Sunday, May 1, 2005


Donn Arizumi is amazed by the spaciousness of the house he and his wife, Nina, are buying in Mililani. The newlyweds were completing the final walk-through with Realtor Libby Lum. "In this market you have to be open-minded," said Nina, who began house-hunting three months ago. The high prices of homes in Honolulu forced the couple to settle for the Mililani property, which was still more than they had budgeted.

Red-hot housing
prices enrich some,
burn others

While savvy, well-funded entrepreneurs
generate real-estate riches, many
struggling wage-earners and
families confront homelessness


Joshua Powell bought a run-down St. Louis Heights home for $250,000 in 2000, poured in money and sweat, and sold the renovated property in November for $940,000.

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With the profits, he traded up to a $1.2 million four-bedroom fixer-upper in upscale Kahala and plans to repeat that success.

"I'll keep doing it as long as the market lets me. This one's already worth more than when I bought it," he said.

Nearby but a world away, formerly homeless Bob Hernandez rents space in a Kaimuki transitional home while trying to put his life and family back together. But he can't stay there forever, and the earnings from his masonry work won't go far in today's high-priced rental market. He's worried that homelessness might be right around the corner again.

"I'm stressing these days. I want to be a normal functioning human being in society again, but it's just so expensive," he said. "I just pray and trust in God."

Two people, two opposing perspectives, yet neither of them uncommon in an overheated housing market that means very different things to different people.

In September 2001, when the current housing boom took off, Oahu's median single-family home price was $250,000. By March it had more than doubled to a stunning $550,000, creating unprecedented wealth for local homeowners and adding fuel to the state's economic rebound.

The percentage of households that own the home they live in -- a statistic linked to less crime, higher graduation rates and other positives -- rose to 67 percent in 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with just 50 percent 20 years earlier.

Not everyone is celebrating.

The buying boom has sucked up rental inventory and driven up rents, squeezing the most vulnerable sectors of society. Homeless agencies fear a swelling population of people on the verge of homelessness.

"There are always going to be winners and losers -- people who were ready and those who weren't. It's the nature of the game," said Paul Brewbaker, Bank of Hawaii's chief economist.

More winners and losers might yet be created. Home-buyers continue to pile into the market in the belief that the current boom still has legs, and they could be right.

Unlike the crash of the early-1990s "bubble" market, in which roughly the last 20-30 percent of home-value gains were eventually lost, few economists expect any significant softening of real estate prices soon, citing tight supply and low interest rates that make homes more affordable than prices suggest.

Plus, there are sharp differences in the economy now.

The fickle, Japanese corporate-style investment that helped to inflate -- and ultimately pop -- the 1990s bubble has been replaced by longer-term local and West Coast buyers.

In the meantime, little new housing has been added to existing supply due to the weak economy of the 1990s, an economy that is on far more solid ground today.

"The odds that we'll see (prices come back down) this time are low. There's not a lot of downside risk," Brewbaker said.

But for buyers today, that means the traditional delight at receiving the keys to a newly bought home is giving way to compromise, sacrifice and a desperation to buy whatever they can get before prices climb higher.

When newlyweds Donn and Nina Arizumi began home-hunting three months ago, they vowed never to join the commuting masses from West and Central Oahu.

"We thought, 'How could anybody put up with that?'" Nina said. "The location had to be in town. We were raised in town and always lived there."

But the high prices asked for unattractive properties gradually pushed the Arizumis to the lower-priced west. Last month, the two medical-product salespeople became the somewhat-proud owners of an aging Mililani house that represented other compromises as well.

Joshua and Dawn Powell inspected their makeshift storage area as their daughter, Sofi, 5, drew at the dining room table. The Powells plan to renovate their Kahala home and sell it.

From an early budget in the $400,000 range, they ended up paying $535,000 for the partial fixer-upper, a four-bedroom with a tidy interior but that lacks a toilet in the main bathroom, badly needs a paint job outside and is dotted with other repair needs.

"In this market you have to be open-minded," said Nina, who expects a "struggle" and some lifestyle changes to make the mortgage payments.

"We call it managing expectations," said Kendall Hirai, executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii HomeOwnership Center, which counsels buyers on the ins and outs of acquiring a home.

"These days, the single-family home in Kailua that someone wants turns out to be a condo in Pearl City or Waipahu," he said. "People are learning they have to refocus and that they may have to start off somewhere else."

Getting exactly what you want is still possible, but be prepared for heavy sacrifice.

Alyson Borgerding and her fiance, George Helwagen, never wavered from their original plan to buy in high-priced Kailua. But to get there they first spent two years scrimping and saving, virtually eliminating dining out, and cutting back on myriad other little expenses.

Last month, they bought a Kailua house for $998,000. But despite using significant equity from a previous mainland home, they still had to cash in their Individual Retirement Accounts and cancel plans for a large wedding in March as they deal with a monthly mortgage payment in excess of $5,000. They plan to elope.

"This market is so tight and hot that when you get something you want and can afford, you have to rearrange everything around that," Borgerding said.

Donn and Nina Arizumi checked out the bathroom in the master bedroom during their final walk-through. They paid $535,000 for the Mililani home.

Still, that's a problem that many people would like to have. Renters face rates today that are nearly double what they were in 1998, and dramatically less choice, said real estate analyst Ricky Cassiday, of Data@Work.

"They're the ones that are really feeling the bite. They've got higher costs these days, too, but without the benefit of building equity in a home. They're paying, but it's all still going to someone else," he said.

The high cost pressures are likely to result in increased stress levels for renters and home-buyers alike, said Sylvia Yuen, director of the Hawaii Center on the Family.

"When you're spending so much on housing, that means two to three jobs in the family, less time spent together as a family, mom and dad get more tense, angry or withdrawn, and all of that naturally affects the family environment," she said.

However, despite the vastly different worlds of those who were ready and those who were not, it's probably premature to talk about a worsening wealth-distribution problem in Hawaii, said Carl Bonham, a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii.

"We were talking about this in the late '80s, early '90s, and then the problem went away. It reversed itself," he said. "In time, prices will slow and incomes will rise."

Ultimately, however, Hawaii will be stuck with head-spinning market swings unless a stifling land-use regulatory environment is reformed, Brewbaker said.

Hawaii's peaks are higher and its valleys lower than most mainland markets because the lengthy development approval process prevents developers from adding new product to the market in time to act as a pressure valve.

"When the expectation of higher future home values takes shape, the only people to respond are buyers. The builders are all jammed up, much as they would like to increase supply. So all of that demand is funneled into higher prices," he said.


art ... Paul Udell introduces you to people living the ride of a life-time: the Hawaii housing boom. For some, it's terrific; for others, terrible. From a young Makiki couple struggling to buy their first house, to an Aina Haina family sitting on a gold mine, there is not one person we did not admire or sympathize with, laugh with, shed a tear for, or were challenged or impressed by. We've all seen the numbers; we hope you take this opportunity to meet the people behind them.


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