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Business :: Real Estate :: Hawaii Home Help :: House or Condo? You Choose

House or Condo? You Choose

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highrise Aiea

What Shape "Home Sweet Home"?
When your mind drifts to thoughts of home, what comes into your mind? For some people, home is a wood frame house with a large, inviting front yard, perhaps enclosed by a white fence and some nice landscaping. For others, home is in the sky: a condo is that cozy place where they can relax and be themselves. If you have a strong prejudice one way or another, remember that old saying, “a house is not a home”. Home is where you create your private life, and it is not an architectural style.  Your home life can unfold in a house, a town home or high rise condo. If you have lived in both houses and condos, I am particularly interested in hearing what you personally think are the pros and cons of each lifestyle - see email link at bottom of this column.

House in Kaplolei

For many Hawaii residents, the choice of condo or house has a lot to do with price. Many people choose a condominium because it better fits their budget. As of late 2009, the median condo price on Oahu is $295,000 and for single-family homes $605,000. For others, it’s the convenience of apartment-style living, free from the maintenance, yard work, roof repairs, etc. of a traditional single family home.

Hawaii has the largest percentage of condominium vs. single family ownership of any state in the nation. We were also the first state in the nation to adopt a condominium law (1961). With our shortage of useable land and higher construction costs, Island residents ranging from young families to professional couples and retirees are choosing the condominium lifestyle.  Could condo living be right for you?

It’s Not What You Think
What is a condo? It sounds obvious if you think of the high-rises that tower over the urban areas of Makiki, Ala Moana, Waikiki and Aiea to name a few.  But a condominium is actually a form of ownership, not an architectural style.  A condo may look like a house, a townhouse, or a high-rise, or anything in between.  What makes it a condominium is the shared land and usually some amenities or other features that are owned in common, like streets, a park, a gate, or recreation center.

Ko Olina Condo

When you buy a condominium your purchase includes private and individual ownership of your particular living space, which may be just a block of air in the sky in the case of a high-rise! You also become owner of your own living space and an undivided share in the land (whether leasehold of fee simple) on which the building sits.  Any “common elements” such as parking areas, pool, gates or other features which are a part of the development are included in your purchase as well. The use of your particular condominium unit and the common elements is limited by rules and regulations which were drafted when the building was created and which you should have reviewed and approved prior to purchasing.

Are You Grounded, or a High Flyer?

Aina Haina house

Many condominiums are high rise buildings. But in fact there are others that look just like single family homes.  The difference might only be obvious on the legal description of the property. In this case, the land on which the house sits may actually owned by the condominium association, and any private yard, parking, or lanai for example might typically be owned by the association but limited to use by the property owner.  Townhouses, low-rise condos, or apartments are other types of condominiums with different architectural styles but legally identical. Hawaii also has many “CPR” houses which are generally two houses on the same lot, which may share nothing visible, and have no fees, but are legally different since the lot is not subdivided for each house.  

Houses Offer Choices

burke st house

A detached house is seen as a symbol of peace, privacy, and choice. When you are the owner, you have more complete control over what you do to the inside of your house, with minimal limitations put on by government agencies such as the Dept. of Planning and Permitting. If you choose to rewire the house with old lamp ? Paint the walls purple and keep your Harley-Davidson in the living room? It's your business. Most single family neighborhoods have no monthly association fees, and if you decide not mow the lawn, you might be able to get away from it as long as you don't value your relationship with your neighbors.

The newer neighborhoods  where the houses have that consistent look - think Royal Kunia, Kapolei, Hawaii Kai, parts of Ewa Beach and Mililani to name a few -  have a list of Covenants and Conditions which you are agreeing to keep when you move in. There may be fees for services the association provides such as a security features, private roads or parks, or maintenance of some aspect of the building. These charge a monthly fee for the services they provide. Remember that you are giving up the control over how the maintenance is done. Unless you get on the association Board of Directors, you will have little say over the details.


It’s The Lifestyle
Single family homes have many advantages. But if you are accustomed to owning a single family home in Hawaii, your weekends are probably jam-packed with home maintenance chores. If you are a control freak, or if you just want to be able to decide if and when you paint the house, there are big advantages to single family living. However you will need to budget for the cost and time of work required just to keep up with the ongoing maintenance.

Condos have a different sort of freedom: the ability to pay a monthly fee instead of all the bother of maintaining the exterior and yard of a house. You can just lock the door on your way to the beach, knowing that the yard crew hired by your association will be doing their weekly mowing and sweeping.  If the lawn develops brown patches, the sprinklers will be adjusted and fertilizer will be applied when needed. You can forget about roof repairs or that paint job that seems to come up every 4 or 5 years.

This carefree lifestyle is very appealing to busy young families, overworked professionals, and retirees. By turning over the decision-making power to the condo board, you can focus on your own life. 

Privacy and Other Concerns
In a neighborhood of houses, you may be able to pull into your garage, enter directly into your kitchen, and keep to yourself. If you can live with peeling paint and waist-high weeds, you might be able to get away with it.  On the other hand, condo living puts neighbors closer together than they would be in single family neighborhoods. You’ll probably see them in the parking garage, and ride up the elevator with neighbors. Shared walls and entries are typical, and noise may be a concern particularly in wood frame buildings. Other types of architecture provide a buffer against carried sounds, with insulated ceilings or concrete walls and floors. 

gold coast condo

Research the Details
When you purchase a condo, it is a standard term to receive a set of recent minutes from the Board of Directors meetings before your condo purchase is final.  Read carefully for any discussion of problems or issues that could affect your comfort and enjoyment of your new home. Your attorney and/or real estate professionals can help you wade through these and other crucial documents.

You will want to carefully review the condo building’s disclosure form, known as “RR105C”, which reveals possible problems such as upcoming maintenance fee increases, lawsuits, maintenance issues, or criminal activity  that could trickle down to you if they affect the association as a whole.

Yard Work: Love It or Leave It
Many single family homeowners wonder if they can get used to life in a home that is not surrounded by a yard, and that may be up in the sky. If you truly enjoy gardening, this is a big concern. You might adjust best to one of the many town homes that feature a small fenced yard. This is also handy if you have pets that are accustomed to using the garden for business and pleasure!

Tropical gardening

There are other options for getting dirt under your fingernails.  These include the community gardens located here and there in urban Honolulu, or you could get into container gardening on your own condo lanai.  These outdoor spaces vary from a tiny ledge suitable only for isolating cigarette-smoking guests, to spacious terraces large enough for entertaining.

If you are an indoor dweller, you may jump at the chance to live without any outside space to improve or maintain.  Condos are just right for you.  You can select one with more interior square footage instead of a lanai which would not be used.

If you plan on using your lanai or balcony for barbecuing, be sure to check with the house rules.  Most high rises prohibit barbecuing on the lanai because the smoke carries into other homes. Frequently, a separate barbecue area on the condo grounds is provided for that purpose. Town homes may have more liberal policies as the homes are spaced further apart.

Parking and Other Realities
Parking space is limited throughout our compact islands.  Many of us have one or more vehicles central to our lifestyle. If you need parking don’t even consider purchasing a condo that lacks the required number of parking stalls!  You will spend untold hours of aggravation trying to find a parking space. Newer condos generally accommodate to parking realities, and may provide two parking stalls for condos with two or more bedrooms.  Guest parking is also included in most newer developments but limited in the older complexes.  It's great if you can walk to work or take the bus, but unless that describes you, be realistic abour your parking requirements.

Animal Magnetism
Condos have restrictions on pets, and some single family homes do also. If you are attracted to animals, check the pet policy carefully and speak to the condo Board President to be sure if yours will be allowed.  Living around animals will enrich your life even if you choose not to own one yourself - unless you have an allergy or a fear of them. Pet friendly properties appeal to a wider variety of people and may hold their value well for that reason.  Just be sure your preferences either way will be accommodated in your new home.  Some buildings have the pets “grandfathered” in, so just because you see dogs around does not mean you can have one.  If you have allergies and want to avoid animals this is important to know. Assist animals such as guide dogs are always permitted.

Dog and hamster

Trade winds
Architecture in condominiums is designed to maximize space and to create views. Some condos seem to focus more fitting the most living spaces into the smallest area for the least construction cost! Either way, it’s important for buyers to consider the flow of people, air and natural light. 


Unless a building is fully air conditioned, the orientation of the windows and lanais towards the trade winds is crucial! Some condos have windows on only one side.   It is more desirable to have airflow on two or three sides if you are relying on fresh air to ventilate the place.  Ceiling fans help a lot and in some properties there is the possibility of adding window air conditioning units.  Be sure to check the rules in the building  before you buy.

Condos on high floors can become wind tunnels during our frequent gusty weather. If lanai or windows face directly towards the northeast this is common. Patio furniture is a hazard and could become airborne!  Winds might whistle through the windows which is quite common but a bit unsettling.  The most useful lanais are those protected from the trade winds and the rain that they bring.  Then you can keep furniture on them all year round, and enjoy outdoor dining in any month of the year. If you are condo shopping during calm weather, keep this in mind and talk with other occupants or the resident manager.

Everyone Is Welcome
Single people and couples love being close to the action, with restaurants, businesses, and work nearby. Families of all sizes also live in condos.  Many times this is for financial reasons, since the average condo costs less than many single family homes, or to be close to the best schools. Condos may have amenities that most houses lack, such as pools, tennis courts, gyms, and spas to name a few. You can walk to work from many condo neighborhoods, and have a great nighttime “city lights” view.

condo lanai entertaining

Home is Where the Heart Lies.
It has nothing to do with a particular style of architecture, and many happy families call their condo home. You might not know what lifestyle works best for you until you try it, and change is difficult for many people, even if it is out of necessity. Be open- minded to the possibilities of a different and rewarding way of living in Hawaii.

Best wishes finding your ideal home in Paradise, no matter what shape or size it may be. Call your real estate agent for further help or email me  at

Copyright Stephanie Gieseler 2009, Honolulu, Hawaii. All rights reserved.

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