Saturday, May 14, 2016

Hawaii House Hunting

When it comes to health and wellness, I'll just go ahead and say our family is "not winning" right now. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Spring of 2016 may go down as our sickest ever.

2 days later ...

I'm not even kidding, right after placing the period on that second sentence, two members of my family started throwing up ... simultaneously. Two more have followed since. As usual, I'm the only one left standing. I guess we've moved past sinus and ear infections and right into the stomach flu. Yay.

Save all the rugs!!
So many tubbies! So much laundry! This month's water bill is going to be bananas!
And yet, despite our two-month bout with ill health, we've still managed to accomplish some things. Namely, secure housing in Hawaii. Now that is a huge relief!

It's also a source of anxiety. We decided to go ahead and sign a lease on a house without seeing it in person. Before you freak, we did have friends go look at the house for us and they confirmed that it was indeed not a scam. A few years ago (heck, even a few months ago) I would have never imagined agreeing to live in a home that I hadn't seen first. Houses, nay homes, are kinda a big deal to me. I didn't subscribe to The Real Estate Journal as an 8 year-old for nothin'! 

But it's so much more than great bones, old world charm, pride of ownership, and all those other phrases the real estate agents use. It's the sounds and smells, it's the way you feel when you walk in the front door, it's how the light comes in the windows and bounces off the walls. It's also neighbors and neighborhoods and schools and commute times.

So just what were we thinking??

Well, the Hawaii rental market moves pretty fast, at least for the good stuff. And some of the really good stuff (and by good, I mean good value, not beachfront mansion material) doesn't even get listed. You just have to know someone that knows someone. And finally, most of the housing listed online is available to rent in the next 2-4 weeks. So we could have waited until we arrived in late-June to start looking for a house to rent in August, but we would have had no idea what we we're "getting into" when our stuff got packed up here on the mainland.

The first thing to go was "The Jolly Roger" aka the boys' giant bunk bed. Hurrah, "sleepovers" every night!

I don't feel bad about eating at Chick-Fil-A, because we're about to embark on a 4-year-long CFA fast. But you may eat there a little too often when your 2YO starts responding to your requests with "my pleasure." As in "Joci, pick up your shoes." "My pleasure, mom!"

He elected to study up on Hawaii first-grade sight words during his sick day at home--and rocked it!!
So while I don't know what kind of mountain views the new place has, or if you can hear the birds singing from the back patio, or how long it'll take me to drive to the beach or the grocery store ... we do have a rough idea of the size of the rooms and we know we'll have to leave some big furniture items behind. And some smaller but still important items--like the dog.

It's kind of like trading one stress for the other. I would have loved to do a regular "House Hunting" kind of post and narrowed it down to three houses and had you all on the edge of your seats wondering "WHICH ONE DID THEY CHOOSE!?!" but I guess we'll have to wait until the next transfer season for that.

I made the mistake of asking Jon how far apart Japan and Hawaii are. His response included maps and then wound up in a geographic lesson for the kids.
As a consolation for this anti-climatic announcement, I'd like to share with you some screenshots from my own experience hunting for a house from 5,000 miles away. I think perhaps you'll crack a smile or two. Because if there's anything I've learned in this experience, Hawaii is FUNNY!

That's a "water feature"--in the house! Do you ever feel like your kids are asking for a drink every time you sit down?  Now you can just send them to stick their head under the fountain!
Just like any house hunting experience, you quickly learn to lower your standards. You guys, I'm a country girl at heart. My dream is a century-old farmhouse on a couple of acres with lots of trees and a pond, some wood floors, a wide porch with a swing, lots of charm in every nook and cranny, and a screen door that screeches and bangs.

Hawaii living is all about being outside ... or bringing the outdoors in.  Do you know how many Lego minifigures would be lost in that "jungle" if we lived here. 

Speaking of "bringing the outdoors in," I can't even find the bed. 
This. I don't even know what this is. But I do spot a brick floor and a charming door!
I completely forgot about accordion doors until I saw this picture. It reminds me of the Sunday School rooms in my grandparents' church basement.
I knew from the start we wouldn't even come close to that in Hawaii. But that's okay. We only have 4 year orders. And while those are the longest orders we've ever had, it's certainly not "forever home" status. But I just didn't realize how far from my "ideal home" we'd have to deviate. You guys, it's not even about not getting some of the things on your list. It's about not getting some of the things that you never even thought to put on a list. Insulation (sidenote: we had to fork out big bucks after our home inspection because one area of our current house wasn't insulated "to code." Nobody care about that in paradise!), central air, basement and/or attic, garage, a coat closet, dishwasher. These things just aren't the norm in paradise. 

When I first saw this photo I was all concerned because their steak was getting cold. Then I realized those weren't steaks, but carefully folded napkins. You know, just like we do for our dinners. But this photo isn't about the steak-napkins, it's about the giant hole in the cabinets WHERE A DISHWASHER IS NOT.

Do my eyes deceive me, or is this tub more like a giant sink?
I was shocked, SHOCKED, to see how many houses in Hawaii have white carpet. 4 kids (8 sandy feet) ... no, just no. And even more so after a week of stomach flu and 4 kids who never ONCE made into the bucket I so lovingly provided for them.

Do you like green? DO YOU REALLY LIKE GREEN?

There's nothing exciting about this picture. Which is just the point--there IS no point to this picture except to show that your house has a corner, a window, and a dirty sliding glass door. You know the rental market is hot when this is considered "marketing."
Here's another glance at Hawaii real estate marketing. I'm glad they added that description because I had no idea this was an office/play room.

I'm learning that many things are different there because it's just a different lifestyle. And I think that's a good thing. And I think it's going to be such a good thing for our family, who have maybe grown accustomed to our own little version of the American Dream these past 5 years.

Don't you hate it when you sit down to eat and the laundry buzzer goes off? Not a problem in this house! You can just turn right around in your seat and switch out the load before your food even gets cold!

Joanna Gaines is all about decorating with different textures. But this--I wouldn't even know how to handle it. I'm sure one child would have a splinter within the first 5 minutes of living there.
It drives me crazy when the kids and dog get underfoot while I'm in the kitchen. My children especially like to run laps while I'm making dinner over a hot stove. I feel like that would not be a problem in this house because clearly, ONE PERSON IN THE KITCHEN AT A TIME! How do you even open the oven?

Outdoor laundry facilities is another thing in Hawaii.  Just be careful you don't drop any underwear on the way out!

This is not a doctor's office waiting room, this is an actual living room with some very uncomfortable looking couches.

How's about that dark, dark paneling. I just want to hold a meeting for all the Hawaii landlords and explain to them the benefit of a can of white paint. For mere pennies you can invest in a lifetime of natural light and brightness.

Because no one wants to live in a cave in paradise. Or maybe they do. Maybe people get so tired of all that sunshine that they prefer to cook dinner in a deep, dark abyss.

There are some really great example of Japanese architecture on the island--like this house. Although I feel like my handmade farm table might be a little out of place in this dining room... 

This was one of my favorite houses--one of those rare ones on a nearly 1 acre lot, big 'ole house in a neighborhood of mansions, not close to the beach but in a great school district near the city and Jon's work... so I've studied photos of this kitchen very carefully. Because it's just all so confusing! Behind that pantry thing, which is next to the fridge, is another pantry/closet. Do you call this a C-shape? An E?? But ya know what, I'd take this vintage kitchen over a 1980s job any day. Unfortunately, this house was available in May and the soonest we wanted to sign a lease was June--so no dice.
Last but not least, the lanais and tiki bars. This was our very favorite house--can't you just picture us doing homework and crafts at this bar? It was on the market for a while because it was originally available earlier in the year and then the owner had a change of plans. I know, because we inquired twice. It was one of the best-looking houses we saw--with a fantastic yard, fruit and coffee trees, and a good school. The only negative was it was a little out of the way and Jon would have had a longer commute. Our friends took a tour of it for us and the next day we offered to sign a lease a whole month early just to lock it in. Sadly, they decided to go with someone that was already on-island. I keep telling myself it wasn't meant to be but, man, I've got serious non-buyer's remorse.
The other day I was driving down the main road in our town, which is the same road that goes right by the Birth Center where the girls were born so--major memories. And it was spring and spring is just beautiful here in Maryland. And I was thinking about our house and our yard and the beautiful azaleas and the birds singing in the trees and how wonderful it's been for my kids to grow up in that home and neighborhood. In short, I was having A MOMENT. It's been happening a lot lately. A moment where I just don't know if I can go through with this.

Just coming into bloom ... meanwhile I'm nursing a serious case of allergies + sinus infection on the deck.

Maryland = azaleas. 
I know, it's Hawaii. It's paradise. Who wouldn't want to move there? But it doesn't matter where it is. The hard fact is we're moving away from a home that's physically comfortable, emotionally happy, and financially sound.  So my thoughts are moving down this rabbit trail of remorse and I immediately feel the Lord halt me in my tracks and ask "Are you making your home an idol?"

I know I've mentioned this before, but I have to keep reminding myself--I want my comfort, my joy, my peace to be found in an eternal, unchanging God, not in some house. And when you put it like that, wood floors and built-ins are no longer on the table. It's a little easier to narrow down the wish list.

And it's also a little easier to trust God and sign a lease sight unseen. I'm not saying it's for everyone. In fact, in some situations, I'm sure it'd be a very stupid thing to do. But Jon and I have prayed and prayed and feel such peace about this rental opportunity that (hands in the air surrender-style) I'm sure it's the right decision.

Julia tells EVERYONE she meets we're moving to Hawaii. And then she tells them "I al-rea'y know 'ow to hula dance." 

So this is what it came down to:

Location - Just about everyone we talked to recommended we live on the Windward side of the island. It's cooler and wetter (so Central AC isn't necessary) and the commute to downtown Honolulu will be better for Jon. It's also much more expensive. It's really depressing to see the difference between what you can get on the west coast vs. what you can get on the east coast. But it was very important to us that a.) Jon doesn't spend too much of his day sitting on the highway and b.) we get the best Hawaii experience for our buck since we're only there 4 years. 

Image source:

Schools - This was my biggest concern when we found out we were moving to the island. Hawaii schools do not have the best reputation. But I was surprised to find that there are some highly-rated schools there. For the most part, we tried to stick with areas that fed into a school rated 8/10 or higher. I'm not trying to be a snob. I grew up in a 3/10 school and many of my classmates have turned out very normal and successful. I think it can be a good experience. But our main concern was moving back to the mainland. We've heard too many stories of kids that had to repeat a grade or do summer school because they were behind after returning from Hawaii. We've also learned that housing prices are more stable and neighborhoods tend to be safer where the schools are better (but this isn't always true!)

One thing that's really bugged me about sending our kids to our current 10/10 elementary school is that they're not getting a real-world picture of our nation's population. It's very "bubble-ish, if you catch my drift. I think this will be less of an issue in Hawaii though where, as a small island, poverty and homelessness are much more "local." (Or so it seems to me from my vantage point 5000 miles away.)  One thing Jon and I have talked and prayed about are ways to give a kids a more realistic perspective during this tour, which is definitely something we'll be looking into once we arrive.

Guest room - This almost got dropped a few times, when it looked like we couldn't find anything with 4 bedrooms in our price range, but we tried to keep it at the top of the list. Our kids have no problem sharing a room. It's what they're used to and what we prefer, but we really wanted that fourth bedroom so we could host family and friends that come to visit. That said, it almost seems silly to devote an entire room to occasional use when space is at such a premium. So we've been trying to think of ways to make it multi-functional. Can you say "Murphy bed?"

Cost - this one is so obvious I almost forgot to mention it. But I will say that, unfortunately, one of the military budget cuts this past year was to Basic Housing Allowance (BAH.) It's kinda a big deal. In fact, if we were moving to the area we currently live in this summer, we would no longer be able to afford our current house, which is a crazy thought! Another frustration is that, since the change just occurred, other military members that are the same rank/pay-grade as us but were there the year before are grandfathered in, so they get the old rate. So for instance, when the guy that Jon is relieving suggested we take over his beautiful house with ocean views, we had to say definitely not. Couldn't even consider it.

You don't HAVE to rent within your BAH. In fact, the whole point of the cut was because the government thought military members should contribute more of their own income to housing. And that's fine. But we were looking at places that were $600-$700/month over our allowance. Which is a tad mind-blowing.

And that was pretty much our list. Everything else was just a bonus.

We weren't the only ones with a wish list. Check out this video tour of Jack's Lego model dream bedroom.

And at the end of the day, we got everything on our (very short) list. Our friends on the island got word that a retired Coastguardsman was renting out two houses in a great neighborhood. They looked at both for us and it came down to a house without a garage but with a pool and a (slightly smaller) house without a pool but with a garage. A pool would've been a lot of fun, but it took up most of the yard and well, I don't think it would have bode well for our little 2YO adventuress. I just would've felt like I could never relax as long as the kids were out of their beds. So we went with the smaller place. And here is the 30 second tour!

We will be near the Windward Coast (you know, where Obama vacations) in a great neighborhood where several other Coastie families live. We're close to an excellent school (we'll be walkers for the first time ever--meaning I'll have to be publicly presentable every morning now. Should be a good change.) The beach is nearby and I *think* we even have some mountain views. There's 4 bedrooms. Four small bedrooms. The good news is the girls' room is a half foot bigger than their current one, but they're the only ones getting promoted. The kitchen is actually updated. That wasn't even a priority for me but certainly a bonus! And there's a window over the sink, which is one of those things that's important to me but not to the rest of my family.

We have an actual garage (with a door that opens and shuts!). It's highly unlikely we'll park cars in here, but it's nice to know that we'll have spot to throw everything-that-doesn't-fit-in-the-house.
While it's still more than our housing allowance, we feel that we're getting a very good deal. Plus we were able to negotiate a lesser rate by offering to do the yard work ourselves. A few days after settling on this house, a similar one right down the street went on the market for $500 more. So we're feeling much more confident that we made a good choice!

This is all very interesting to me, I'm still not sure what's going on with those sliding doors ... but at least the washer and dryer are not outside!
It's really nothing special. Just 6 rooms--white walls, loads of windows, and ALL the tile floors. Except for one room--it has a brick floor. I've always loved brick floors. So I'm holding on to that one, tiny bit of "charm" and accepting the challenge of making the rest of this place feel like home. I feel like we can only go up from here!

It doesn't have much of a yard, and I don't think there are any trees (which Jon is very excited about!) But I figure we'll be trading in stick forts for sand castles and games of hide and seek for boogie boarding. Like I said, a different lifestyle.

And speaking of a different lifestyle, we'll be doing some major downsizing these next few weeks. Our new house is about 1600 square feet--much smaller than our current home. It's going to be a change with a family of 6 living in such tight quarters. I'm a little nervous about not having anywhere to "escape to" when the kids start getting wild, and storage in the house is super limited. But I'm really looking forward to streamlining and living a little more simply. We're drastically cutting down our wardrobes (which is pretty easy in the land of eternal summer), diminishing our toy stock, and really thinking twice (or three or four times) about what's important to us. Surprise, most of our stuff isn't! So if you're in the market for a sofa, just let me know!

We're down to less than 5 weeks before we fly out and we are SO READY to take this next step. I can't wait to get my hands on our Million Dollar Beach Hut and take on the challenge of making it our home!

Some practical advice: 

Now to get all logistical, in case someone is reading this for some actual practical information. If you're just here for the cute picture of kids and my snarky stories, you can skip the rest.

For house hunting, we used your old online standbys--mainly Zillow (because I'm loyal), but also Trulia and I have an account with Zillow (sidetone: how emotional are the Zillow commercials lately??) and use it to save my favorites and my favorite searches, and set up alerts when houses that fit those parameters come online. There's also Craigslist--which is a very different experience. Although there is a filtering feature, it's still hard to sort through what you want and what you don't want--simply because there is SO MUCH out there for Oahu. I usually just searched by the towns we were interested in, but you can also miss listings by doing that because some people don't use a town name or misspell it (yeah, for real). So when we were hot and heavy into house hunting I was checking Craigslist several times a day and just reading through every listing from the current time until my last log-in.

For we military folks, there is also and prefer the latter. AHRN was probably my favorite site for rental listings because most of them are for rent by military personnel. This is ideal for us because a lot of those leases start during transfer season (this summer.) Also, military home owners usually know in advance when they're house will become available and so they'll list it earlier with an advance lease date. Plus, as a military family it's just nice to rent from another military family. Finally, I'm also a member of a few military Facebook groups where people post houses. At the end of the day, we found our house through word of mouth. It was never posted anywhere. But you really learn a lot about what to look for after weeks and weeks of searching online.

When I find a house I like, I always do a Google search on the address. I also do an image search because you can sometimes find some old listing photos which might offer a different perspective. There was this one house that was on the market for a long time. It was ugly and I kept passing over it because it looked like a hot mess. But one day when inventory was low I found some old photos from the previous owner, with furniture, and you guys, it was like a completely different house! I fell in love! Unfortunately, it was available all spring and we couldn't start a lease until June. It eventually got rented out after a price drop. 

Use maps and aerial images. I always check out a neighborhood using Google maps--do a street view, take a drive up and down the neighborhood, drive by the school, etc. It gives you a good feel for an area when you can't be there in person. Also, even better than Google's satellite view is Bing Maps bird's eye view. Just a thought.

I Google owners, if the listing includes their name. A lot of places in Hawaii are rented by agencies but there are some for rent by owner, especially military personnel. You can learn a lot about potential landlords with a quick Google search, just sayin'.

I look up nearby houses in the neighborhood. We don't have the best idea of what our house looks like. We're basing all our decisions on what to keep and what to get rid of on a few pictures and that short video of an empty house. Thankfully, the landlord sent us some rough room dimensions this week, which helps a little. But it's still hard to picture what it will look like as a home. So I've checked out some for rent and for sale listings in the neighborhood (both current and old) just to see pictures of what other people have done with furnishings and decorating. It just helps to get an idea of the style.

Once we narrow in on a location, I make up a Google map and plot out grocery stores, churches, MOPS groups, parks and playgrounds, beaches, bookstores, consignment stores ... you get the idea. Just to get a feel for the area.

And for those specifically looking at Hawaii, beware of the Ohana Suite/attached housing. Soooo many houses there have mother-in-law suites or separate apartments attached. This is awesome if it's included in the rent. More than likely, it's not, and you'll be living right alongside someone else. Which might be a good deal if you're young and single or newlyweds. But for those of us with 4 kids that Jen Hatmaker would call "spicy families," attached housing is pretty much a deal breaker.

Finally, solar panels are a thing there. You've probably heard that utilities are high in Hawaii. On average, the nearly the same as what we pay here in Maryland (maybe even less.) But the difference is there's no air or heat. Solar panels can drastically reduce your utility bill. Which means you may be willing to pay more in rent for a house with solar panels ... or the reverse.

I think that about covers it. Comment with any additional suggestions or questions!
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