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“Living in Hawaii sounds like a dream,” the male narrator begins, as rapid-fire images of a color-saturated, hyperactive outdoor Hawaii flood the TV screen.
A light ukulele reggae tune revs up. “But in fact, it’s a reality for over a million people that call this place home.”
And so begins another half-hour episode of the hit cable TV show “Hawaii Life.” Airing on HGTV and now in its fifth year, the show’s 95 half-hour episodes air on the cable channel at all hours, sometimes in marathon blocks. Twenty-six new episodes are in the works.
But the “reality” sold on this show avoids the actuality of life in Hawaii to pitch an enticing chimera.
“The range of properties in Hawaii is huge,” the narrator continues in his bro voice, “from $5,000 for a plot of lava rock, to $500,000 homes, to $5 million dream houses and estates.”
A montage of luscious Hawaii residences — colorful shacks, nicely gardened if simple three-bedroom houses, giant beach-side pavilion houses — illustrates the inventory.
The intro includes quick cut-aways to the episode’s agent and buyer: a tanned Big Island realtor (“Ta da! This is your new backyard!” she exclaims, showing off a stretch of lava-paved South Kohala seashore) and an ecstatic California client (“Look at the bananas, right in the yard!”)
The narrator again: “It’s the home, it’s the place you live, it’s the lifestyle … This is Hawaii life!”
Recent episode teasers on the HGTV website include, for example: “Montana Parents of Six Downsize for Cooler Lifestyle on Kauai,” or “Chicagoan and His Dog Leave Behind Snow for Surf and Sun on Oahu,” or “Mother and Daughter Ditch Heat in Houston for New Life On Kauai.” (Regarding the Houston duo, copy explains that “Lisa has visited every state and even spent time in Guatemala, where Jacquilin was born, but the two have always felt that Hawaii was their home.”)
HGTV “wants to get the viewer to relate Hawaii real estate prices to their home market, and think, ‘Wow, it’s totally reasonable to own a home in Hawaii.’” — Matt Beall, co-owner, Hawaii Life Real Estate
Call it “House Hunters in Paradise,” or call it “Whatever Happened to Hawaii’s Middle-Class Housing Stock?” This reality show’s bottom line: “You don’t have to be rich to live in Hawaii, you just have to want it badly enough.”
By the second season, 22 million viewers had watched the show, according to Matt Beall, co-owner and principal broker of Hawaii Life Real Estate, whose brokers and clients do everything on the show but cast, film and edit it. Furthermore, HGTV decided the firm’s name fit the show to a T: “Hawaii Life.”
With 204 brokers on the four biggest islands, Hawaii Life is one of the newest and biggest real estate firms in the state, born out the wreckage of the 2007 recession on Kauai.
In a phone interview, Beall, one of the three founding partners, related how HGTV and New York-based production company Left/Right contacted the partners in 2011 about doing a tropically based, lifestyle version of the hit show “House Hunters.”
The shows share the same addictive format: A realtor shows a client three houses of middling size and cost. The drama lies in which house the client chooses. It’s a guessing game for viewers — wherein the tension, such as it is, is found in comparing their own taste, their choices of countertops and backyards, with the buyer’s final decision — neatly tied up in 22 minutes. Reportedly, First Lady Michelle Obama watches HGTV to unwind, so does Sasha.
“Hawaii Life” has been such a hit that now HGTV also offers up “Island Life,” “Caribbean Life” and “Mexican Life.”
I ask Beall about the clear differences between aspirational, real-estate fantasy websites like Curbed and TV shows like“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and his show, in which the houses aren’t estates, and prices generally hover between $300,000 and around $1 million.
“Yeah,” Beall says, “(HGTV) wants to get the viewer to relate Hawaii real estate to their home market, and think, ‘Wow, it’s totally reasonable to own a home in Hawaii.’”
Any concern that a show like his is driving up prices, or that out-of-state clients like his are outbidding local buyers?
“No more than any other time in the market,” Beall says equably. “The show isn’t making people buy or sell real estate — the demand is already there.”
He explains how the show works: a client and a broker meet, look at houses; a house gets sold. It’s usually then, he says, that the Hawaii Life realtor will ask the buyer if he/she/they would like to be cast in a segment of the show.
If the buyer says yes, the story of the sale is compressed and re-created on film within the strict format of three houses looked at and one chosen. This is called, in reality TV parlance, a “back-tell,” Beall said.
“That’s the point about doing back-tell stories,” the realtor says. “The trades are happening. The real estate is going. It literally is what it is, and the show’s just telling the story.”
This reality show’s bottom line: “You don’t have to be rich to live in Hawaii, you just have to want it badly enough.”
The story whose intro I detailed at the top of the column involves a California couple with two children who settle on a $700,000, two-story, three-bedroom house in South Kohala, at Puako, just across Puako beach road from a shoreline access path.
“The Big Island has great, great ocean sports, good surf spots,” the husband explains.
He’s a thirtysomething tech guy who can work remotely. “It’s what we’re into, pretty much — the ocean and outdoors.”
Nearly every house hunter on “Hawaii Life” is “into” the outdoor lifestyle (with the exception of occasional local house hunters, usually on Oahu, who are moving up from renting, or living at their parents, to owning).
A Canadian couple from Calgary with two kids, also looking on the Big Island, explains they snorkel quite a bit. The wife, a nurse, says she’s “excited to live the outdoor life that Hawaii offers.”
After looking in Waikoloa, they chose a house in green Waimea with a big yard for gardening, asking price $630,000.
The carpets need replacing, and there’s noise from the highway, but “this house accomplishes many of our Hawaii goals,” the husband says.
Adds his wife, “This house would really allow us to really enjoy the Hawaii lifestyle we moved here for.”
We hear little talk about traffic, or the cost of living, or schooling, much less community and the ties that bind modern Hawaii society. I guess they’ll find out about those things by themselves. For now, it’s all bliss and entertainment and fantasy, as far as “Hawaii Life’s” producers in New York are concerned.
I ask Beall if he thinks there’s a trend of mainlanders moving to Hawaii.
“The reality is that there’s a lot of ownership in Hawaii from foreign nationals and the continental U.S.,” he answers. “To say that it’s increased, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think it’s just … if the market’s moving, it goes in that direction.”
Still, I can’t help but think that a show like “Hawaii Life,” capturing the attention of millions of eyeballs around the world, on a near-constant loop, makes home ownership more difficult for struggling kamaaina families.
HGTV’s website sounds like it’s on a evangelical crusade to sell escapist dreams to viewers. Hawaii Life brokers, the online copy explains, “are unlikely real estate moguls, people who themselves have made the leap to the life in Hawaii, as they call it, and who want to see that others can enjoy it too.
“This half-hour real estate series will follow the firm’s endless stream of clients who are abandoning their 9 to 5 lives in Anywhere, U.S.A., to take hold of a Hawaii Life.”
Displacement from middle-class housing ensues, and Hawaii becomes a vacuous lifestyle for strangers. Someday soon, the whole state may be like New York City, where finding an actual New Yorker in Manhattan is a fool’s game.