Buying Advice

“Ohana Means Family”

It’s hard to believe how long it’s been since Lilo and Stitch taught the world that “`Ohana means family.” While the translation is indeed spot on, that now famous line doesn’t always translate exactly where real estate is involved.

Multiple Dwellings

If you are purchasing or intend to develop a property with multiple living units, understanding Ohana permit issues could be important. Each County creates their own rules for additional dwelling units, commonly referred to as Ohana units. The requirements on the Big Island differ dramatically from other islands. There is no requirement for a family member to live in an Ohana dwelling. While long time implementations of Rule 12 of the Rules of Practice and Procedure as well as Chapter 25 of the Hawaii County Code allowed an Ohana permit without restriction regarding property zoning type, in recent years, restrictions on Ag land were put in place. Multiple dwellings on agricultural lands had to be related to farming activity.

In an effort to create more housing, the current administration has relaxed the Ag land requirement so long as lots were created prior to Jun 4, 1976. Currently allowable are one residence and one first farm dwelling. No additional land use approval is required. While many Ohana permits were generally not transferrable, some older permits were said to run with the land, are freely transferrable and do not expire. The previous application of the rule stated an application was specific to the applicant who must be the legal owner.

Time of Application Matters

Once built, of course, the homes can be freely sold. An applicant cannot receive a new Ohana permit for 2 years following the completion of their project. Minimum lot size for an Ohana dwelling is 10,000 sf. with adequate wastewater disposal, fire protection, etc. For dwellings on catchment, at least 80 inches of annual rainfall is recommended. Ohana dwellings are not permissible on a property with any type of variance. They are also not allowed in conjunction with existing multi-family dwellings or care-homes. Setbacks are more restrictive for the second unit than for the principal residence.

Ohana Dwelling Permits

Often a significantly smaller dwelling is built first so IT becomes the principal dwelling. When purchasing a property with an existing Ohana dwelling, be sure to check with the Planning Department to be sure the appropriate permit was obtained.

Does the Permit Transfer?

If purchasing vacant land advertised with an existing permit, remember, check to see if the permit will transfer upon sale. Lilo was right, “`Ohana does mean family” but now you know that this particular family of dwellings is one with a very specific set of rules.

About the Author

Denise Nakanishi

Denise Nakanishi is a REALTOR Broker with Hawai'i Life. Denise Nakanishi is one of Hilo's most acclaimed real estate agents. She reached the rank of Major in the US Army and is now known by many as "Major Mom." The nickname fits–not only does Denise bring the discipline and mission-oriented attitude you'd expect, she's also caring and compassionate, always looking out for her clients like they're her own family. Having made the Big Island her home since 1987, Denise combines her extensive knowledge of the area with a sharp focus on customer service and the results speak for themselves. She's the recent recipient of the Best East Hawai`i, Best of Zillow, Chairman's Circle Award, President's Circle, Top Producing Agent since 2001, and Realtor of the Year awards. Denise stays ahead of the curve because she's passionate about education–she served as Education Chair for Hawaii Island REALTORS® for many years. She's one of Big Island's best real estate resources, known for her weekly article in the Hawaii Tribune Herald. Denise leads Team Nakanishi for Hawai`i Life, who is committed to their family, work, and community. In her little time away from work, Denise is a committed runner and Grandy. She also devotes many hours to various Veterans' Organizations, the East Hawaii Cultural Center, and the Hawaii Island REALTORS®. You can email me at or via phone at (808) 936-5100.

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