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Business :: Real Estate :: Hawaii Home Help :: Timeless Beauty - Why We Adore Old Homes

Timeless Beauty - Why We Adore Old Homes

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Do your senses come alive when you see a classic home built in the early part of the last century?  You know who you are. Perhaps you are swept away by gleaming hardwood floors, lofty ceilings, spacious lanais, custom woodwork and built-ins. While some people run away from the challenges, others are seduced by the beauty and - in many cases – the potential of old homes.  If you feel this urge, rehabilitating an older home can be an act of love and devotion, and the rewards are many.

Love is timeless. Vintage houses are not for everyone, but if you are entranced by older homes, you are not alone. Here are some ideas for people considering buying, selling, or rehabilitating a home from another era.

Dining area with hardwood floors

History Lesson

The oldest neighborhoods on Oahu were built when there was plenty of conveniently located land, and rough roads made the outlying areas difficult to access. These areas are within the urban center of Honolulu, and were central to the growth of the city back when there was no Pali Highway or Kalanianaole Highway - much less H-1. Some of the oldest homes still standing on Oahu were built in Kalihi, Nuuanu, and Manoa. A few years later, subdivisions sprang up in Kaimuki, Kapahulu, and Diamond Head. This chart shows the approximte number and age of older homes on Oahu, according to the city property tax records*:

 Year Built

Number of Homes

Some Neighborhoods Represented
 Before 1900 20 Manoa, Nuuanu, Moanalua
 1900-1910 131 Manoa, Nuuanu, Waialua
 1911-1920 551Kalihi, Nuuanu, Manoa, Puunui
 1921-1930 3274Diamond Head, Kapahulu, Kaimuki
 1931-1940 5760 Kalihi, Waimanalo, Lanikai, Coconut Grove
 1941-1950 9140 Kahala, Aina Haina, Portlock

Those wanting country or beach estates in the 1930s could move to the newly-built houses on the Windward side in Waimanalo, Lanikai, and Coconut Grove. Prior to the 1940s, there were very few homes in East Honolulu, Portlock being the first subdivision. Later, road improvements in the 1950s made additional neighborhoods such as Kailua and East Honolulu within easier commute distance, which had previously been country.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of these areas, where homes may be 25, 50, or more years old? Should you eliminate these locations just because of age of the homes? If you want to live in a single family home near the heart of Honolulu you, you need to consider the advantages of older homes that predominate in these convenient areas. There are also some cautions which will help you decide if a vintage home is right for you.

Old is Beautiful

Closest to the urban center of Honolulu are neighborhoods of cute little houses on small lots. Puunui and Kapahulu are full of classic examples these homes. Many were built between the turn of the century and 1940. Life was simpler then for most folks, and homes with three bedrooms and one bath were considered quite adequate. Homes larger than 1200 square feet were rare, and many were built to feature a one-car carport. In the Kapahulu area tucked close to Waikiki and Diamond Head, the art of the cottage was perfected, with tidy homes on tiny lots of 1200 – 4000 square feet, close to the beach and Waikiki. The charm is still apparent in many, though some need a bit of freshening up (who doesn’t at that age?). Others have suffered from a brutal and heartless “modernization”.

1950 beach house

In the gracious areas of Nuuanu and Manoa, homes for the more affluent were built larger, and they still sprawl over lots in excess of 10,000 square feet close to the heart of town. As time passed and land close to town grew scarce, suburbs to the east and west were opened up to accommodate the desire for buildable land, as road improvements made these areas more accessible.

Stately Trees and Shady Gardens

Drive up Oahu Avenue in Manoa, and as you pass East Manoa Road you will start to feel very small. Enormous trees envelope the roadway. The temperature is noticeably cooler, and the gardens are lusher. Mature landscaping gives these older neighborhoods the gracious look that big canopy trees provide, not to mention the beautiful moss rock walls that surround some of the historical properties. Newer neighborhoods may never achieve this quality, which has taken over 100 years to evolve from the visions of a long-past era.

Aina Haina yard

Rooted in the Past

Established neighborhoods often have more owner occupants and may still have many original owners and retirees.  Homes are passed to the next generation within the family, and selling is a last resort. The neighbors may be willing to share historical anecdotes from the old days. Investment value may be greater due to lower turnover of properties. Demand for these homes is constant and supply is always low, so and any renovations you do will probably pay off well. These are the areas where property values rise first when the market is on the upswing and they decline last when markets go down. My informal public records research shows that of the 20 or so island homes built before 1900 which are still standing, 6 are in Manoa, more than in any other area.

1922 bedroom

Old-Style Construction

Construction standards may have changed, but many people prefer the quality of the materials and workmanship of older homes.  Pride of workmanship was more apparent since homes were not mass-produced as they are now. Craftsmanship is visible in built-ins, wood windows and doors, and in other architectural details that add character. The building materials of older homes may include heart redwood, koa, or other woods less frequently used today. Oftentimes, beautiful hardwood floors are hiding under that old shag carpet!  Bedrooms are often larger in older homes, especially the second and third bedrooms, which have shrunk to closet-size in some of the new homes!

The test of time would likely reveal structural defects in an existing home, which you may not find out right away in a new one. Of course, you should always insist on a professional home inspection to provide details about the condition of any home.

The best School Districts on the island are in some of these older neighborhoods. The quality and reputation of the schools can affect property values since many people seek out homes in the areas with best schools, both public and private. There are very few new homes in these areas and the ones that are being built are in the upper price ranges.
Good schools support home values because, among other factors, people know they will not have to pay some $8,000 – $16,000 per year in private school tuition.  Some of the most popular elementary school districts include Manoa area schools, Kahala School, and the East Honolulu schools from Aina Haina to Hawaii Kai.  Most new neighborhoods have not had enough time to develop strong school reputations, and a more mobile population may be uninvolved in influencing the schools. School preferences are very personal, and while people do not always agree on what constitutes a good school, they generally concur on what makes a bad one!  

Historical Character and Tax Savings

There are so many reasons to preserve the style of a beautiful older home. When renovations are needed to make a home functional for modern life, it is highly desirable to preserve elements of the original style. Even some homes from the not-so-distant 1950s and 1960s – if well-designed - can have a retro style with interesting character that you may want to enhance. Did anyone who lived through them once expect bell bottoms and buzz haircuts to come back?

Cutest House in Kapahulu

Historical homes may qualify for greatly-reduced property taxes, if they are listed on the Hawaii Registry of Historical Places and follow stated architectural guidelines for any renovations. This can be a huge benefit if you quality and agree to the restrictions imposed. The Historic Hawaii Foundation is another great resource for owners of older homes.

Wisdom of the Ages

Aged homes aren’t for everyone, even if you love them. There are some important cautions about buying and owning older homes. Here are some of the main ones:

Higher initial cost can be a big issue in many of the most convenient Honolulu neighborhoods. The top-tier areas of Nuuanu, Makiki, and Manoa were some of the first residential areas to be settled.  The later-developed East Honolulu, Aiea, Kailua, and Kaneohe areas were built later as suburbs, and are next in line for convenience thanks to a network of highways, which connect to the urban center. Only a few buildable parcels of land are left in these areas as well, a shortage which has been heightened by strict land us policies.  Individual older homes must be demolished so that new ones can be constructed, while very few opportunities for sizable subdivisions remain.

With most of these neighborhoods fully developed, supply and demand is expected to continue to drive up prices. The chance of a bargain property is low, the choices are likely to remain slim, and you should expect high prices for the foreseeable future. This will work in your favor if you become an owner!

Money Pits and Fire Traps

If you can afford one of the fully-renovated and restored historical homes that occasionally come onto the market, you are very fortunate. For the rest of us, know that there is probably more work needed than meets the eye!

Major renovations of an older home typically entail more money, time, stress and commitment than people envision at the outset. Do your planning and research before embarking on a project of this scope. Even though a home is just 30 years old, considerable changes may be required to achieve what you have in mind. Hazardous substances such as lead and asbestos may exist on the property and it will cost extra if your remodeling disturbs these.  Be sure to identify any environmental risks in advance of starting your home improvements. Electrical and plumbing systems, while functional, may use outdated materials such as aluminum wiring and galvanized pipes. You might need an architect to help you decide what can and should be altered. It’s important to preserve the architectural integrity of the original structure which had attracted you to the home.

Fixer upper with potential

As you may suspect, many changes have occurred in building codes and construction standards. In fact, upgrades and revisions to the code are eternally in progress, with revised editions of the building code appearing every few years. This means older homes may not meet current hurricane, fire, and structural standards. Some of the significant code changes have occurred since 1980, and include safety upgrades to electrical systems, smoke alarms, patio railings, stairways, and parking requirements. Termite and fire safety standards have been improved and energy efficiency requirements have been upgraded.

Plan to use licensed contractors and obtain building permits for renovations.  This is not a smart area in which to economize. Even if you decide to become an “owner-builder”, you will need to use licensed and reputable plumbers, electricians, and roofers, to name a few. In this case, you must become an expert on the laws and restrictions. The Building Department has a wealth of information available for homeowners explaining when and how to obtain building permits (hint: permits are needed for just about everything).  If a property does not have evidence of past building permits for additions, be cautious. This is a red flag and could affect the future value of your property. Ask your real estate agent to assist you in researching permit history.

Diligence is Due

Hawaii has some meticulously-maintained 1950 – 1960 era homes in “Leave It to Beaver” condition.  There is a certain charm in those Formica counters without a scratch, original speckled linoleum, and custom built wood kitchen cabinets.  The hardwood floors gleam and the ceramic tile in classic 1950’s colors is right in style. Can you plan to move right in without budgeting for repairs? That depends on the condition of the less visible features of the property. Some homes look great but need hidden work and others are a wreck on the outside but are rock solid underneath. 

Classic Manoa 1922

When purchasing an older home, the purchase contract needs to allow extra time for you to hire professional home inspector(s) to check out the main systems of the home – its well worth the cost. The “big six” include the roof, foundation, plumbing and electrical systems, termite issues, and drainage.  Other areas also of concern are: proper operation of doors and windows, surface finishes such as interior and exterior painting, flooring, and counters. Don’t assume that structural work is more expensive or more difficult than cosmetic repairs – this is not always the case!  Look for good basic condition, not perfection – it doesn’t exist even in brand new homes, but now is the time to realistically plan for the work you will want to do now or later.

A savvy Realtor will help you plan and investigate the property’s unique qualities and refer you to the experts who can help you dig deeper. Home improvements are sure to be needed, whether now or later.  If you are planning on buying a fixer-upper, consult with a licensed contractor as part of your home inspection to make a budget for the expected cost of repairs and renovations.  Then, add 20 -30% for those things that you can’t see. Some repairs may be necessary prior to occupancy. If the plumbing and electrical systems are not safe and functional, you will need to repair these items prior to moving in. Others may be postponed until later. For example, the kitchens and baths might need major work, if it has not already been done. 

Aina Hainsa kitchen

The age and condition of a home can affect your financing and insurance.  If the improvements are not considered by the appraiser to be in livable condition, you may be offered a “land loan” at terms less favorable than a home loan.  If major work is needed, you might be required to show that you have the funds available for the needed repairs or you may need to qualify for a construction loan.  This is temporary financing until the home is complete and you are ready for the permanent “take-out” mortgage.

Investment value can be an important consideration. Your experienced Realtor will help you identify neighborhoods that are likely to hold their value, and provide past sales history of your home as well as general market statistics.   Some older neighborhoods are on the rise, with homes in steady demand regardless of the market conditions. Homeowners are updating and renovating, and the few derelict houses with overgrown weeds and crumbling walls are being phased out each year – these are good signs of a area on the upswing.

It’s crucial to have a clear understanding of the range of property values and knowledge of market trends.  You don’t want to overbuild for the neighborhood and later find that you can’t get your investment back. But with proper planning, renovating an older home can be a fantastic long-term investment

Manoa endlosed lanai

Still a History Buff?

Hawaii’s older homes offer great potential for convenience, style, and investment value if you do your homework.  If you still have the urge after this reality check, go ahead and create your own Eden through careful planning and wise choices. Select a team of professionals, and involve your Realtor, tax specialist, and contractors early in the process of any home purchase. It may take time and money, but it will be worth the effort to realize your dream.

Send Your Photos

If you own a historical home, I would love to see a photo. Please include neighborhood and approximate age of home and attach to your email to

Manoa bathroom

* I created this chart by searching Hawaii Information Systems public property records for existing homes built during these year ranges. Neighborhoods shown are just some of the highlights I noted.

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cliphy — Friday, November 4, 2011
Great article, really interesting and comprehensive! We're looking to buy an older home with retro "charm."


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