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Living in paradise comes with its own set of challenges. For many homeowners in Hawaii, one of those challenges is navigating the regulations around building unpermitted structures on their property.

These ‘illegal’ structures are more common than you might think, especially with Hawaii’s high cost of living driving many to find creative ways to maximize their living space.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: In Hawaii, knowingly building any structure without the proper permits can result in stiff fines and even demolition orders from the county. It’s critical to understand the rules to avoid legal and financial headaches down the road.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about unpermitted structures in Hawaii, from common examples to the associated risks and penalties.

We’ll also provide tips on how to get your illegal structure permitted after the fact. Let’s dive in!

Common Examples of Unpermitted Structures in Hawaii

 Unpermitted structures files

Building permits are required in Hawaii for various types of construction projects.

However, some property owners may choose to proceed with construction without obtaining the necessary permits. These unpermitted structures can pose legal and safety issues.

Here are some common examples of unpermitted structures in Hawaii:


Additions refer to any additional construction made to an existing structure, such as adding a new room, extending a kitchen, or creating additional living space.

Unpermitted additions can cause problems when it comes to property valuation, insurance coverage, and potential legal complications.

Ohana Units

Ohana units, also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs, are secondary living spaces located on the same property as the main house. These units are often used for extended family members or rental purposes.

However, constructing an ohana unit without a permit is a common violation in Hawaii. Unpermitted ohana units can lead to fines, eviction, or legal disputes.


Sheds and outbuildings, including storage sheds, workshops, or garages, are common additions to residential properties.

Constructing these structures without the proper permits can result in penalties and may have to be demolished if found non-compliant with building codes.

It is important to obtain the necessary permits before constructing any type of shed or outbuilding.


Decks and lanais are popular outdoor living spaces in Hawaii, providing a place to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

However, unpermitted decks or lanais can be problematic. They may not meet safety standards, and if discovered, the property owner may be required to remove or modify the structure to comply with regulations.


Swimming pools are a desirable feature for many homeowners in Hawaii. However, constructing a pool without the proper permits can result in fines and legal consequences.

Unpermitted pools may also lack safety features required by law, putting residents and visitors at risk. It is crucial to obtain the necessary permits and follow the appropriate safety guidelines when building a pool.

It is important to note that unpermitted structures can have serious consequences. They can result in financial penalties, legal disputes, and may even affect property value and insurance coverage.

If you are planning any construction or renovation project, it is always best to consult with local authorities and obtain the necessary permits.

Doing so will ensure that your structure is safe, compliant with regulations, and protect you from potential legal issues in the future.

Hawaii Laws on Unpermitted Construction

When it comes to construction in Hawaii, it is crucial to understand the laws and regulations surrounding unpermitted structures.

Unpermitted construction refers to any building or modification that is done without obtaining the necessary permits from the county.

These permits ensure that the construction meets safety standards and complies with zoning laws. Violating these laws can result in fines, penalties, and even legal action.

County Permitting Requirements

Each county in Hawaii has its own specific permitting requirements, which must be followed for any construction project.

It is important to research and understand the specific guidelines set by your county before starting any construction work.

These requirements typically include submitting detailed plans, obtaining building permits, and scheduling inspections at various stages of the project.

Failure to comply with these requirements can lead to serious consequences.

For example, in Honolulu County, you must obtain a building permit for any new construction, renovation, addition, or alteration that costs more than $1,000.

This permit ensures that the construction meets building code requirements and is safe for occupancy. Failing to obtain a permit can result in fines of up to $1,000 per day until the violation is corrected.

Fines and Penalties

Unpermitted construction in Hawaii can lead to hefty fines and penalties. The amount of the fine depends on various factors, such as the severity of the violation, the county in which the violation occurred, and whether the violation was intentional or unintentional.

For instance, in Maui County, the fine for unpermitted construction can range from $500 to $10,000 per day.

Additionally, the county may require the removal of the unpermitted structure or modifications to bring it into compliance with the regulations. Repeat offenders may face even higher fines and potential legal action.

It is important to note that unpermitted construction can also have negative consequences when it comes time to sell or refinance the property.

Lenders and buyers may be hesitant to proceed with a transaction if there are unpermitted structures on the property, as they can pose potential liability and insurance issues.

Therefore, it is always recommended to obtain the necessary permits before starting any construction work. This ensures that your project is legal, safe, and in compliance with the local laws and regulations.

If you are unsure about the permitting requirements or need assistance with the process, it is best to consult with a professional, such as a licensed contractor or architect, who is familiar with the local regulations.

Risks of Building Unpermitted

Safety Hazards

One of the major risks of building unpermitted structures in Hawaii is the potential safety hazards they pose.

When a structure is built without proper permits and inspections, there is no guarantee that it has been constructed according to the necessary safety codes and regulations.

This means that the structure may not be structurally sound, posing a risk of collapse or other accidents.

Additionally, unpermitted structures may not have proper electrical or plumbing systems, increasing the risk of fire or water damage.

Issues Selling Property

Building unpermitted structures can also lead to significant issues when it comes to selling the property.

Prospective buyers may be hesitant to purchase a property with unpermitted structures due to the potential legal and financial liabilities involved.

In some cases, lenders may refuse to provide financing for properties with unpermitted structures, limiting the pool of potential buyers. This can make it more difficult to sell the property and may even result in a lower selling price.

Insurance Problems

Another consequence of building unpermitted structures is the potential for insurance problems. Insurance companies typically require that all structures on a property have the necessary permits and comply with local building codes.

If an unpermitted structure is damaged or causes damage to other parts of the property, the insurance company may refuse to cover the costs of repairs or any resulting liability claims. This can leave the property owner responsible for significant expenses.

Demolition Orders

In Hawaii, building an unpermitted structure can also result in a demolition order. Local authorities have the power to issue orders to demolish any structures that have been built without the necessary permits.

Not only can this be an expensive and time-consuming process, but it can also result in fines and penalties for the property owner.

It is important to note that even if an unpermitted structure has been standing for years without any issues, it can still be subject to a demolition order at any time.

Getting an Unpermitted Structure Permitted After the Fact

architect drawing a blueprint or planning a real estate building or development in an office.

Hiring a Permit Expeditor

If you have discovered that your structure was built without the necessary permits, it is important to rectify the situation promptly.

One option is to hire a permit expediter. These professionals specialize in navigating the complex process of obtaining permits and can help expedite the process.

They have the knowledge and experience to handle the paperwork, communicate with the relevant authorities, and ensure that all necessary documentation is provided.

Hiring a permit expediter can save you time and effort, allowing you to focus on other aspects of the project.

Documenting the Structure

Before applying for after-the-fact permits, it is crucial to thoroughly document the unpermitted structure.

Take detailed photographs from various angles, gather any construction plans or blueprints if available, and make a note of any modifications or additions made to the structure.

This documentation will be essential when submitting your application and can help demonstrate the current state of the structure.

Applying for After-the-Fact Permits

Once you have hired a permit expeditor and gathered all necessary documentation, it is time to apply for after-the-fact permits.

This process involves submitting an application to the relevant permitting authority, along with the required fees and supporting documents.

The application will be reviewed, and you may be required to provide additional information or make modifications to bring the structure up to code.

Making Any Required Modifications

If the unpermitted structure does not meet the necessary building codes or zoning regulations, you may be required to make modifications to bring it into compliance.

This could involve hiring a contractor to make the necessary changes or working with an architect to redesign certain aspects of the structure.

It is important to work closely with the permitting authority to ensure that all modifications are approved and meet the required standards.

Remember, the process of getting an unpermitted structure permitted after the fact can vary depending on the specific circumstances and local regulations.

It is always advisable to consult with professionals and seek legal advice to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

Alternatives to Illegal Construction

Working Within the Zoning Laws

If you are considering building a structure in Hawaii, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the zoning laws and regulations in your area.

Each county in Hawaii has its own specific zoning requirements that dictate what types of structures are allowed and where they can be built.

By working within these laws, you can ensure that your construction project is legal and avoid any potential penalties or fines.

One option to consider is applying for a variance or special use permit. These permits allow you to deviate from the standard zoning regulations if you can demonstrate that your proposed structure does not negatively impact the surrounding area.

However, it is important to note that obtaining a variance or special use permit can be a complex process and may require the assistance of a professional architect or attorney.

Another alternative is to explore existing structures that are already zoned for the type of project you have in mind. This could include purchasing a property with an existing building that can be repurposed or renovated to meet your needs.

By choosing this option, you can avoid the hassle of navigating the zoning process altogether.

Read more: Buying a Property In Hawaii As A Foreigner: A Comprehensive Guide

Creative Design Solutions

If you find that your desired project does not comply with the zoning laws, you may still be able to achieve your vision through creative design solutions.

This could involve modifying the design of your structure to meet the height, setback, or other requirements stipulated by the zoning regulations.

Working with an experienced architect or designer can be invaluable in finding innovative ways to incorporate your ideas within the legal parameters.

They can help you explore alternative building materials, designs, or construction methods that can satisfy both your vision and the zoning laws.

By thinking outside the box, you can create a unique and functional structure while still adhering to the regulations.

Buying Instead of Building

Another option to consider is purchasing an existing property that already meets your needs. This allows you to bypass the challenges of construction altogether and ensures that you are in compliance with the zoning laws from the start.

Buying a property can offer several advantages, such as established infrastructure, utilities, and potentially lower costs compared to building from scratch.

Additionally, you can have the opportunity to negotiate the price and terms of the purchase, potentially saving you time and money.

Before making any decisions, it is important to thoroughly research the property, including any potential zoning restrictions or limitations.

Consulting with a real estate agent or attorney who is knowledgeable about local zoning laws can help you make an informed decision and avoid any legal complications down the line.

Remember, when it comes to construction in Hawaii, it is crucial to follow the proper channels and adhere to the zoning laws to avoid any unpermitted structures.

By exploring alternatives such as working within the zoning laws, finding creative design solutions, or buying an existing property, you can still achieve your construction goals while staying on the right side of the law.

Also read: How To Build Your Dream Home In Hawaii’s Big Island


Unpermitted structures in Hawaii might seem harmless on the surface. But violating county building codes can lead to headaches and heartaches later on.

Protect yourself by understanding the local building permit requirements before starting any construction project.

With some savvy planning and design, you may be able to create the living space you need while staying within the letter of the law.

But when in doubt, consult with the experts first rather than seeking forgiveness after the fact. They can help guide you through the permitting process to build safely, legally and worry-free.

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