Should you feel guilty for taking family money to buy a home?

Niki Andresen ended up with a home in Victoria she'd never expected to have, thanks to a surprise gift from her family. Andresen says while she's grateful, she can't help but feel like she cheated.

One woman explains why she felt guilty after getting family money to pay for her down payment

Niki Andresen's apartment is a hotel-sized room in an area of downtown Victoria protected by heritage rules. She lives there with her partner and her dog. (Niki Andresen )

When Niki Andresen walked into her Victoria apartment for the first time, it didn't really feel like home. When she looked her a hotel-room-sized unit, all she could think was: "This can't be me. This can't be the kind of place I live." 

Her family had paid for the apartment's down payment and though Andresen is paying the mortgage, the arrangement left her with a lingering guilt.

"I was used to living in informal housing situations," said Andresen. "It made me feel guilty because I related to my peers who had problems with cockroaches and mould and crazy landlords. And then here I am like the master of my own castle."

Andresen said she found it particularly hard to accept because her partner Michelle Sjöström, 30, is a former foster child, who wouldn't have the same opportunity. 

Her partner has joked she has "co-opted" Andresen's family, and gets the benefits from being a part of it. 

"She enjoys that, but [the apartment] is definitely a privilege," said Andresen of her family's gift. "It is unearned, undeserved, pretty much unfair."

Andresen and her partner, Michelle Sjöström, along with her dog at the beach on Dallas Road in Victoria. Andresen said she's only able to have the comfortable life she has in Victoria thanks to housing security. (Niki Andresen )

The surprise gift

Andresen had never expected to own a home, even the small condo where she is living. Prior to heading to Australia to finish her bachelor's degree, she said she had accepted the idea of renting for the rest of her life. 

Her family used to live in Metro Vancouver, where housing prices have skyrocketed in the last decade — though there have been recent signs of a decline

Her mother and grandparents decided to sell their homes in the midst of the boom to move to Vancouver Island. But there was enough extra to give Niki and her brother money for their down payment. 

It was a feeling of just sort of confusion and then like an acceptance because how can you turn down a gift that amazing?- Niki Andresen

Andresen was still in Australia when the sale happened, and was surprised to hear her mother offering to buy her an apartment in a new city. 

She said initially, she didn't take the idea of owning a home too seriously. She was heading into an unpaid internship, and had to drop a paying job to take it. She said she was having trouble affording food.

When her mother suggested that she'd accrue some rent money if she had an apartment, Andresen took the chance.

"It was a feeling of just sort of confusion and then like an acceptance because how can you turn down a gift that amazing?" said Andresen. 

"Especially when I know who it's coming from and how much it matters to my family that I have a place to stay and housing security."

Andresen said she's especially thankful, considering the rental vacancy rate in Victoria is just 1.2 per cent. 

Given the tight market, she said she's resolved to share how she purchased that apartment with anyone who asks. 

"I think it's important to talk about where the money comes from in the sense that it highlights who is able to access housing right now," said Andresen. 

Talking wealth with strangers

This view is shared by Harper's Bazaar online contributor Jen Doll, who wrote about how the idea of self-made success is often a myth. 

In the piece, she posited that the taboo against talking about money helps the very wealthy more than it helps the average person, and only feeds into the idea that success comes to each person at the same pace. 
Jen Doll is an online contributor to Harper's Bazaar and author of the book, Unclaimed Baggage. (Sarah Shatz)

People like to believe that if you're good enough, you can start a business, buy a home, and live a great life. 

"What does it mean to be good enough? Generally it means that you probably have been privileged in some way or another," said Doll.  

"And if you're not that's the other thing, the other side of this. If you are really able to pretty much come from nothing and make yourself something — that deserves so much more acclaim."

In 2011, Doll faced a similar conundrum as Andresen. Her parents offered her proposition: they could give her the money for 10 per cent of a down payment in New York City now, or after they died. 

She took the money, bought the apartment and until recently kept quiet about how she was able to afford it. Now, she is trying to share how the story when she can, but said that finding the ideal setting for this conversation can be hard.

"What I pull people aside in the break room and tell them, 'Hey, guess what?'" said Doll, imagining how she could broach the subject with colleagues. "We don't walk around with debt and assets on our faces."

Andresen's apartment is on Victoria's Yates Street, a bustling part of the city's downtown core. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Meanwhile, Andresen has been considering new ways to conceive of success, that don't favour people who have rich parents. One idea, she suggested, would be to stop viewing wealth as a measure of success altogether. In that case, big purchases, like buying a home, would no longer be seen as markers of an individual's accomplishments. 

She pointed to a quote by the former mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation."

In Canada, Andresen said, Petro's ideal is reversed. 

Andresen said society, generally, would benefit if we shift our priorities away from material wealth and consumption. She said reevaluating our priorities is especially critical now, in the context of the housing crisis. 

For our full interview with Jen Doll and for more of Niki Andresen's story, hit the Listen button above.

Clarification: This article referenced a person who did not contribute to Andresen's down payment as being one of the donators. It has since been removed.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.