Hawaii real estate agents report selling more homes sight-unseen than ever before

As a real estate agent, Catherine Pennell is used to taking a lot of phone calls. But since April, her phone has been ringing more often than during a typical year — she’s fielding two to three phone calls every day from people looking to move from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii.

“I think people are saying, ‘Life is short.’ It’s a lot of talk because they’re not here yet and they can’t get here yet, but I’ve done more sight-unseen sales than I’ve ever done during the pandemic,” said Pennell, who represents Kauai for KW Kauai Keller Williams. “I’ve done three in the last three months.”

Julie Peters, an agent with Island Boutique Realty on the island of Hawaii, said when wildfire season began in August, she was fielding at least one call each day from California residents wanting to escape the area due to smoke and fire danger. “One person wanted to come over immediately and rent in the meantime because she was so done with smoke,” Peters said. “The last five closings I did were sight-unseen. I had rarely done that before.”

Peters said many of her buyers this year were from the Bay Area and the bulk of them hail from the West Coast. From January to June 2020, California residents bought $587.6 million worth of Hawaii property, making up 41% of total sales during that period coming from the U.S., according to Title Guaranty, which owns and maintains the largest real estate database in Hawaii.

“Demand for Hawaii is always there. Everyone wants to invest, retire or vacation here, but it’s just grown exponentially this year,” Peters said. “A lot of people that were already looking toward retirement here sped it up, or people found out they could work from home. We got a rush of that and then the West Coast fires happened.”

Peters said demand from Washington and Oregon has been strong as well.

Randy Antonio, an agent with Keller Williams Realty on Maui, also had clients and potential clients mention the protests and general unrest on the mainland as their reasons for leaving. While prospective buyers may be searching for solace on the island, Maui’s real estate market is seeing some of what mainland cities are experiencing. There’s a glut of condos on the market — new listings of condominiums in August 2020 were up 97% in Maui compared with August 2019, according to the Realtors Association of Maui — while single-family homes are being snapped up much faster than is typical. The total inventory of single homes for sale was down 25% when comparing August 2020 with August 2019.

Many of those condos are in the areas zoned for short-term vacation rental services like Airbnb, which haven’t earned any revenue in six months, Antonio said. Pennell said condos aren’t moving as quickly on Kauai as well.

File photo of Waikiki Beach.

File photo of Waikiki Beach.

Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

No matter what buyers are interested in, cash offers are more common — and those offers are more likely to go over asking.

We’re seeing many more cash offers,” said Tyler Hinderer, a Redfin agent in Oahu. “I’ve had a number of offers that we lost because [the other buyer] had cash. I just wrote an offer for a client and we went $20,000 over and we were one of 21 offers. You usually have at or above asking on properties, but this is a whole other level. Instead of a couple thousand dollars over, it’s now 15 or 20 or even 30. It almost makes no sense.”

Inventory is low across Oahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kauai, according to Redfin data, with active listings down an average of 15.38% between April and August in 2020 vs. 2019 across all four counties. Inventory is lowest in Kauai County, which was down 19.81% between April and August in 2020 vs. 2019. Honolulu County experienced an 18.51% decline in active listings between April and August in 2020 vs. 2019, while Maui County saw an 8.8% dip in the same time period.

Hinderer said he has far more West Coast buyers now than in any other year, and he’s gotten used to doing extremely detailed virtual tours — even sometimes for buyers that have never been to the island before.

“If you had a buyer that wanted to see it virtually last year that would have been odd. Now it’s totally normal,” he said. “I just sold a very expensive house to a guy from San Francisco who can now telework, and he knew nothing about the area. It’s amazing that he was comfortable doing that.”

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