Hawaii Military Life: To Rent or To Buy?

I know how challenging a DoD move to Hawaii with a family can be, since I did it a few years ago myself. I also regularly help military families moving to Hawaii find homes, so I learn from their experiences. A military move to Hawaii can be mind-boggling. It's an OCONUS post, but still a state, so it seems to fall into a no-man's land of rules and planning. Trying to decode which parts of the Joint Travel Regulations apply to Hawaii can be an education in itself.  While this blog is not definitive and represents my personal opinions and experiences, I'd like to help you make a smooth transition to this duty station and avoid the possible pitfalls.

View toward Pearl Harbor

View toward Pearl Harbor

When we first arrived on Oahu, we rented a home for the first two years. In retrospect, that was a mistake. Here's why.

The Argument for Renting

It's easy (sort of). After many years of mainland home ownership, we were exhausted emotionally, physically, and financially. We spent money and worked hard improving our home and then, being asked to move on short notice at a low point in the housing market, we were not going to recoup nearly what we put in. Thankfully, we sold the home in a reasonable amount of time and without owing any money.

We decided paying rent and calling a landlord when the dishwasher broke would be a relief, so we took a break from home ownership. We also looked at what our Maryland home sold for compared to online photos of Hawaii homes and were quite put off by the size and condition. It was hard to tell from a distance what was actually worth the price tag and get a handle on the market, even though I had already been a Realtor.

We also thought we needed flexibility. Not knowing the neighborhoods and school system, I wanted to make sure we weren't stuck if the school wasn't a good fit, or if I'd accidentally chosen a crime ridden neighborhood.

The Argument for Buying

Finding a rental on Oahu is frustrating. There is a steady supply of renters, and there is no good mechanism to help them find rentals. Many rentals are not advertised until they're vacant and ready to occupy, so forget planning ahead. Rentals in Hawaii are also less pet-friendly than most mainland locations. At least if you buy a home you have some control over the move timeline and the property rules, and you have Realtors available to assist on your side of the transaction.

Once you find a rental, the life of a vagabond is free and easy, right? Not so much. It's also exhausting wondering when your landlord is going to want the house back. Or when they'll decide to sell it. And when you own your home, you can fix all the things that drive you nuts instead of enduring them until you move on. Our rental home had a shower worse than any campground bathhouse, but I certainly wasn't going to upgrade it and neither was the landlord.

Pay yourself first. Maybe you've heard that line before in relation to putting money into your savings account before spending any. It also applies to home buying. Pay your own mortgage, not someone else's. At least the principal is going toward your loan amount. Use an amortization table to calculate what you'll have paid off after you keep the home for a few years. If you have access to a VA loan, you can buy a home for nearly no money out of pocket. If you're going to pay $2,500/month of someone else's mortgage or $2,500/month toward your own, pay yourself.

Make money by doing nothing. In an ascending market, your property gains value even without making upgrades. The market on Oahu has been improving steadily the past several years and is currently projected to continue improving. We watched prices increase around us for two years.

When we finally bought, we got less for our money than we would have if we'd bought from the start. If we'd met a Realtor who knew a variety of locations and removed all the uncertainty we had about finding the right location and getting to know the market, we would have bought a home when we first moved.

A great Realtor will be able to show you how to make sense of where to live on Oahu, depending on your priorities, budget, and needs. A Realtor can also show you commuting routes, where to find public and private school data, crime statistics, recreational activities, and can help narrow down to neighborhoods to the kind of setting you're looking for.