Steady second home market prolongs Hawaii’s housing boom

In an already diverse real estate landscape, there is perhaps no more unique market in the United States than Hawaii.

Fueled by wealthy foreign buyers, the demand for second homes exceeds any other part of the country. According to Hawaii’s Chief Economist, about a quarter of Hawaii’s homes have been purchased by nonresidents.

This continued interest in Hawaiian real estate by mainlanders and overseas buyers has, in part, propelled the luxury sector to new heights. Year-to-date, high-end sales across the state have surpassed the previous year, according to the latest Hawaiian luxury market report from leading broker Hawai’i Life.

As a result, many Hawaiian realtors are experiencing unprecedented sales volumes, surpassing those in much larger markets and placing them among the top realtors in the country. One such agent, Neal Norman, consistently ranks as the top-producing agent in Hawaii and was recently named #29 on Real Trends’ The Thousand, a national ranking of the top 250 individual agents in the United States ranked by sales volume.

Having moved to Hawaii as a surfer more than 25 years ago, Norman has since become one of the state’s most wanted agents, specializing in luxury properties on the island of Kauai. As Director of Hawaii Life, Norman and his team have achieved over $3 billion in sales, including over $385 million in sales volume in 2021. Notable recent transactions include the sale of 11.9 million dollars from Carlos Santana’s vacation home.

In my continuing coverage of the global real estate scene, I spoke with the Kauai expert about his successes and how he thinks the market is changing on the “Garden Isle”. His comments have been edited for clarity.

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How has the market evolved in Kauai in recent years?

Fortunately, and unfortunately, Kauai’s North Shore has been uncovered by buyers, so everything continues to appreciate at a rapid pace. It’s such a small rural area and there’s super-rarity but high demand. There was more tourism here due to the pandemic and people found that they no longer needed to be at work and could live in this place where they had always dreamed of living. There’s quite a bit of transfer between places like Aspen, Jackson Hole or Telluride where it’s the same idea only that instead of snow we have waterfalls.

Is there a fear that the spike in popularity will subsequently lead to the area losing some of its charm?

There are strict zoning and building regulations, with the only way in and out being a dual carriageway, so it’s quite protected, and I don’t think that will change. The reason people come to Kauai vs Maui is because it’s more laid back. There really aren’t any multi-family condos, and there are almost no hotels – it’s raw, natural beauty here.

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How is the luxury market in Hawaii different from that of the United States?

There is very little speculation in our market. People don’t come here and build houses to sell. A lot of people come here and they don’t find a nice new home. I’ve only sold a handful of new homes in 35 years. A large part of the market buys vacant land and builds something that exactly matches the buyer.

For the most part, I’m in a second home market. So I sell people things they don’t need, I sell people things they want. In markets like California, there are often necessities associated with buying a home, such as living close to home, and necessities can mean more money. For a beach community like Malibu, if you want a few acres on the water or near the water, it’s going to cost $50 million to $100 million. Now to get something like that here you will pay half if not a quarter less than that and what you get will be amazing.

You have repeatedly been the most productive broker in Hawaii. What do you attribute to your success?

I think I have a skill set that really works for what I do. I have an eye for site development or renovation – having been a land builder myself – and I also like to negotiate. There have been projects that have complicated sites and rights issues and I have a long experience of navigating those and negotiating for someone to find their dream places, and I love be able to do it.

I also have an amazing staff. We work hard to find our customers the right place and it is through this hard work that we continue to get referrals.

Recommendations for spots to surf?

Needless to say, Kauai is a world class surfing location, but Fiji, Indonesia, Central America and South America will always hold a special place in my heart.


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Hawai’i Life is an exclusive member of Forbes Global Propertiesa consumer marketplace and member network of elite brokerages selling the world’s most luxurious homes.

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