Dilemas: Is it foolish to buy our son a flat?

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Angela's son has just graduated and although he's working he can't get a mortgage. Angela and her husband have the money to help but are not sure what they should do. His mother wants to buy him a flat outright; her husband thinks they should only pay for part of it. Angela's parents say he should manage on his own like they did. What should they do?

virginia's advice

What Angela's parents don't realise is that it just isn't as easy now to get a foothold on the property ladder. When they were young it was simple to rent a flat, let out part of it, and save for the down payment on a house. Admittedly my salary was then something like pounds 35 a week, but in the Sixties I rented a huge flat in Chelsea for ten quid a week, and within two years had bought an enormous flat in Holland Park for pounds 5,000 with no help from anybody except a mortgage company. I don't call that coming up the hard way. I call it dead easy. In the Forties, when Angela's parents were setting out in life, presumably it was even easier. Today, to afford the tiniest little box in Walthamstow you need to have two salaries, or work 10 hours a day in the City and at weekends.

When I was discussing this dilemma with friends, there was a great deal of talk - mainly from men - about needing to instil in children the knowledge of "the value of money". I know what they mean, and I imagine that's how Angela's husband feels, but it does rather assume that he believes his son is a squanderer. I should think that, after being a student for three years, he certainly knows "the value of money". And does Angela's husband want their son to spend his life slaving away to pay off a debt to his parents, who will, presumably, be acting as a kind of mortgage company, just in the pursuit of cash? Might his father not be teaching his son to over-value money? By giving him a flat, might they not be giving the young man a chance to learn, sooner, rather than later, that money and possessions aren't everything in life?

Even if they buy him the flat outright, he still has to earn a living of some sort. He has to eat, buy clothes and pay his council tax. Just because he has a flat doesn't mean he's able to loll around taking things easy. It's not as if they are offering him a private income. Even then, though a private income can be destructive for a lazy or unconfident child, it can be a great release for a creative one. Many artists, poets and authors have had small private means; how else would they have survived?

There is an argument, however, that to hold a little bit of the money back, say pounds 10,000, and let him pay it back to his parents, might be good for the son, so that, when he has paid off the debt, he will feel it is indeed "his" flat, which in some way he has earned. If paying back a small bit of the cash would make the son feel better about himself, then obviously that's how the matter should be handled. But the son should be in on all the discussions about this.

I think my own advice would be to buy him the flat outright, unless he wants to pay back a bit on his own. It will give him a chance perhaps to work at something he really wants to do, rather than have to spend years in a job he may hate or be unsuited to, just for the cash. And in the end, he will get all their money anyway, so why not give him some of it now?

readers' suggestions

The son's turn will come

If Angela's parents are critical of her generosity and feel that her son should "work his way up," perhaps she should gently remind them that her son's generation will have to pay for the upkeep of its elderly people, who are living much longer than their forebears did.

JILL WILLIAMS

Knebworth, Hertfordshire

Lend him the money at low interest

When three of our children were in their twenties, we had similar but threefold situations to the one described in your column this week. Our solution, which out of fairness had to be available to all three, was as follows. Any capital element involved was paid out in equal shares, whether there was a request for help or not. Any money on loan was the subject of a formal loan agreement, the rate of interest being paid being the current Building Society Savers' rate, less the basic rate of income tax.

Applying this system to your specific dilemma, your reader should loan the mortgage needed at the rate of interest described above. The son gets the mortgage he wants at a lower cost than he would pay in the high street, the grandparents should be satisfied since he would be paying his way, and the parents have the benefit of not losing any interest on their "loan capital." This system seemed to work well in our family.

TONY AND CARMEL ROGERS

Cambridge

Buy him the flat outright

Why wait until you're dead for your son to inherit your money, when he's well-off and has no need for it? Either buy him the flat outright or allow him to pay back part of it. Whatever you do, don't let him struggle along unaided. Your parents are wrong - there is no moral or material benefit in living miserably on a pittance if his family can afford to help him. It will not make him lazy or profligate, if our experience is anything to go by.

LINDA WILLIAMS

St Margaret's Bay, Dover

My parents did the right thing

I am 32, disabled (I have cerebral palsy so I do everything with my feet, including writing this) and I work for a bank. In 1990 I felt the time had come to "fly the coop" - not easy when you have a physical impairment, but my parents had always been supportive of my independence and were pleased to see me making the effort. After all, many disabled people opt to stay at home and realise the shock of reality only when their parents pass on.

I found a bungalow, but because I couldn't afford the mortgage I drove home in a depressed state. I told my parents, and thought, "Well, that's blown that". Half an hour later they called me into the living-room and asked if they could lend me pounds 20,000 towards the purchase, on the understanding that it would be paid back over, say, the next 20 years.

Through my parents' generosity I was able to set up my own place, while still feeling that I wasn't being given a "free lunch".

ROB WILLIAMS

Knutsford, Cheshire

Ask him to pay some of it back

Your son's sense of self-worth and self-respect are on the line here. As parents, we think we can make our children happy with a present. But in this situation it would be treating him like a child and not encouraging him to be independent, which, after all, is the main aim of good parenting. Put down a sum on the flat and get your son to pay back the rest.

JAN HAWKES

Lichfield, Staffordshire

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA

Dear Virginia,

I have been asked, as usual, to spend Christmas with my mother, stepfather, brother, his wife and children, and several other relations. Part of the problem is my stepfather, who, in my view, treats my mother very badly. He bullies her mercilessly - and expects Christmas to be done `his way', rather than as it was when my father was alive. I have to say that my mother doesn't seem to mind all this.

Also, my nieces and nephews make me painfully aware that I'm a 35-year- old singleton. Increasingly, I dread going, and feel upset for days afterwards. I have a stressful job and the idea of spending the day on my own and having a drink with friends appeals to me more and more. I know my mother would be upset, but would it be very selfish to pretend to be ill?

Yours sincerely, Geraldine

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