What You Need to Know About Buying Oceanfront Property in Hawaii

Note: This blog was originally published on July 29, 2009, updated in February 2013 and August 2016.

In honor of the successful closing by Hawaii Life clients on a very special oceanfront parcel in North Kohala, a blog post on what you need to know about buying oceanfront property in Hawaii seems appropriate. Most of this information is true on all the islands, but each has its peculiarities as does every property for sale, so be sure to check with your agent and do appropriate due diligence if you are considering oceanfront or beachfront real estate in Hawaii.

Considerations in Buying Oceanfront Property in Hawaii

Setbacks? Shoreline trail? Conservation zones? There are both state and county controls on oceanfront properties in Hawai’i. So, taking it from the top…

Much as in coastal states on the Mainland, Hawai’i is actively engaged in the conservation and restoration of coastal resources. The state also has land use maps, which classify all land into four categories (oceanfront typically being classified as “conservation.”) In addition, each County (island) has its own zoning and planning rules.

The term “Special Management Area” is one you will learn if you buy oceanfront property. All coastline is subject to a state layer of shoreline protection in addition to the County rules. Any construction in that zone (even for utilities, landscaping, or a dog run) will require a special permit and sometimes an environmental impact assessment.

On the Big Island, a larger property might have dual zoning, with a conservation strip on the makai (ocean) edge. The parcel our buyers just purchased has a 200-300′ wide section zoned conservation along the oceanfront, although the parcel has agricultural zoning. Not only is building in the conservation area prohibited, but you know those big trees obstructing your views? Hold that chainsaw until you’ve checked environmental regulations or filed for a minor SMA permit!

In fact, if you are buying in a newer oceanfront subdivision on the Big Island, the planning department will have mandated that the entire oceanfront belong to one parcel (meaning most of the “oceanfront” parcels do not truly extend to the edge). That simplifies the new owner’s understanding of their property lines. Our clients bought a parcel that was not part of a recent consolidation and resubdivision, so newer County planning policies did not apply.

Oceanfront home Puakea Bay Ranch Hawi

This oceanfront in North Kohala lost part of the cliff in the 2016 earthquake. Listed for $10,500,000 (MLS# 292652)

Shoreline Certifications, Setbacks & Existing Residential Structures

In “The Purchase Contract Made Simple: A Closer Look at Buying and Selling a Home in Hawaii,” the authors give this tip:

The Careful Salesperson…will not include the square footage of the land portion of the Property, particularly if the land borders the sea and its boundary is subject to erosion and accretion.

Although I can think of a few Big Island homes hanging dramatically over the shoreline, currently structures need to be set back a minimum of 30-40 feet from the vegetation line or cliff top depending on land use classification and zoning. And that boundary is subject to erosion…well, you get the picture.

If you are considering an oceanfront property with an older residence along Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona or the ocean side of Puako, it may turn out that the structure is “legal nonconforming.” That means that with todayʻs shoreline and todayʻs setback requirements, it is in violation. As soon as you begin renovating, the County will require you to meet todayʻs requirements, which will likely add to your costs and might make the renovation you envision infeasible.

Puako Oceanfront Cottage for sale

This classic oceanfront Puako cottage for $2,950,000 is closer to the ocean than allowed today (MLS# 287934)

Shoreline Public Access Rights in Hawaiʻi

Then there is the issue of public access. You may remember from your visits here being told that “no beach is private” in Hawai’i. You can drive right up to the gates of the Mauna Kea Resort or the exclusive Kukio community, and as long as there is space in the public parking lot, you can use the beach along with anyone who owns or pays to stay there.

It does not always register with prospective buyers that if the ocean frontage of a parcel is pali (cliff) rather than beach, the right of the public to access the shore is the same. As one friend of mine who happens to own an oceanfront residence in North Kohala puts it: this isn’t Malibu!

Beaches are generally used for recreational activities such as swimming and surfing, but even the wildest looking shores in Hawaii may be traditional fishing areas. And here in North Kohala, the shorelines often are also of cultural significance, where archeologists uncover old taro terraces, and locals and tourists alike visit heiau (sacred sites).

From Upolu south through the Kohala Coast resorts and the Kona districts, the old shoreline trail called Ala Kahakai is now under the management of the National Park Service. Even if you buy oceanfront in a resort or gated community, the public still has the right to hike the trail between your residence and the ocean.

Our clients whose oceanfront land just closed were already living here on the Big Island so they understood the access situation well. During the due diligence process they had plenty of questions about pedestrian access, vehicular access, and traditional uses of that stretch of oceanfront.


A spectacular 23.6-acre oceanfront parcel near Kapanaia Bay in North Kohala (MLS# 600661) listed at $2,600,000

The Most Important Thing to Know About Oceanfront Property?

As the saying goes, there will only ever be just so much oceanfront. If you are privileged to live on a piece of it, count your blessings to the beautiful sound of the waves at your doorstep.

A hui hou,
Beth Thoma Robinson, R(S)

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10 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Buying Oceanfront Property in Hawaii”

  1. Susanna Kunkel, RA
    July 29, 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Great info Beth. Oceanfront property is an enticing dream…but also comes with so many confusing issues. That’s a classic example of where the knowledge and professionalism of a dedicated buyers’ agent is critical to help sort through where to go, and what questions to ask. Congratulations on a great job for your clients.
    Sending warm aloha from Kauai,

  2. Beth Thoma Robinson, R(S)
    July 29, 2009 at 11:58 am #

    Thanks for your comment, Susanna. As a buyers’ agent I feel a responsibility to go the extra mile using my local connections and knowledge to assist with those confusing issues. When I list an oceanfront property, my Sellers also appreciate having a representative who will explain things correctly up front, rather than have a possible deal fall apart when buyer’s misunderstandings come to light. And it is why I prefer to refer to my knowledgeable colleagues when someone is interested in a part of Hawai’i other than my own backyard!

  3. Byron Barth
    July 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Great article, Beth! Thanks for sharing so much knowledge and wisdom about a segment of real estate where most of us are clueless. Aloha!

  4. Katie Minkus, R(BIC)
    July 31, 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    Aloha, Beth. One of the things that so impresses me about the way you conduct your real estate business is that it is completely integrated with your lifestyle and the “rest” of your life. I can’t imagine how I would have been able to provide the critical information our clients needed regarding the public access across their lot without your input from having been part of the local North Kohala group dedicated to preserving shoreline access!! Many people have no idea how small of an area a “local” market can be here on the Big Island and most buyers have no clue how critically important it can be to hire a Realtor who knows the area inside and out. Buying property in Hawaii is not the same as buying property in most other states on the mainland, just like buying property in North Kohala is not the same as buying property in Puna. Congratulations on a job well done!! I know our buyers are THRILLED with their purchase – can’t wait for the blessing!

  5. Tobi Fisher
    September 19, 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Great article Beth and a wonderful piece of property!
    Tobi Fisher
    Maui Real Estate lives here!


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