Lifestyles in Hawaii: Hawaii Island (the Big Island)

Let’s take your mind off your tax returns for a more interesting fantasy subject.

A reader writes:

“Hi Nords – my spouse and I are thinking of moving to the Big Island for early retirement. I spent time working in Hawaii during my career and absolutely loved it. We are thinking of taking a risk and moving to an area designated lava flow 2 because the only way we could swing this money-wise would be by moving to the Big Island. Any tips regarding local resources (websites, blogs, books)?”

Believe it or not, it’s the third time I’ve been asked that question in 2013. The Mainland winter must have really sucked this year!

You can probably think of plenty of reasons to move to Hawaii. I certainly understand why– my spouse and I plan to spend the rest of our lives on Oahu. Instead of building on your confirmation bias, however, I’m going to take a contrary approach: I’m going to suggest reasons why you might not want to move here. At the very worst you’ll have full disclosure. If you’re already an informed consumer, then I doubt anything I say will change the way you feel. You’ve experienced some of the island lifestyle, so I hope that none of this will upset you or discourage you. My family and I love it here, but Hawaii living makes a few people feel as if they’re stranded on a lump of lava in the middle of the ocean!

Hawaii blogs, books, and media websites

I’ve linked my blog posts that you might want to read. You’ve probably seen most of this before, but it could spark a thought or start a discussion. The first one is very good for zooming in on satellite images of real estate listings. The next four links bring up issues worth considering:

Those posts also link to these books, blogs, & websites. As always, try your local library for a copy before you buy a book:

If you haven’t already been reading the local news then here are a couple of links to get you started:

Those are the newspapers & websites that I’m familiar with, but I haven’t been on the Big Island in several years. You may find better media as you click around those. Read these for several months before you move here. Get a feel for the local media, politics, living conditions, and social issues. If it seems like small-town news, you’re absolutely right.

Living with lava

I’ll admit that I had to look up the classification of the “Lava flow 2” zone, but you can already predict where this is going. Take a look at this profile of Hawaii Island’s Ka’u community (that link downloads a 5MB PDF) and see the definition on page 4-47, along with adjacent pages showing the images of various existing flows. You’d be living “adjacent to and downslope of active rift zones”. Kilauea Volcano is not too far uphill from you, and it’s been erupting continuously since 1983. (There’s also the probability of frequent temblors.) I guess that means you buy your home for cash and pay higher insurance rates– if you can get home insurance. Just be aware that if a home is selling cheap on the southeast side of the island (the Ka’u/Puna/Pahoa area) there’s a good reason for the discount.

Here’s an example of living with lava. One of our favorite vacation rentals is in Kapoho Beach below Pahoa. Kapoho had some damage from a lava flow in 1960, so later when they rebuilt(!) the neighborhoods they had to excavate and re-landscape. As part of that, they dug an extensive system of shallow canals through backyards. You can swim (or stand-up paddleboard) from your house all the way out to the ocean, watch the honu cruise around your back lanai, and generally enjoy a very mellow resort environment. However, the water in these canals is warmed by subterranean lava flows. You start at the surface in 75-80 degree temperatures, and by the time you’re eight feet deep it’s in the 90s. The unspoken part of this lifestyle is that the lava might break through anywhere and retake the whole neighborhood. 53 years later, so far so good. Next year?

While we’re talking about natural disasters hazards, let me beat the insurance question to death. Insurance might hypothetically be available for residences in lava flow 2 zones, but it’ll be expensive– if you can get it at all. USAA, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, actually stopped writing homeowner’s policies in Hawaii (except for first-time homebuyers) for nearly a decade. It wasn’t necessarily the tsunami zones, the hurricanes, or the drought-caused fires. They stopped insuring here because their analysts determined that they’d concentrated too much risk in a relatively small geographic area and couldn’t afford the exposure. In a lava flow 2 zone you might even have trouble with vehicle and personal-property insurance, let alone homeowner’s insurance.

(19 April supplemental note:  See the end of this post for additional information from USAA.)

Hawaii has had two tsunami in the last two years (minor damage). The Big Island has many minor temblors (Kilauea lava) but the last major earthquake was 2006 (isolated damage). It’s been over 20 years since the state has had a major hurricane. While the odds of having a hurricane are about the same every year, the odds of extending our hurricane-free streak are dwindling.


Volcanic fog is mostly suspended sulfur dioxide droplets emitted by Kilauea’s caldera, near the home you’re considering. It pollutes the entire state and in my unscientific estimate, it’s been much worse for the last few years. One or two days a month look like a big-city inversion layer– and that’s on Oahu. I can’t imagine how much worse it must be on the Big Island. I’ve seen a 10% drop in the output of our photovoltaic array during bad vog months, and again that’s over 200 miles away on Oahu. Vog usually clears out after 2-3 days when the tradewinds resume, but the south side of the Big Island has much higher levels. Vog also makes you feel congested and snuffly, and if you have any respiratory issues then you’ll get very irritated.

Shipping, cell phones, and Internet service

Other minor annoyances: you will pay dearly for shipping to Hawaii from Mainland websites. (In some cases the shipping is higher than the item’s price.) More than 50 years after Hawaii statehood, I still encounter eBay sellers and “customer service” reps who tell me that they “won’t ship outside the United States”. You may also find that Internet bandwidth and cell phone services lag the progress of some third-world countries. It’s not the fault of the government or the providers. It’s the engineering challenge of stringing fiber across 2500 miles of open ocean and then having to cover every ridge & valley on the island with cell-phone towers. We have 4G service on some areas of Oahu, but I get excited when my DSL speed test is over 2 MBPS.


I don’t know if you’re raising kids, but I get the education question several times a year. Hawaii’s public school system has an undeservedly bad reputation compared to Mainland schools. This reputation does not reflect the island’s multicultural and multilingual challenges of teaching youngsters how to read & write English (let alone pidgin). Our daughter did just fine in the local public schools (with plenty of Advanced Placement classes) and got into a top-ten engineering college. (USNA was her “safety” school.) Setting aside all of the media attention and political manipulation, I think the biggest factor in the school system is the parents. Your kids will acquire your values & priorities (and your study habits). When our daughter got to her Mainland college, she immediately noticed that her new classmates are keenly focused on academic achievement and perhaps less on work-life balance. I don’t care about getting into Harvard, and I’d rather attend a high school with competitive teams in canoe paddling & surfing.


How hard could it be to lay a strip of asphalt on the ground where it never freezes?!?

Hawaii highways and streets are consistently ranked among the nation’s worst. Subsidence and potholes are particularly bad because the groundwater table is so high. In areas with frequent rain (like Hilo’s afternoon downpours) the water soaks into the road surface and causes the roadbed to move. Before long a pocket forms, the asphalt collapses, and potholes grow like tropical flowers. Winter downpours and hurricanes lead to flash floods which can take entire lanes or even bridges. The state is still seeking the magic mix of substrate (mostly concrete) and asphalt, but even those substances can be in short supply when they have to be shipped 2500 miles or recycled out of the existing road.

The Hilo area has relatively good roads, but the further you get from the population centers then the more likely you are to be driving on two-lane strips laid around agricultural plots. People (especially local residents) speed and occasionally wander over the center line. Accidents are surprisingly common. A few people who move here from the Mainland complain about not being able to drive for miles in a straight line at 80 MPH. Bumper stickers are common: “Drive with aloha.” “Slow down. This ain’t the Mainland.

Having said that, Hawaii has the world’s most polite drivers. I hardly ever see anyone cutting each other off. Vehicles neatly take turns when two lanes merge into one. It’s considered extremely rude to use your horn, unless you recognize a fellow driver and you’re giving a “howzit honk”.

Family matters

Here’s my anecdotal list of the major reasons people move back to the Mainland just a decade or two after moving here. I love Hawaii life, and I’m a globe-trotting submariner accustomed to the ocean and small spaces, so my perceptions may be biased:

  • “Rock fever” of living in a geographically constrained area.
  • Other than Honolulu/Waikiki, much of the state is small-town lifestyle.
  • Honolulu is a small city. Los Angeles and San Francisco are the nearest big cities.
  • Difficulty adjusting to a multicultural lifestyle, very different from your hometown.
  • Lack of affordable housing for parents’ adult children.
  • Young adults build their careers on the Mainland.
  • Grandkids are on the Mainland.
  • Aging elders and other relatives are on the Mainland.
  • Mainland friends only visit a few times a decade.
  • Flying to the Mainland 4-5 times a year gets old real fast.

Experiential real estate research

The best advice I can suggest would be to move to the Big Island for about three months– preferably the summer and fall, with August-October being particularly “hot & miserable” by local standards. Find a vacation rental in your desired location through AirBnB or VRBO and see how you like the traffic and the amenities. Although big-box stores have been in the islands for over 20 years, you still may be dismayed by the commuting distance to a large food retailer like Costco, or a large home-improvement store.

You’ll want to check local realtor’s websites and subscribe to their newsletters. However, I’d be cautious about contacting local real estate agents until you’re actually on the island.

Plenty of my friends & neighbors are realtors, and they’re great people, but their experience has taught them to be aggressive with inquiries from the Mainland. The typical Mainland buyer is either rich not price sensitive or else they’re strapped for cash and unlikely to generate a big commission. The first will buy relatively quickly (with less realtor effort) while the second will buy very slowly (with considerable realtor effort, bordering on minimum-wage earnings).

In both cases, the realtors have learned to create an artificial sense of urgency and to push hard to close a sale as quickly as possible. To avoid disappointment on both sides of the relationship, don’t contact a realtor until you’re on the island. You know your way around and have an idea of where you’d like to live, so you don’t need a realtor yet. When you get here and settle in, start visiting Sunday-afternoon open houses and do your own research. The more knowledgeable you are before you contact a realtor, the better both of you will do.

Keep an eye on what the real estate listings don’t say. Of course, there are plenty of modern neighborhoods with sewers, electricity, and water systems, but you’ll pay a higher price. A few “affordable” bargains might be totally off the grid: photovoltaic panels for electricity, septic systems for sewage (in a volcanic lava field?!?), and catchment tanks for drinking water. People can adjust to these lifestyles and do just fine, but they can be an unpleasant surprise if you don’t realize what you’re getting into.

2200 words later, you might be reconsidering the idyllic Hawaii lifestyle. (Of course, if you’re a surfer then this is just a list of minor quibbles.) However, over 1.3 million people live here in multicultural harmony, and you’ll find your niche. You’ll definitely change your lifestyle, and Hawaii will change your attitude. (I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, and now when I travel I feel more at home in Asian countries than I do in Texas or California.) I hope this post helps you avoid unpleasant surprises, and that you’re ready to give the experiment a few months!

19 April note:

As a blogger, I share an affiliate relationship with USAA that’s raised a good sum of money for military charities.  I’ve also been a USAA customer for over 30 years, along with all of the ups & downs implied by such a lengthy relationship.  It’s saved our Ohana Nords thousands of dollars, especially for our teen driver.  My comments on USAA above are factual and based on my personal experience.  They’re mentioned as an example of a lava-zone property insurance challenge which is so scary that even USAA hesitates to try to insure it.

But maybe I spoke too soon and put words into their actuary’s mouths.  Here’s USAA’s view of the prospect:

“Matching price to risk is an essential element of helping protect our membership and maintaining our ability to pay covered losses. USAA offers property insurance on a limited basis in Hawaii and other areas with high exposure to hurricanes and perils including lava flow.

One solution offered to members is specialized insurance for these areas through alliances with a variety of insurance companies through The USAA Insurance Agency.  This approach helps balance the association’s financial well-being with our mission to facilitate the financial security of our members and their families.

USAA is currently issuing new Homeowners policies in Hawaii and we would encourage members to contact USAA for a quote.”

Our homeowner’s policy is up for renewal, and I’ll be sending them a copy for their quote!  

Related articles:
10 good reasons not to move to the islands
Military retirement in Hawaii
Hawaii long-term travel tips
Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing
Lifestyles in military retirement: surfing photos

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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