Jasmine Maes, a midwife, and Steve O’Neal, who works in construction, share one key thing in common. Both moved from California to Kauai because they saw the COVID-19 pandemic closing in on them.
They chose places to live on Kauai sight-unseen — Maes as a new homeowner who settled here near the island’s largest population center, Kapaa, and O’Neal as a renter who intends to buy.
Maes had first visited the island on vacation in early 2019, when she came by herself to celebrate her 40th birthday. A year later, she returned with her husband and children — also ostensibly for vacation, since that was a moment when the full force of COVID-19 had yet to strike.
Maes is originally from Colorado, but she and her husband had been living in Sonoma County for the past six years. But shortly after they got back home, it became clear that the coronavirus was quickly turning into a deadly threat. They had decided to move, COVID-19 or no COVID-19, but the pandemic pushed their plans forward.
So she and her husband, Andy, a carpenter, fixed the trim and painted their house, put it on the market and struck off for Kauai.
They worked with a local real estate agent to find a place, to which they moved readily before even laying eyes on it in person.
The problem, she said, was she and her husband concluded the pandemic made the prospect of an ordinary house hunt on Kauai unacceptably risky.
“It didn’t feel like we could fly here to shop,” she said. So her real estate agent walked her and Andy through what has apparently become an approach so common today that it dominates how residential real estate on the island is changing hands.
Maes and her husband flew to Kauai in August and stayed for two months at their real estate agent’s home while waiting for their belongings to arrive, then settled into their new house.
O’Neal’s situation was different. Originally, he and his wife chose Oahu as their destination. But when they got to Honolulu from the San Francisco Bay Area, they recognized that the island was not a COVID-19 sanctuary.
“We were looking for a COVID-light place where our kids could go to school,” he said. When it became clear Oahu was not that place, O’Neal said he and his wife started scoping out neighbor islands.
They settled on Kauai, he said, “due to Mayor (Derek) Kawakami’s response.” Early in the pandemic, Kawakami moved far more aggressively than officials in other counties. He imposed a curfew and locked Kauai down before other jurisdictions.
“On July 26, we decided to fly over to Kauai,” O’Neal said. He scoured Craigslist for a short-term rental and moved in before ever seeing it.
That rental led to another, whose landlord — again because of COVID-19 — was more than willing to let them stay until the end of the summer, if necessary. They are now house hunting. O’Neal still has his California license plates.
Similar relocation patterns are happening in Maui and Hawaii counties as well, but the trend is especially visible on the Garden Island.
Moves to Kauai from the mainland have become so commonplace in the last few months that it’s difficult to drive more than a few miles on the island without encountering multiple out-of-state license plates.
Most appear to be from California, but plates from Oregon, Texas and Washington also are common sights, and a Cherokee Nation plate cropped up in Kilauea earlier this week.
According to data from the Hawaii Association of Realtors trade group, home sale prices are up on every island, but Kauai is way out in front. In October, for example, Kauai led the state in single-home sales volume growth, with a 37% gain from the previous year.
Median sales prices on Kauai that month rose from $680,500 to $985,000 — nearly double the statewide increase from $635,625 to $780,938, according to the organization.
Prices on Kauai jumped 44.75%, leaving in the dust Hawaii County, which showed a 16% gain and Maui County, with a 18.51% gain.
Unpublished Multiple Listing Service figures for Kauai showed an even more spectacular pattern, with an almost 91% jump in prices for December in the Hanalei district.
A social media group limited to residents of the far north shore in the Haena and Wainiha districts featured speculation in recent weeks that Kauai real estate brokers are buying up Hanalei district homes to hold onto them in the belief that the number of desperate mainland buyers will only increase.
That would make it even more difficult for long-time residents who rent to stay in homes where they have lived, in some cases, for decades.
“With this COVID thing, many people are trying to get away from their surroundings. They see safety on Kauai.” — Karen Ono, executive director of the Kauai Board of Realtors
Real estate agents interviewed by Civil Beat agree there are three reasons for the new crush in home sales to mainland buyers who have never even seen the properties they are acquiring.
First, said Hannah Sirois of Corcoran Pacific Properties in Kapaa, is an established national trend for people to flee cities and other heavily populated areas in search of simpler lifestyles — which also happen to entail less COVID-19 risk.
Second, Sirois said, is the related trend toward a greater ability to work remotely without ever having to go into an office. This, too, was a trend whose origin predates COVID-19, but is now being pushed into the stratosphere as a result of the pandemic.
“Hawaii right now is eye candy on anyone’s desktop,” Sirois said. “When you look at the outer islands, they’re still pretty tame. The buyers on Oahu can be more international. But on this island — and the other neighbor islands, too — they are mostly domestic buyers.”
Sirois said 2020 was highly unusual. In the first quarter, she said, sales and prices were flat compared with 2019. The second quarter, when COVID-19 hit, was a disaster, she said, with sales and prices in freefall.
However, she said, the pace of sales and price increases exploded in the third and fourth quarters, resulting in a strong net gain for the year, despite the dismal second quarter.
Kauai’s Royal Hawaiian Movers tell customers planning to move off island that they are doing so much business with people moving here to homes sight-unseen that there is a month-long delay in setting loading dates to leave.
Technology has enabled the trend. It is now possible to take virtual tours of thousands of real estate listings, with full photographs, realistic 3D home tours, satellite photographs of neighborhoods and whole islands.
Online mapping technology can even show a potential buyer the exact location of the nearest Starbucks.
It is revolutionizing real estate sales. One new brokerage, eXp Realty, is entirely virtual, with no office and thousands of agents working remotely, including back office functions ranging from mortgage financing to transaction closing entirely online.
“With this COVID thing, many people are trying to get away from their surroundings,” said Karen Ono, executive director of the Kauai Board of Realtors. “They see safety on Kauai. But then, with the collapse of the local economy, (also COVID-related) people who are already residents can’t live here. They don’t have a job. They have to leave.
“There’s no inventory (of homes to buy) and that adds to our housing shortage. Prices are going through the roof,” she said.
Steve Latham, another real estate agent based in Princeville, said that the market for homes in the $1 million to $4 million range is “just extremely hot.”
“People want to get to a safer place and get away from some of the risky areas on the mainland,” Latham said. “Kauai has proven itself to be a pretty nice place to weather the storm.”
Latham said he actually tries to discourage people from buying sight-unseen, although he will handle them when needed. “I’ll tell them, ‘You’ve got to come see this,’” he said.
“What’s fueling this is emotion,” he said, “and fear.”
What matters to Hannah Maes is that she, her husband and children have a safe place to live on a beautiful island.
“I feel really lucky,” she said. “I really love our home. When we are lying in bed and hearing the news, everyone (on the mainland) is sitting there saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’m feeling beyond lucky.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.