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Is Airbnb Illegal in Hawaii? How to Book Safe Vacation Rentals on Oahu

Is Airbnb illegal in Hawaii? It’s a question that’s popping up more often now because let me tell ya…things are changin’! 

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In a nutshell, no, companies like Airbnb and Vrbo are not illegal in Hawaii, but certain counties (i.e. islands) are starting to pass legislation cracking down on illegal vacation rentals (ones that don’t have permits to operate). 

So, what’s the big deal?

Vacation rentals in local neighborhoods (I’m talking about houses and apartment units in neighborhoods, not condos in high tourism areas) have been a major problem in the last decade or so, but it’s starting to reach a boiling point. 

The rise in popularity of sites like Airbnb has resulted in a lot of property being bought by wealthy folks from the mainland (or internationally) and being rented out as short term vacation rentals to visitors. In addition to creating a housing crisis (it becomes much harder for local families to afford to be able to stay in the area), it also changes the community (i.e. more businesses and amenities catered towards tourists and less towards residents).

What does this mean for you? 

To get this problem under control, different counties (islands) have been passing (or starting to enforce) legislation that cracks down on illegal rentals. Lately, it’s been most dramatic on Oahu where there have been estimated to be as many as 10,000 illegal vacation rentals, but the other islands are turning their attention to cracking down on this problem. 

A lot of visitors are shocked that it’s even an option to book something illegal on Airbnb or Vrbo, but the truth is those sites are just marketplaces and it’s up to YOU to use due diligence to make sure what you’re booking is on the up and up. 

I’m not talking about shady listings where they’re trying to scam you. 99% of these properties are legitimate homes, apartments, ohanas (a separate dwelling on somebody’s property) either rented out by the owners or a property manager. Just like Airbnb works anywhere in the world. They range in price, size, location, and amenities. But they don’t have permits to be operating as short term vacation rentals and they’re located in areas of the island that are considered residential (we’re not talking condos).

In short…it’s always been illegal to rent a house on a site like Airbnb or Vrbo that didn’t have a permit (the majority of them), but now they’re enforcing it.

As the renter, (right now) you won’t get fined if the owner gets caught, but you could be left with no place to stay on short notice. So basically…if you’re set on alternative forms of accommodation besides a resort, hotel, or condo, you’ll need to read up on the zoning for each island and either pick something that’s in a zone that doesn’t require a permit, or pick something that does have a permit. I’ll be honest…there aren’t a ton of permitted short term vacation rentals on each island (outside of tourist areas where they’re mostly condos) so the ones you will find tend to be not super cheap. 

Here’s how this is playing out on Oahu…their official law is that short term rentals MUST have a permit to operate if they’re outside of preapproved tourism areas (more on that later). Short term rentals are currently classified as anything less than 30 days, but it’s soon to be increased to 90 days to close a loophole. 

The last work around people found was that they were able to rent out the property once within a 30 day period even if the stay was for less than 30 days (what many of the listings on Airbnb are currently for once you start reading the fine print), but this new move to 90 days will wipe that option out. So if you’re staying in a vacation rental outside of the tourism zones, it MUST have a permit. And that’s on you to investigate. Here is a complete list of permitted short term vacation rentals

I don’t want to scare you away from using sites like Vrbo and Airbnb, because they actually have amazing places to stay but I SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY SERIOUSLY recommend only using them to book places in the pre approved tourist zones. 

On Oahu, those zones are Waikiki (the main tourism hub on Oahu), Ko’olina (a resort area on the west side), and Turtle Bay (a resort area on the north shore). Any rentals in those areas are legal to rent short term and don’t require individual permits. 

Highly sought after vacation rental areas like Kailua and Lanikai on the windward side or small towns along the north shore are the areas that have been most impacted by illegal vacation rentals so it’s going to be much harder to find legal rentals in those spots. 

Is this a major bummer?

I guess it depends on your perspective. In a lot of online travel forums and groups I monitor,  there’s a lot of grumbling about greedy corporations just wanting to make it more expensive to visit Hawaii, etc. That’s kind of not the point. 

Hawaii (Oahu in particular) has always been a highly visited destination. And not to get too heavy, but many locals feel like their land, culture, and lifestyle has been stolen from them (another story for another time). As deals were made with developers to build tourism-centric areas on the islands, high rise luxury resorts went up in places where families used to take their children on the weekends. 

Since Hawaii was becoming so dependent on tourism, maybe it was seen as a necessary evil. People staying in the hotels and eating at the restaurants and taking the tours made Hawaii’s economy go around in a modern age. 

And then things got more modern. I think the ease of finding information on the internet (hi hello there blog reader ; )  makes travel so much easier and accessible and innovative travel apps (Airbnb, Turo, etc.) really turned the travel industry on its ear. People seeking more “authentic and local” travel experiences now have major networks to find places that in times past would’ve been hidden gems spread mostly by word of mouth. 

In Hawaii, that looks like a MAJOR influx of visitors who are no longer happy staying in the tourism bubbles built for them, but want to have authentic experiences in local neighborhoods. 

Not too long ago, I read a post a lady had written on Facebook who was disappointed about the direction short term rentals are headed in on Oahu. She said she loves to experience “living like a local” when she’s on vacation. It was meant well, but all I could think was how tourists playing locals on vacation means that actual locals can’t live there. 

So many locals are forced out of neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations, if not off the island entirely. 

I really do understand wanting a more off the beaten path experience than what the big resorts offer. And in small numbers that’s still available in Hawaii (although it might not be cheap), but when the masses start leaving Waikiki and heading to the north shore or Kailua, it just doesn’t work. And a lot of frustration that locals have with tourists stems from them not being satisfied with the areas that were built for them and wanting to come into local neighborhoods instead. 

So all of this is just to offer another perspective. This isn’t actually limiting affordable accommodations on Oahu (there are sooooo many places you can stay in Waikiki for $100/night), but it’s limiting cheap accommodations in local neighborhoods. 

The Best Way to Book LEGAL Vacation Rentals on Oahu

I think the best place to find (and book) Oahu vacation rentals is Vrbo. They’ve been around forever and are probably the most reputable booking platform online (with owners and vacationers alike), which means that you’ll find more quality properties listed on Vrbo than anywhere else online. I used to book more often with Airbnb, but I’ve begun to find that they often don’t have what I’m looking for (especially when I want to book a condo/unit within a resort property). So all of the condo complexes I will be linking to are bookable within Vrbo.

Vrbo has an enormous amount of traditional vacation rental listings (condos in resort areas), but they also have so many options that are more “off the beaten path” in local areas. But overall, you’re going to find properties listed by owners who take their rental business very seriously and are committed to providing you the best accommodations possible.

How does it work? By doing a simple search by island (or specific area), you’ll be able to find a wide (price and type) range of accommodation. You can refine your search to fit certain criteria (part of the island, price, style, etc.) before you start weeding through specific properties.

The number of search results you’ll find by island can be extremely overwhelming, so I would suggest putting as many filters as possible (especially price and number of bedrooms) and then viewing the results on a map so you can get an idea for where everything is located.

In this post, I’m recommending several condo complexes (also called condo-tels or condo resorts) by area on Oahu that I think are good places to stay. I’ve also got descriptions of each area so you can figure out what part of the island is most appealing to you.

North Shore Vacation Rentals & Condos

Oahu’s famous north shore stretches all the way from Laie to Haleiwa and is what locals call the “country.” You won’t find a Target or Costco up there. But you will find gorgeous beaches (only swimmable in the summer), and sleepy little surf towns. The only resort on the north shore is Turtle Bay and it’s lovely. There are some condos situated in the Turtle Bay resort area.

Oahu Vacation Rentals & Condos

Villas at Turtle Bay: Clustered around the main resort, these villas and condos are the perfect blend of the resort amenities (beaches and resort shops and restaurants) and the added comforts of a vacation rental (kitchen, laundry, etc.) Find specific condo units here.

Kuilima Estates: A bit further away from the resort and beach, this property is still very convenient with a beautiful location. Find specific condo units here.

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Ko’olina Vacation Rentals & Condos

This resort community on the west side feels a world away from Waikiki, but very much like a vacation spot instead of the more “local” Kailua and north shore. In Ko’olina you’ll find a Four Seasons, Marriott, and the big Disney resort as well as a small shopping center. There’s also a Target and Costco in nearby Kapolei. Otherwise, Ko’olina is a little remote from the rest of the island, which could be a good thing!

Ko’olina Beach Villas: The Ko’olina Beach Villas is a large resort complex that sits on its own lagoon in between the Marriott and Disney’s Aulani Resort. The pool is lovely and the units are large and new. Find specific condo units here.

Oahu Vacation Rentals & Condos

Marriott’s Ko’olina Beach Club: This is the best option if you want a resort atmosphere while still retaining the amenities of a condo. Find specific condo units here.

Makaha Shores: Situated on a gorgeous beach on the west side, this is a much more local area and although a little bit removed from the rest of the island, it’s a good bang for your buck. Find specific condo units here.

Waikiki Vacation Rentals & Condos

Waikiki (a beachfront neighborhood in Honolulu) is home to about 95% of the island’s hotel rooms, so by default, it’s where most tourists end up. Waikiki/Honolulu is basically a big city on the beach. Think endless high rises, flashy shopping centers, all the major chain restaurants, and a million people. All of the major hotel chains are represented as well as plenty of budget options and even trendy new boutique hotels. But there are also a few condo properties that I like in the area.

Oahu Vacation Rentals & Condos

Illikai Hotel & Luxury Suites: The Illikai is the best place to get the classic Waikiki experience. It’s got a great location, modern units, but it costs a fraction of the price as nearby resorts. Find specific condo units here.

Waikiki Banyan: This large tower is a couple of blocks from the beach, but many of the higher floors have ocean views. There’s a good sized pool and tennis courts. You’ll definitely get a city vibe staying at this property amidst the high rises, but the price is right. Find specific condo units here.

P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!

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