To share or sell: Why inherited property causes family strife

I made a sea-change at 25Why we name our homesThe ins and outs of inheriting property

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In the late 1990s my grandmother purchased a beach house in Blairgowrie, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, for her six children and young grandchildren to share. She christened the house Listowel, a nod to the family’s ancestral home in Ireland, and left the rest to her children to sort out between them.

Thanks to gran’s decision, I’ve grown up with fond memories of school holidays spent rock-hopping and splashing in shallow pools at low tide, stubbornly playing a long out of date edition of Trivial Pursuit with my sisters, and boogie boarding at Sorrento back beach with a litany of cousins.

Now that my grandmother has passed away and my cousins and I are ostensibly grown up, the question of whether to continue to keep the holiday home in the family, and pass it on to future generations to enjoy, or to sell and split the profits, has arisen.

Liz Jensen, director of Kay & Burton Portsea, first moved to the Mornington Peninsula as a 19-year-old, and has worked in real estate in the area for more than 30 years. Jensen frequently assists families looking to buy holiday homes in coastal suburbs such as Sorrento, Portsea, and Blairgowrie.

“A big demographic are buying because they’ve got their own children who are starting families and they want to keep the generations together,” Jensen says. “So they’re buying holiday homes that can house the three generations: their children, grandchildren, and themselves.”

It’s a topic that is close to Jensen’s heart, as she shares a family holiday home with her siblings, nieces, and nephews.

“When my parents passed away a couple of years ago they left the property to the three children on the premise that we would keep it in our ownership until it went to our children,” Jensen says. “The will actually states that they would like their grandchildren to enjoy it all through their childhood, and then whoever wanted to buy it could have the right to buy it.”

For Jensen, the best thing about sharing a family holiday home is having the time to get to know each other away from the pressures of city life, and creating memories that can be cherished forever.

“Families can actually come down here and relax and enjoy each other’s company,” Jensen says. “We’ll go into homes now and there’s a jigsaw being built, or a Scrabble game, an actual board with pieces, unlike the iPads that they might have in town.”

Jensen frequently comes across a less idyllic side to these shared homes. One where siblings are forced to sell their childhood holiday home to resolve infighting.

“I see a lot of people who sell it straight away to get the money because they can’t justify using it, or I see people who sell it straight away because they’re afraid it’s going to cause family fighting and they don’t want that,” she says.

Jeanette Lawrence, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, has written extensively about the norms and practices surrounding inheritance in Australia, and says the issue of dividing property can be fraught for families.

“There are as many different perspectives as there are people,” she says. “The major thing is that people feel strongly about what should be done – and seem to have little tolerance for family members who disagree with them.”

In their book Inheriting as People Think it Should Be, Lawrence and her late colleague Jacqueline Goodnow delve into instances in which inheritance turned into a minefield for families.

“We found that people felt strongly and very often had stories of bad things people did in family arrangements,” Lawrence says. “And sometimes, but less often, about good family arrangements.”

This is especially relevant in the current climate, where we have a housing market in which land is more valuable than ever. The stakes are raised, and tensions among family members easily exacerbated.

“Family holiday homes are particularly contentious, because often people perhaps don’t lay out [the inheritance rules] quite so strongly,” Lawrence says. “Sometimes, this is a time when the family stops getting on so well.”

For me, however, the joy of returning to my family beach house as an adult – a house that has remained virtually the same for the past two decades, and is rich with memories of summer childhood adventures and long family lunches – is incalculable.

So despite the lure of a lucrative housing market, perhaps it’s the history and shared memories that are, at the end of the day, the most valuable aspect of a family holiday home.