Open Reply to Bill

Bill just wrote to me:

My wife and I have been envious of your ability to make the transition from mainlander to islander. […] But we have to ask, how were you able to do it?! We have looked from afar at the property listings and they are outrageous even for modest properties. And yes, we’ve read that the islanders are just fine with that as more people would like to have that dream existence.

But anyway, just wanted to say hello and thanks for your blog postings. Its very interesting reading and great to see the vivid pictures. […]

I’ve been asked similar questions before, and I think my answer will interest other readers, so I hope you don’t mind if I answer publically.

Hi Bill,

Thanks for reading A Kaua‘i Blog, glad you like it.

There are at least three transitions to make if and when you move here: financial, social, and psychological. Many people leave again in less than two years if they can’t successfully make all three. There is a book called “So You Want to Live in Hawaii” that you should read if you’re considering moving here. It doesn’t encourage or discourage you to move, it just helps you be clear about the realities and your own motivations.

The financial transition is the most obvious, you need to be independently wealthy, have a job lined up ahead of time, or enough savings to last until you find a job. Personally, I took a sabbatical from a computer job to move here and begin the adventure hiking business, and my wife quit her job to make and sell crafts here. We are frugal people and we made the move with our savings. However, we found we didn’t want to live in a shack and we could not afford rent for a decent house with our start-up ideas.

Fortunately, I was able to go back to my California job through tele-commuting and stay on the island. That allowed us to buy a house, barely. I still do guided hikes, but it just can’t pay the mortgage in a place like this. Like my hiking business, I think there is a market for successful entrepreneurs on Kauai, but not much funding. You either need a background in business so you can do a real business plan and get a loan, or scale back your living needs drastically to whatever you can make from your cottage industry.

Any decent (but still small) living space for a couple is at least $1000 per month, mortgage on a small house is around $3000 monthly. The cost of living is roughly the same as the San Francisco Bay Area, just without all the job opportunities. In my estimate, you would need at least one professional salary (architect, engineer, nursing, etc.), or two skilled jobs (contsruction, trade, teaching, government, etc.) for a couple or small family to be comfortable. Long-time residents and local families who own their house can live on two or more service jobs (sales clerk, cleaning, tour guide, entertainer, etc.) because their mortgages are much much lower. For everyone else, the overlap between available salaries and obtainable mortgages or affordable rents on this island is very small.

For career-minded manager-types, the only real opportunities are with the international luxury resort franchises on the island, but they do exist. The good news is that nurses can always find work here, skilled jobs are available for those with experience, and service jobs abound at $10/hr. So people willing to work can usually get started here, long enough to see if they can make the other transitions. The bad news is, the weather is often perfect, the beaches are beautiful, the locals are taking it easy, and you won’t have time to enjoy it. When you move here expecting every day to be a vacation and instead you have to work more than you did on the mainland, you will feel how hard the financial transition can be.

Real-estate is a thorny issue here. Many realtors are just flipping homes to investors, which prices out the locals, and sometimes literally drives them out of their affordable rental. Locals have no mobility because they’re selling older homes and can’t afford the new ones, unless they leave for the mainland. There is also resentment against developers who are taking the green agriculture land that gives Kauai much of its character and turning it into investment/vacation housing. You can guess what happens when there is more housing than open land: no more character and charm.

The social and psychological transitions are harder to see and plan for. If you have a large circle of friends and live close to family, you may find you won’t stand the move. But that may be true even if you move somewhere else on the mainland. Locals and earlier transplants avoid the fresh-off-the-boat mainlanders because so many of them leave even if you take the time to cultivate a new friendship. We’ve had that happen to us. We’ve tried being open to the local culture, both the Hawaiian heritage and the current rural character, and we’ve found people to be friendly, but there is still a limited number of like-minded people on the island who share our professional and recreational interests.

And finally, island fever is real. Activities are more monotonous, and potentials are more limited here than on the mainland, especially if you come from a city. We love the outdoors and are still finding things to discover, but we also miss skiing—fortunately that can be fixed with a winter vacation to California. No such thing as a road-trip in Hawaii, if you’re used to a change of scenery every now and then. Again, it is a question of openness. Kauai has a lot to offer if you’re not busy complaining about how it’s not like the mainland.

And once you feel you’re established here, you may still feel like you’re not treated as a local. It takes much more time for those who were raised here to see you as one of them. You need to get connected to the social fabric and think of the island as home, not someplace you can leave if things go bad. And don’t try to speak pidgin until it feels natural to you. Our friend Gabriela, who has lived here for 30 years, built two houses, ran a B&B, and wrote a book about it, says it took at least 20 years to be accepted into the local community.

To be honest, we feel well established here after 2.5 years, but we can tell that none of our transitions are complete. Buying a house and raising a child on a single income from a remote job makes us financially vulnerable, we’ve met lots of people but have really established only a few friendships, and we do get homesick for the high Sierra or the Alps. So be prepared, but don’t be afraid to make the move. And once you get here, slow down, be open to the local culture, the local activities, and the opportunities that are here. And give it some time.


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  1. Waldo says:


    This is a fantastic and highly informative post…I just linked to it
    at the message board:

    specifically under the topic thread “Moving to Hawaii” and then the topic “Jtucker”. Here’s the specific URL:



  2. Hey,
    I love what you’e doing!
    Don’t ever change and best of luck.

    Raymon W.

  3. Matt says:


    Thanks for all your posts. As an avid backpacker and someone who fell in love with Kauai immediately on the first of three trips there, I appreciate your unique perspective on the island. I would love to get your thoughts on renting out a property in Kauai. We are looking at buying a home there and renting it out. Did you explore renting out your house as a vacation rental vs. a long-term rental? Curious as to how the two scenarios compare on Kauai, and how you have found managing your property remotely. And do you have any recommendations for good realtors on the island? Thanks for all that you have shared about your experience to date. I hope that life brings you back to Kauai again soon.

  4. Andy says:

    Hi Matt,

    Quick answer: I really do not recommend being an absentee landlord, it’s more expensive and more hassle. Real-estate prices are down on Kaua’i, but not that much, and with care-taking and other expenses, you can’t cover the mortgage. As for vacation rentals, there are now strict laws about where they can operate (zoning), and you can bet that properties in the vacation rental zone go for a premium. That all applies to houses because I don’t know much about condos. It might be possible to get a condo in a good development, put it into a management pool and have few hassles, but I really don’t think any property is going to generate money (unless you can put far more than 20% down).

    This is a great topic, and I’ll try to write more on it soon.

  5. Matt says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on buying and renting out a house in Kauai. Our plan is to put 20%+ down on a less expensive (by Kauai standards – $400K-$500K) house that we would plan to move into some day. We would plan on having to cover the majority of the mortgage ourselves but thought we could get maybe 50% covered by rent considering what acquaintances on the island have told us they pay in rent then under-cutting that by a bit. Although we thought about the vacation rental idea, it seems tricky unless you buy a condo in a large, managed resort. And I don’t think we would want to live in a place like that. We’ve always rented cottages in places like Kilauea, Kalaheo, and Hanalei when we have gone to Kauai. Your earlier posts on the good and bad of the different towns have been helpful in sorting out where we might want to live. For example, while we very much love the west shore towns, seeing an enormous “My ancestors killed Captain Cook” decal across the window of a truck at Salt Pond beach was a good reminder that some neighborhoods could be tougher for outsider haoles to break into. If we make the move work, we would really want to get involved in our neighborhood and life on the island rather than living a cloistered Princeville existence.

    Your posts have definitely helped us look at the prospects objectively, so any additional thoughts you have would be appreciated.

    Unrelated comment – on our last trip in January we hiked Pihea to the Alaka’i Swamp to the lookout on a perfectly clear day. Not a single cloud over the island. The views were unbelievable – we felt lucky to be there on a day like that.

    Thanks again!

  6. HKJ says:

    Hi! My husband just signed a contract, we will be moving to Kauai in July 2011. We are extremely excited and trying our best to prepare for the big move. We have read “So you want to live in Hawaii” and before signing a contract discussed every detail of that book! We have moved around several times over the past ten years and would like to put down roots somewhere. Our intentions are to move to Kauai long term/permanently. I am an advocate of public schools and would really like to make that option work. I have 3 children: 9, 7 & 4. We have researched the schools the best we can from our home in PA. It seems Koloa Elementary ranks quite well in comparison to other public elementary schools on the island. We have decided to look for a home in the Omao/Lawai/Koloa area. My husband will be working in Lihue. What are your thoughts on this school as well as life in this area of the island? We would love a neighborhood with lots of children/families. We are outdoor people (mountain biking, hiking, swimming) and have been dreaming of a slower pace of life for the past few years. We are family oriented and love diversity and adventure. Any thoughts to help with our preparation and transition would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!! PS are you still in Kauai?

  7. Andy says:

    Hi Hilary, sorry I didn’t see your comment sooner. I’ve been off and on Kaua’i the past couple years. My family and I had to move back to the mainland for work, but we went back several times a year. Despite all the opportunities in California, we found our roots were strong on Kaua’i so we’re moving back to Kaua’i this year.

    It sounds like you have a great opportunity on Kaua’i, though I understand a move can be stressful with kids. My main advice would be consider your first year as an experiment. Rent in your chosen area, explore the island, meet people, sample the culture, and get a feel for island life. Then you’ll know if you can put down roots, decide what part of the island suits you, and eventually buy a house if that’s your goal.

    If you’re looking to own a house, you’re fortunate in that prices have dropped significantly since I wrote this article. Good homes have come down 10%-20%, and the bubble has burst for less desirable homes, sometimes as much as 50%.

    Koloa is supposed to be a good elementary school. For middle school, I think the kids go to Puhi, on the west side of Lihue. Koloa is a nice area, though I’m not familiar enough with it to know which neighborhoods have more families. Koloa is closer to the ocean and beaches, though Poipu is more of a resort area with few residents and lots of rental condos and hotels. Omao and Lawai are a bit closer to the mountain and wetter. The housing in these areas tends to be strung along country roads, as opposed to little neighborhoods. Still you can probably find options on a quiet side street–though playgrounds and parks are few and far between.

    If you’re willing to look a bit further, Kalaheo seems like a nicer area, at least in my mind. It has little neighborhoods on either side of the main road and less visitor traffic. The town is on a a hill, so you tend to get better views and a bit better weather. But it is further from the beaches and I haven’t heard about the school there.

    I have heard good things about Kilauea and Hanalei schools. Kilauea is a great community that probably has much of what you’re looking for, but a much longer drive from Lihue, with Kapaa traffic. Hanalei is even further, pricier, and smaller, with visitors making up a majority of the activity in town. Of course, schools and parents’ opinion of them is highly dependent on the teachers, and those can change, along with many other factors.

    Realistically, I have no recent information about the local schools. For a variety of reasons, we are looking at the private Island School for our daughter who is starting kindergarten.

  8. HKJ says:

    Andy, thank you so much for your reply! You gave us some things to think about. Kalaheo seems like a wonderful town, may be the best fit for us. My only concern is the distance to Lihue, as I’m sure we will end up driving in almost daily between sports/lessons/work. If we live near the highway in Kalaheo, what is your estimate on commute time/traffic? I wish we could live closer to town. We would like a little land, but we didn’t see much available in Lihue when we were there. We plan on renting the first year, I agree we need to make sure it is a good fit for us before we put roots down. Good luck with your move back to the island and keep up the blog (I’m sure I will have more questions)! -Hilary

  9. Matt says:

    Hi Andy – after 7 years of talking about moving to Kauai, we are moving to Kauai at the beginning of July. Your comments on this blog were a big help in thinking about the move, its impacts on our young kids, and the the realities of life on the island. Despite the challenges, we’re excited to make the move. As I know you love to hike, I’m curious as to whether you have found any good groups to get involved with (trail maintenance volunteers, hiking groups, etc.) We’ve spent a lot of time hiking all over the island and I’m thinking it might be a good way to get involved and to give back. The Sierra Club is the only group I’ve come across so far. And if you know of any good resources for local gardeners (e.g., a master gardener’s group) to help newcomers get up to speed on what grows well, pests, etc. I would appreciate any info that you have found helpful. Thanks again for this blog and all you put into it over the years. I hope you and your family are well and still enjoying life on Kauai.

  10. Andy says:

    Hi Matt, thank you, and yes, we are still enjoying living and hiking (and swimming, and exploring, and kayaking, and …) here on Kauai.

    The Sierra Club is indeed one way to get involved on the trails. They do weekly hikes (well, some are beach cleanups, and others are native plant restoration, but it’s all related), and you can either go as a participant or graduate to be an activity leader. If you really want to get involved, you can become an activist with them and help them fight development and other things. I recently helped them map a shoreline to make sure a new development respects the public beach and legal setbacks. The Sierra Club also has week-long “service trips” on several of the Hawaiian islands, sometimes on Kauai, where they spend a week of volunteer work in exchange for staying in a cabin and a few free days in an interesting place. Hui o Laka is the group that are friends of the Koke’e forest, and they organize a few activities per year. There are also some other organizations such as Nature Conservancy and Hawaiian Island Land Trust that have conservation programs. These aren’t hikes so much as caring for land, so they have less opportunities, and you need to get to know people first. But if you’re committed, you can definitely get in the field and make a difference.

    Personally, I think there is a need for a trail maintenance club, like what the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain club does on Oahu. Something like a club that owns some equipment and tools and plans to clear brush along a trail once a month. If I had more time, I’d love to start something like that–and I’d join if someone else started it.

    There are many other hiking groups, mostly informal. has a few Kauai activity groups, and in general, you can find like-minded people on facebook to start your own bunch of friends who like hiking. Canoe clubs (usually 6-person outrigger canoes) are a good way to meet people and try a new sport–and they usually do other things together.

    For gardening, the community college had several courses in tropical agriculture. They are geared toward working adults, taking place on Saturdays and introducing you to the various gardeners around the island. Common Ground in Kilauea was a part of the program, and it is a great resource on it’s own. There are also local branches of the ag extensions that are helpful, and there is also a farm bureau if you’re going larger. I can tell you that gardening here is not easy, everything wants to eat your plants too. My wife is the gardener in our family, and I see her struggle with growing things in our garden. The latest pests she’s dealt with are pickle worms that have eaten all the cucumber and squash buds.

    Kauai is small, but usually if you ask around and chat with people, you can find people willing to help or a group to join.

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