PCS to Hawaii: Live on Base or Off Base?

I know how challenging a PCS move to Hawaii with a family can be, since I did it a few years ago myself. I also regularly help military families moving to Hawaii find homes, so I learn from their experiences. A military move to Hawaii can be mind-boggling.   Where to begin?

To live on base or off? That is the (first) question.

The Argument For Living On Base

If you just can’t bear to be in a car for more than 10 minutes, living on post is for you. Nowhere on Oahu will be as short of a commute.

Living on base is comfortable and familiar. Commissary, BX, gas station, school, post office, parade field, flagpoles, and neat rows of buildings where no one walks on the grass, let alone parks a car on it. “Reville” in the morning and “Taps” in the evening. I get it. With the exception of a few palm trees, at any post on Oahu you may as well be at Ft. Sill.

The style of housing you’ll be offered on post will feel familiar also. Most of it was built of similar quality to the last post you came from – no bells and whistles, but probably clean and functional. Some housing is newer, a result of the BRAC money, and some is older and due for rehab. There are plenty of websites where you can check out the housing – such as the Island Palm and Forest City sites, the base websites, or the Facebook group “Moving House for the Military Spouse,” which has user photos of base housing worldwide.

Living on post also offers the familiar social scene…and you know what I mean. Everyone’s in the same boat, speaks the same language, has kids skilled at making new friends, and have never met a doorbell or a fence in their life. If you want to jump into a ready-made community, it’s available.

No commitments. At the end of the day, living on base is just like paying rent. You’ll give up your BAH to a landlord – Island Palm, Hickam Communities, or Forest City. You’ll often pay your share of utilities, you’ll call someone to fix things that break, and you’ll de-personalize and paint the walls back to white for your move-out inspection. You’ll leave in three years and it’ll be like you were never here.

Except that you’ll have missed an opportunity.

The Argument For Living Off Base

It’s nice to get away from work once in a while (or often). In Hawaii, that’s particularly easy to do. Drive off base and head to a beach, or off on a quick hike, or into town for umbrella drinks at a resort. Heading home can be very relaxing if you live away from work. Pass by waterfalls on the way from Hickam to Kaneohe. Exit the tunnels of the Ko’olau Mountains facing a spectacular view of Kaneohe Bay. The office you left behind may as well be on another planet. Get away in a way you never really do when you live on base.

You’re definitely welcome here. People moving to Oahu often wonder if they’ll fit in or feel welcome if they live out “in town.” Oahu is absolutely a melting pot of cultures and languages, which is more often a source of comedy than tension. And Hawaii has a history of imperialism and capitalism that has left some hard feelings.

However, the military community and the defense industry are an integral part of this island’s culture, lifestyle, and economy, and have overwhelming community support. You can’t go anywhere on Oahu without seeing military stickers on cars, service members in uniform, or being offered a military discount. So, yes, you’re welcome here.

Endless options. Let’s face it, a lot of military families are not coming to Hawaii by choice. And while I understand Ft. Bliss summers or Ft. Drum winters may be attractive options, Hawaii will be what you make of it. So, you may as well try it!

Living off base, you will feel like you live in Hawaii. Maybe you’ll be able to afford to live within walking distance of the beach, or you’ll be able to look out at the ocean from your lanai, or you’ll have a great hiking trail or golf course nearby, or meet a neighbor and trade your avocados for their papaya, or find a great sushi spot right outside your condo. There are so many options if you’re open to them.

Off base you’ll have the option of renting or buying a home. There are many factors to weigh, but the primary difference is financial. With a VA loan, you can purchase a home putting nearly no money out of pocket, and your BAH is then put toward paying down your mortgage. This means you’re paying yourself instead of paying a landlord, and as the market improves, your home is also gaining in value.

Bottom Line

You’ll have plenty of opportunities in a military career to live on base, and I absolutely understand the tendency to play it safe. But, I would highly encourage you to get out there and try something new, experience this place fully, and embrace your time in Hawaii. You may even fall in love with it and choose to extend your tour or return for retirement.

As a side note, planning ahead for which housing you’ll be offered seems to be pretty fruitless. In the summer months, housing is in high demand – wait lists are long, but they turn over quickly if you’re willing to be open to various locations and put your name on several waiting lists.

Let’s face it, given the options, everyone who is eligible would choose to live on Hickam. The housing is nicer, it’s centrally located to both the city and most duty locations, and it has a beach, so if you’re a lower priority applicant, count on a longer wait. I recently worked with the family of a non-Air Force O-6 who showed up expecting to live on Hickam, but was told it would be a 6-12 month wait. And in the meantime…good luck was all they were offered.

Now that you’ve decided to live off base, the question becomes to rent or to buy?