POP INTERVIEW: Realtor John Dirgo Talks Hawaiian Big Island Life

John Dirgo of Aloha Coast Realty grew up in Colorado, lived in Alabama for some time and moved to Hawaii when he unexpectedly fell in love with the islands. Slowly acquiring and merging several realty firms with his own, today he runs the Big Island’s major realty and vacation home company. Like John, once you go to Hawaii, you may never come back!

john dirgo

Hawaii is known for having the same cost of living as LA and NYC, but surely, there has to be affordable housing somewhere. What can someone afford on the Big Island that is still keeping with an awesome Hawaiian lifestyle? Also, what great things can someone expect when they move there?

Hawaii consists of four major islands (from north to south – Kauai, O’ahu, Maui and Hawaii [aka the Big Island]). Each is unique and very very different. Once people get their minds wrapped around the fact that “Hawaii” is not a single entity, they are surprised by just how different the islands are. You would be surprised how often I am asked things like “how long does it take to drive to Waikiki from where you are?”. And because people hear that I am on the “Big Island” they assume that’s where Honolulu must be. Its not.

Where I am on the Big Island, you can find nice houses for under $200,000 – or you can spend $800,000 and get an oceanfront home. Its all over the map pricewise. Other places are definitely more expensive, but depending on your needs, there are ways.

People almost always take their first trip to an island and decide that every single Hawaiian island must be like whichever one they visited. This can either be a positive, meaning they stay and want to live there part time, retire, etc., or it could mean, “This island is terrible. I hate these stupid islands!” when they really may love life in Hawaii. How do you recommend for people to explore Hawaii in the best possible way if they have ever thought about a time share, renting or buying?
The “Hawaiian lifestyle” is one something I am often asked about – and I always have to answer that question with a question. “What do you mean by ‘Hawaiian lifestyle?’” For me, it means a slower paced, more relaxed, more informal way of handling life and work. It does not mean that I walk around in a malo (traditional male hula outfit) with a haku lei and no shoes, sipping a Mai Tai and playing a ukulele all the time. I do wear shorts 99% of the time, but with a simple Polo-style shirt, and sneakers. I don’t feel out of place wearing that nearly everywhere.

My personal experience has been that people who have a strong negative reaction to the Islands should listen to their heart and stay away – the rest of us will appreciate it.

What about you? Why did you want to move to Hawaii when you are from Colorado?
I grew up in Colorado, moved to Alabama to stay with someone that I thought loved me like I loved them (living proof that love is not only blind but stupid). After 5 years in Alabama, that relationship exploded into flames, but by that time, I had a life there. A couple of years later, I met my current partner, David. He was working as the National Sales Manager for a medical equipment company and that brought us to Hawaii for a week. Well, it brought him for work and me for a vacation. We saw it and loved it. We made plans and moved and arrived just a few months later.

I have very little understanding of Hawaiian life outside Oahu. What is the Big Island like? How is it unique in a good way? Is it really mild paced, sort of between Oahu and Kauai? How is life in Hilo? What about the area where your other office is in Pahoa?
The Big Island is VERY slow paced and quiet. Its very agricultural and rural and is a stunning place. Hilo is a small town where you almost get to know nearly everyone. Pahoa, where my other office is, is only 20 miles and 45 years away. Its kind of the place where the 60’s never ended. Pahoa is in the Puna district where the residents are fondly referred to as “Punatics”. You can walk down the street and smell the patchouli & pakalolo.

I heard someone say the Big Island looks like the moon. Where do people live if they want a really sandy beach? Do some people like the rocks too?
Parts of the Big Island do look like the moon. After all the island consists of five active volcanos. One of which has been erupting continuously for 30 years. There are sandy beaches in Kona is you want that. There are times when I want that, so I spend a couple of hours driving over, enjoy that and then return to my quiet life on the East Side. We have black sand beaches and green sand beaches – very few white sand beaches.

Where is a great place to live if you are young and single? What about if you are a young, single, gay man or woman who wants to go out and have fun? As far as LGBT families, what areas have a great, welcoming atmosphere?
The Big Island can be tough for single gay people. We don’t have a lot of gay nightlife, so if that’s how people expect to meet mates, they will be quite disappointed. O’ahu (Waikiki area) is a lot better for single people. The Big Island is better for couples.

All of the islands are welcoming to gay families. I’m sure there are places that are less welcoming, but I honestly haven’t encountered it. Its so difficult to explain because people from the mainland are so used to the self-imposed “gay ghetto” or “gay segregation” so common there. Here we don’t have to wall ourselves off because we are everywhere, part of every family and part of every community. In old Hawaii, sometimes there would be a boy who wanted to do the traditionally female roles so he was the ‘mahu’ and that was accepted. Like many Native American tribes that respected ‘the third sex’ so did the old Polynesians. While the missionaries managed to destroy a lot of things in Hawaii, that was one thing that went underground and stayed alive.

Can you please explain the Hawaiian land ownership when you buy a house or condo? I feel like it flies from one ear to the other when people explain it to me, and you seem like a great person to put it in layman’s terms. This is additionally really useful for anyone reading the article who might like to buy in Hawaii now or in the future!
The main thing to understand about land ownership in Hawaii is that most of the time, it is exactly like it is anywhere else. Plain and simple. There is a subset of certain properties that are “leasehold” where you don’t own the underlying land but instead have it on long term lease (up to 99 years). You still own the home or condo but there’s a time limit on your ownership of the land beneath it. Leasehold ownership is common in some areas and very uncommon in others. On the Big Island, it was very rare. In Waikiki, it happens a lot more.

Please tell the story of how you and your partner started a realty company! It sounds really sweet almost in a way that makes me jealous how cheesy it is. 🙂
My partner and I had always invested and dabbled in real estate. About 8 years ago, we both got real estate salesperson licenses and 3 years later, brokers licenses. We looked at the companies that we had worked with in real estate and took the best ideas we could find and merged them into one company that we founded in July of 2007. In five and a half years, that company has grown from the two of us to having about 26 agents, nearly $30 million in sales, and a rapidly growning property management division (both long term rentals and vacation rentals). For the last few years, we’ve been honored by Pacific Business News as one of the “50 Fastest Companies in Hawaii” every year. We’re not sure if we’ll be on that list this year but we are still growing. We are definitely the largest gay-owned real estate company in Hawaii. We have a business partner who is not gay, but she’s so gay-friendly she might as well be a gay man with a uterus.

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