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Owning land outright is a dream for many. If you’re looking to purchase property in Hawaii, you may come across the term ‘fee simple’. But what exactly does fee simple mean and what does it entail for land ownership in Hawaii?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Fee simple refers to owning land without any limitations or conditions on the title. It is seen as the highest form of ownership in Hawaii and grants full use and control over the property to the owner.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive into all aspects of fee simple ownership in the Hawaiian islands. We’ll cover what fee simple means, its origins and history in Hawaii, what rights it grants, how it differs from leasehold, issues and controversy around it, and what you need to know as a potential property buyer.

Defining Fee Simple Ownership in Hawaii

Literal meaning of fee simple

Fee simple is a legal term used to describe the most complete form of private property ownership. It grants the owner full rights to use, occupy, develop, sell, or give away the land as they see fit, with very few restrictions.

The term “fee” refers to the ownership interest, while “simple” means the ownership is unconditional or absolute.

In Hawaii, fee simple ownership gives property owners the maximum control permitted under the island’s real estate laws. Owners of fee simple property in Hawaii have full ownership rights to both the land and any buildings or fixtures on the land.

What rights does it grant?

Fee simple ownership in Hawaii grants property owners extensive rights, including:

  • The right to occupy the land and use it as desired
  • The right to develop, improve, and build structures on the land
  • The right to sell, gift, lease, or mortgage the property
  • The right to restrict access to the property through fencing, gates, etc.
  • The right to pass the property to heirs through inheritance

In short, fee simple confers virtually unlimited private property rights to the owner under Hawaii law. Unlike leasehold ownership, there is no predetermined date when the rights will expire. Fee simple ownership is considered the highest form of interest an individual can have in real estate in Hawaii.

However, even fee simple ownership has some minor restrictions under Hawaii law:

  • Eminent domain laws allow the government to seize private property for public use
  • Zoning regulations and building codes must still be followed
  • Liens can be placed against the property by creditors
  • Back taxes must be paid to retain ownership

But overall, the rights granted to fee simple owners are very extensive compared to other forms of property ownership. This unconditional nature makes it a highly desirable form of real estate interest for buyers and investors in Hawaii.

History and Origins of Fee Simple in Hawaii

Introduction of concept by Kamehameha III

The notion of private land ownership was first introduced in Hawaii during the reign of Kamehameha III in the 1840s. Prior to this, all land in the islands was held communally and overseen by local chiefs (there was no concept of fee simple ownership).

Kamehameha III’s advisors thought private land ownership would encourage economic development and align Hawaii with Western laws.

In 1846, Kamehameha III instituted a major land reform known as the Great Mahele. It allowed the King to divide Hawaiian lands between the government, the chiefs, and the common people for the first time. This established the basis for fee simple real estate in Hawaii.

Changes after the Great Mahele

The Great Mahele alone did not create a full system of private land ownership. Further legislative acts like the Kuleana Act of 1850 were required to enable commoners to directly acquire lands. But the foundation was laid for Hawaiians to hold real estate in fee simple.

By the 1860s and 1870s, non-Hawaiians were also able to purchase land in fee simple in the islands through deeds signed by the Hawaiian monarchy. However, much of this involved illegal land dealings and taking of lands from native Hawaiians.

Persistence into modern times

Despite unrest regarding foreign acquisition of Hawaiian lands, the fee simple system persists today. Overturning it would undermine the Islands’ real estate system and economy.

According to 2022 government statistics, over 90% of privately owned lands in Hawaii are held in fee simple titles. This includes lands occupied for residences, businesses, resorts, ranches and more.

The origins of this system trace back to choices made by Kamehameha III and other Hawaiian rulers in the mid-1800s. While controversial, establishing fee simple ownership became foundational to Hawaii’s modern real estate framework.

Fee Simple vs Leasehold Estates

Differences in ownership rights

When you own a property in fee simple, you have full ownership and control over the land and any buildings on it indefinitely. This gives you the flexibility to sell, rent out, remodel, pass on to heirs, or even tear down structures on the property.

It’s the closest thing to outright ownership of land possible under Hawaii property law.

With a leasehold estate, you only own the right to use the property for a set period of time, such as 50 or 99 years. The land itself is still owned by the original landowner from whom you leased the right of occupancy.

When your lease ends, the property may revert to the landowner unless you negotiate an extension or purchase the land outright.

Financial implications

Purchasing a leasehold can often be less expensive up front than a comparable fee simple property. However, you won’t build much equity over time since you don’t own the underlying land. And when your lease expires, you lose the right to occupy the property without further arrangements.

Fee simple ownership allows you to build substantial equity that you can borrow against or cash out when you sell. The land and any buildings on it belong to you, with no strings attached other than paying property taxes and complying with zoning regulations.

Popularity of leaseholds in resort areas

In world-famous Hawaii destinations like Waikiki, leasehold condos make up over 25% of available properties, according to real estate agencies. Developers and large landowners see leasing units rather than selling land outright as more profitable.

For non-resident owners who stay for just a couple weeks a year, short term leaseholds work fine and keep purchase costs down. But many Hawaii residents prefer the security and control of fee simple ownership.

Controversies and Issues Around Fee Simple

Criticism of land division policies

The original land division policies in Hawaii have faced criticism over the years. Some argue that the Great Mahele of 1848, which introduced private land ownership, dispossessed many native Hawaiians of land they had cultivated for generations [1].

When much of this land was later converted to fee simple through the Kuleana Act of 1850, further consolidation of ownership occurred, with ownership shifting away from native Hawaiians [2].

Impact on native Hawaiians

The loss of traditional land tenures is seen by many native Hawaiians as having profoundly negative social, cultural, and economic impacts over generations. Unlike fee simple, traditional systems were based on stewardship rather than ownership.

Some argue that native Hawaiians have lost touch with ancestral lands and culture due to these policies [3]. There have been efforts to provide redress, such as setting aside land for Hawaiian Home Lands, but criticisms remain about implementation.

Modern calls for reform

In modern times, some native Hawaiian groups and sovereignty movements have called for reforms to fee simple policies in Hawaii. They argue that the current system perpetuates historical injustices and prevents native Hawaiians from fully exercising self-determination.

For example, in 2022 a task force recommended exploring alternative land tenure models that better align with Hawaiian values, such as ahupua’a (watershed) management rather than rigid land parcelization [4].

While no major changes have been made yet, the debates around balancing private property rights with indigenous rights and environmental sustainability are likely to continue.

Things to Know Before Buying Fee Simple Land

Confirming title and ownership

When purchasing fee simple land in Hawaii, it’s crucial to confirm the title and ownership. The land title indicates the legal rights of ownership and should clearly state that the land is owned in fee simple.

To verify, request a title report from a title company, which will disclose all recorded conveyances, liens, encumbrances, and more. It’s also wise to check if there are any unrecorded liens or competing ownership claims, which could present issues down the road.

Alongside examining title, buyers should ensure the seller legally owns and can convey the land. Search public records to confirm the stated owner matches title and check if any taxes or liens are owed, as those could obstruct a transaction.

Reviewing the deed history can also uncover potential clouds on title from past improper transfers or unknown heirs. Taking these precautions safeguards buyers from unwittingly purchasing land that someone else owns or making repairs for unrecorded liens post-purchase.

Understanding property taxes

Hawaii levies an annual property tax on all land and buildings, assessed by each county. The tax rate varies but is commonly around 1% of the land’s value defined by the county assessor. Values are reassessed regularly, causing the property tax owed to fluctuate year-over-year.

As fee simple confers outright ownership, buyers are responsible for paying this tax in full following the purchase.

When evaluating a prospective parcel of fee simple land, buyers should research historical tax amounts to estimate future costs. Factoring in taxes is imperative for budgeting and and confirming long-term affordability.

Hawaii offers some exemptions for full-time residents, so reviewing qualification criteria can potentially alleviate the tax burden. Being informed on the property tax responsibility ahead of time ensures buyers don’t get caught off guard by tax bills down the road.

Checking for easements or other encumbrances

In addition to taxes, fee simple land may still have encumbrances like easements that limit usage despite outright ownership. For instance, utility companies often possess right-of-way easements for accessing equipment, restricting construction over those areas.

Or a neighbor could hold an access easement granting them passage through parts of the land.

The title report mentioned earlier discloses any known easements recorded against the property. Additionally, buyers should visually inspect the land for any potential unrecorded easements, such as existing pathways or equipment, and discuss any observations with the seller upfront.

Ignoring easements could require modifying or removing improvements later on, so verifying any encumbrances ahead of time is paramount.

Beyond easements, inspecting the premises also uncovers any other issues impacting habitability or usage restrictions, like waterway setbacks or endangered species. While the tasks may seem tedious, completing due diligence protects buyers from unwelcomed surprises down the road.


Fee simple represents full private ownership of real estate in Hawaii – a concept that traces back almost two centuries in the islands. While presenting land buyers the maximum bundle of rights, fee simple has also been the source of much debate and controversy regarding its effects on native Hawaiians.

If you are looking at fee simple properties to purchase in Hawaii, make sure to carefully vet the title, understand your obligations as an owner, and research the history of the land. Though the law sees it as an absolute ownership right, the complex reality of land rights in Hawaii means you want to enter the process with full transparency and your eyes wide open.

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