'We had it luckier': why Margaret helped sons buy homes

Margaret Wyatt believes she has lived a fortunate life, but like many of her generation she worries about the cost of housing today and whether her grandchildren will have the same opportunities to buy a home, get a good education and find interesting work as she did.

Wyatt, 80, and her husband, 82, moved from Sydney to a retirement village in Tea Gardens north of Newcastle six years ago after a full and productive life. They have two adult sons and five grandchildren, the youngest of whom is five.

They both retired on state government pensions and have other investments they manage carefully with the help of a financial adviser. "We have tried to assess our needs in future, including the cost of nursing homes if needed and we've also considered what we can give to our children while we are alive," she says.

Because Margaret and her husband both worked, and now live at a distance from their children, they have not been able to provide regular childcare for their grandchildren, but they help financially when needed.

They provided both sons with a deposit on their first homes before they married and money for each of their grandchildren's education. They also pay for their overseas-based son and his family to visit once a year and have given their other son money for a business.

"A lot of our friends are helping their kids," she says.

A culture of giving

The experience of Margaret and her friends is supported by findings of the latest COTA NSW 50+ Report: The twin currencies: how people spend their time and money as they age. The survey of more than 6000 people aged over 50 found that two out of five self-funded retirees have provided, or will provide, a house deposit for their children or grandchildren.

Even larger numbers are helping family pay the mortgage (59 per cent) or rent (47 per cent), school, university or childcare fees (47 per cent), or pay off debts (49 per cent).

It's not just wealthier older Australians who want to give their kids a leg up. About one in eight retirees on incomes of $25,000 or less also provide financial assistance to family members, with as many again saying they would do so if they had the money.

"It doesn't matter which income bracket older Australians fall into, they are all helping out as much as they can afford to," says COTA NSW CEO Meagan Lawson. Many are also contributing in non-financial ways, caring for grandchildren and partners or volunteering in the community.

"They're not just sucking money out of the system," says Lawson.

It's a deeply ingrained belief that each generation should do better than the one before it, but that belief is being challenged by growing inequality in Australia's housing market. As the COTA study shows, this inequality is not just between Baby Boomers and their smashed avo-loving offspring but within generations as well.

Smashing the avocado myth

Elderly non-homeowners who pay rent are at a disadvantage to retirees who own their home outright, even if they have the same level of income. And this inequality has a ripple effect down the generations.

"There's a growing divide between young people with access to wealth transfers from affluent parents and those who do not," says Rachel Ong, deputy director of the Bankwest Curtain Economics Centre.

Ong is one of the authors of the recent Housing Australia report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). According to the report, home ownership among people aged 25 to 34 shrank by more than 20 per cent between 1983 and 2013 to 25 per cent, while the share of homeowners aged 65 and older has increased slightly.

House prices and housing debt across Australia have more than doubled since the turn of the millennium. The median house price in Sydney is now more than $1 million, which makes a 10 per cent deposit difficult to scrape together without help from the "bank of Mum and Dad".

While government initiatives such as the First Home Owner's Grant were put in place to counter this trend, Ong says a confluence of policies dating back decades has made home ownership less accessible to more and more people and more of a privilege.

Negative gearing, which gives property investors an advantage over first home buyers, has been around for decades. But investors were given another advantage in 1999 with the introduction of a 50 per cent discount on the taxation of capital gains on investment properties. Previously capital gains were taxed at the investor's marginal tax rate.

In addition, the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme in 1989 ended the free education enjoyed by older Australians. Young people looking for housing today are often saddled with student debt that reduces their borrowing capacity. Many also have precarious incomes due to the impact of digital disruption on many industries and the rise of the gig economy.

"This is leading to precarious home ownership and long-term renting for young people," says Ong. She says remedying the situation is going to take bold policy reforms which are likely to be politically unpopular. She suggests reining in negative gearing and abolishing stamp duty on property transactions would be a good place to start.

Ending the blame game

Not acting will not just keep home ownership out of the reach of today's young Australians who don't have financial help from parents, but make them less capable of helping their own children in 20 or 30 years' time.

"It's pointless arguing over whose fault the housing crisis is. It's a systemic issue and we need to work together as a community to come up with solutions," says Lawson.

"Our generation have had it luckier than the current generation. When we left school it was easier to go to university, travel and get an interesting job but we never wasted money," says Wyatt.

"We didn't inherit money from our parents. Our parents lived through the Depression and were out of work. When you live like that you become conscious of the way you manage money.

"It's just a different world. Our youngest grandchild is under five. We want to be around to help when needed in terms of school fees and the like. We are fortunate to be able to do that and will continue to do these things", she says.

This story 'We had it luckier': why Margaret helped sons buy homes first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.