Lahaina, Maui, before and after fires devastated the town on Aug. 8, 2023.
Illustration by Lanette Behiry/Real Estate News; Shutterstock

‘We had a really good run’ says Maui brokerage owner 

Six months after fires ravaged the island, Chris Speicher says West Maui’s real estate business is in limbo, prompting his “heart-wrenching” decision to leave.

Updated February 8, 2024
4 minutes

Key points:

  • After fires devastated the town of Lahaina on West Maui, Speicher hoped to stay and help the community rebuild.
  • With the slow pace of the recovery and a real estate market in limbo, however, he felt he had no choice but to leave.
  • He is maintaining his Maui firm and supporting the agents who have stayed, but "they are not as busy as they’d like to be," he said.

Chris Speicher's dream of selling homes on Maui for a few years before settling into retirement on the island is no more. 

That dream burned to the ground on August 8, when wildfires devastated Lahaina, the largest town on Maui's western shore and the historic capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. 

"It is heart-wrenching," he said. "That chapter that we thought would be our final chapter is now a temporary chapter. And it's closed."

Real estate in limbo

Speicher, who co-founded Speicher Group Maui in Kapalua six years ago, stayed until the end of September, tending to his three employees and his clients.

Chris Speicher, Speicher Group.
Chris Speicher, Speicher Group.

He had wanted to stick it out and help the community rebuild, but he couldn't ignore the post-fire paralysis. Six months after the flames, the real estate business remains in limbo, caught in a governmental tangle of housing the thousands of displaced residents, managing those who still own property and rebuilding what has been lost.

The damage caused by the wildfires was estimated at between $2 billion and $4 billion, and it could take as long as a decade to rebuild, according to an Aug. 24 estimate from the data analytics company CoreLogic.

Speicher and his wife, Peggy Lyn, considered it all and conferred with some advisers about what to do next.

"They said we should get out of there," he said.

So after six years in Maui, the couple returned to their original Washington, D.C. office, which also serves suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. They are closer to family and back to selling homes.

Speicher is maintaining his Kapalua team who stayed. "They're not as busy as they'd like to be. They feel a sense of loss, and they're sometimes challenged about what to do now," he said.

"We have had honest conversations with them. We said, 'We will continue to believe in you and revisit at the end of Q2.'"

Home sales complicated by recovery efforts

Speicher is still investing in leads, but he doesn't know for how much longer, given market conditions.

Home sales have been hampered by the lack of permanent housing for those who have been displaced.

In his "State of the State" address on Jan. 22, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said he wants displaced families moved from short-term hotels to long-term housing by July 1.

If enough housing can't be found, Green said he would declare a moratorium on all short-term rentals in West Maui, and would sign into law any legislation that will help move those rentals and vacant investment properties owned by non-residents into the local housing market.

Owners of short-term properties who allow long-term rentals may receive breaks on their property taxes, Speicher said. Those who don't, he said, could pay double.

That makes sense from a humanitarian perspective. But from a real estate perspective?

"You would think twice before buying a vacation home," Speicher said, "because you don't know what's going to happen."

Maui market 'could get worse before it gets better'

So what is left of the real estate industry in Maui?

"I think that we simply don't know," Speicher said. "We don't know what is going to happen, and we believe that the struggles are going to get worse before they get better with the housing of the displaced.

"The real estate market in general could get worse before it gets better."

Speicher hasn't heard of any off-island developers coming in to snap up properties in the impact zone — a worry that made "predatory capitalism" a familiar phrase in the days after the fires.

But he understands why some residents, seeing how long the recovery is going to take, could be tempted by offers from developers. 

He worries about his team and about displaced families leaving Maui altogether. He worries what will happen once FEMA and the Red Cross pack up and leave. He worries about fire mitigation and evacuation plans being established. He worries how long it will take to clear the damaged lots.

There are not enough people on the island to rebuild, and not enough housing for those who would come in to do it.

"You look at these waves of things that need to happen, the timeline and the cost of everything," Speicher said. "Peggy Lyn and I piled all this into a bucket and I was like, 'Let's close this chapter.'"

"We had a really good run," he said. "We just went back to see clients and the team. But it seems like time has stood still."

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