This page describes our experiences renting in Hilo, Hawaii. An important part of renting (or buying for that matter) is picking the neighborhood which fits your needs and lifestyle. In the Hilo area, like most places, the neighborhoods vary greatly.
In November 2007, we moved to Hilo without a rental lined up and without knowing anyone in town. We used newspaper classifieds, realtors, vacation rental organizations, and property managers to help us find a rental house that met our needs and desires. Our search was successful and we moved into a wonderful 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house in University Heights with an awesome view of Hilo Bay.
Here is what we found along the way and some resources to help others find an affordable place to live in Hilo.
The Strange Process of Renting in Hawaii
Realtors and Property Managers are a big business in rental leasing and management in Hawaii. They are prominent because of a law in Hawaii that requires rentals have a Hawaii resident as a legal contact for the property. Any mainland owner that has a house or condo rental must have someone in Hawaii "represent" their property. In most cases they pick a realtor or property manager who is paid to manage the rental.
Most property managers require that you fill out a long application form and charge you for processing the application before even speaking with you. They often won’t talk to you on the phone, but instead require that you bring the application to their office or mail it. The application requires multiple personal references, job information with contacts for verification, bank account numbers and every place you have lived for the past 5-10 years.
Then you wait. While they are "processing" the application, they won't show you any of their advertised properties even to let you determine if you are interested. We learned that their processing consists of calling every reference, bank and previous rental listed on the application and waiting for a call back. While you wait, assuming you have the patience (which we didn't), the property may be rented to someone else.
If you want to apply to several property managers to maximize your rental options, your personal information is spread around the town and your references badgered numerous times. Rentals are advertised in the local papers and on web sites (usually without explicit addresses). Though they sometimes show pictures of the property, they rarely show the inside of the rental.
Some lucky folks have gotten better reception from property managers in advance of their arrival. Some have even signed a lease sight unseen. In Hawaii, with the "diversity" of home upkeep, we would not recommend signing a lease for a rental that you haven't personally inspected. If you decide to take the property manager route to find a rental, submit your application in the mail a month or so before you arrive to save yourself the frustration of waiting for them to call all your references.
We found vacation rental businesses much easier to deal with. They accept phone calls or email and though they specialize in short term rentals, they often represent long term rentals as well. Their web sites usually have pictures of the rental including every room inside. When we called, they gave us the address so we could drive by and were willing to set up a meeting immediately with us to show the property. And they have no application or approval process; their requirements are a security and cleaning deposit and a credit card number.
The best alternative for renting is to deal with rental home owners that live in Hawaii and have local contact numbers. Rental owners are motivated to rent their property and know everything about it. There is no lengthy acceptance process or middle man to slow the process. Local owners are often picky about their renters and may be put off by folks different than themselves. We were lucky to find our rental from a local businessman. When we had issues or questions, we could easily get in touch with him and did not have to deal with a company.
How we picked our neighborhood in Hilo
Hilo has a lot of variety in neighborhoods, each one very different with benefits and disadvantages. It is important to know in advance what key things you want in a neighborhood and what you are willing to deal with.
Our requirements were to be close to shopping, airport, and downtown. That narrowed down our search to the area of Hilo town as shown in this Hilo town map. This map shows the tsunami evacuation areas and one of our requirements was to be above the low lying flood areas. The part of Hilo town near the airport, as shown in this Hilo airport area map, is mostly in the evacuation area. We focused on neighborhoods directly above Hilo town which we surveyed for noise, dogs, traffic, coqui frogs, views, and access to town.
Areas further out of town in Puna were ruled out by us after experiencing how long the drive took to Hilo. There are other issues in Puna regarding road conditions, water service, insurability, flooding, lava hazard, etc. Even if you are focused on Hilo like we were, we recommend learning about Puna and its residential areas: Kea'au, Hawaiian Paradise Park (HPP), Orchidland, Ainaloa, Tiki Gardens, Hawaiian Acres, Fern Acres, Pahoa, Hawaiian Beaches, and others. We were amazed at the number of people living there and the growing number of businesses there. Puna District encompasses 320,000 acres, almost as big as the island of Oahu, and is the fastest growing area (in terms of population and land area) in Hawaii. Puna's population and business growth is changing the town of Hilo, the use of services, traffic, retail, and business opportunities.
If you want to learn more about renting on Hawaii Island, our book, YOUR IDEAL HAWAII MOVE: A Guide for Moving to Hawaii Island, covers that topic and well as many other things to know if you are considering moving to Hawaii Island.
If you want to learn more about Hawaii's residential choices and what we learned about the dramatic differences in climate and rainfall from neighborhood to neighborhood, the bugs you have to deal with, and the trials of lawn maintenance, you might want to read our book YOUR IDEAL HAWAII HOME: Avoid Disaster when buying or building in Hawaii.
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Apartment and Condo rentals in Hilo
In Hilo you can rent a place close enough to work, school and shopping so that you don't need a car. Walking and biking around town is a great way to save on living expenses. Hilo has some big hills, so consider that when picking a place to live without a car.
This UH link has some suggestions for rentals and individual listings for rooms, houses and apartments. Many are eager for students and within walking distance of the University of Hawaii campus and Astronomy centers.
We drove around Hilo to photograph some of the apartment complexes in town. We don't know what they look like inside, but the pictures help to get an idea of what to expect. Most of the apartments do not have air conditioning because electricity is so expensive. Fans will be needed in summer or whenever the trade winds stop. If you don't mind stairs, it is usually cooler on the higher floors. When selecting a unit, house or room, make sure that the windows open, that there are windows on at least two sides to get air flow and that there is nothing right outside the window that interferes with air flow like a huge hedge or wall. Without air flow, the heat and humidity in Hilo turns a room into a hot, moldy oven.
University Palms is on Kapiolani Street, right across from the UH. They have a web page.
Hale Hoaloha Apartments is a large complex down the street from UHH on the corner of Lanikaula Street and Ululani Street. Ululani street is a dead end. They have play areas for kids.
Along Lanikaula Street the apartment has a bus stop.
Along Ululani Street the apartment has a fenced grass area.
In the back is parking and another play area.
Hilo Hale Ohana Apartments is also down Lanikaula Street from UHH on Ululani Street (across from the Hale Hoaloha Apartments above). It looks like a motel with two stories of rooms facing the street.
Hale Kawili is above UHH on Kawili street and is Adult Student housing administered by the University.
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Options for Low cost living in or near Hilo
Hilo has alternative living options that make it affordable to consider visiting for long periods of time.
Hilo Bay Hostel in downtown Hilo offers dorm rooms and private rooms for low rates. The hostel has a kitchen where you can prepare your own food and internet access.
There are community and organic farms and retreats near Hilo, like La'akea Community, that offer opportunities for internships and work exchanges and free or low cost housing and food. Here are some examples:
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