy the ocean, or the country. There are no malls, hardly any stores or entertainment. The country part of Oahu is for surfers, local people with local jobs, vacationers, and retirees. If you can afford a second home on the north shore, you’re one of the lucky ones on earth. It’s beauty and tranquility are second to none. The only problem is that there is a 2 lane road that runs all the way through the country, so if there are big waves, expect tons of traffic. Living on the North Shore is a little bit like living in a small town. It’s beautiful, but very quiet most of the year.
- The North Shore community is highly focused on surfing, and in the winter the population increases dramaticaly with people from all over the world visiting just for that reason. However, there is also a farming community that is a bit unnoticed, growing pineapples and coffee mostly, and staying under the radar.
- There is only 1 high school, Waialua, and only a couple elementary schools, and very few choices for private school. There are only 2 grocery stores from Waialua to Sunset Beach, and 1 hospital way out in Kahuku. Most people drive to Costco in Mililani, which is about 20-30 minutes away, depending on which part of the North Shore they live in.