The History of Real Estate: How it Started


The History of Real Estate: How it Started

Brought to you by Hingham Realtor Alice Pierce serving the South Shore of Boston

Our survival as a species has always depended on using the land to provide food and shelter. Long before homes were sold on the real estate market, human beings figured out ways to claim fertile, productive land as their own. Doing so ensured survival which is why clans, groups and later, villages, would fight vehemently for possession.

Nomads, Villages and Kings

Do you ever wonder how real estate even came to exist as a mainstay of our culture? Believe it or not, the history of real estate and property ownership spans almost as long as the archaeological data reads which is over 30,000 years.

We began as nomads, wandering the earth in small groups that consisted of extended family clans.  Whether it was from cave to cave or constructed shelter to shelter, human beings migrated much like birds and certain animal species in order to ensure adequate food and water supply.

To survive, humans became hunter-gatherers. Eventually, we domesticated four-legged animals to help carry foraged food and moved seasonally to habitats and climates that suited our survival.

The seeds of property and home ownership began once there was growth of agriculture. The more fertile areas became equated with a higher chance of survival and thus were defended with maximum resources. Those who displayed the most physical strength and endurance were the winners and kept the land that sustained them. A fertile location ensured a stable population so that trade and commerce between groups could thrive.

Clans and their leaders maintained control over agricultural territories and land parcels, becoming the prototype of the real estate agents of today. The clan leaders negotiated for use of their land in exchange for services or goods. This early model of trade for tenancy persists today.

As time wore on and innovations in growing food took hold, buildings, farms and irrigation were the stakes that claimed geographical parcels. Because a healthy, well-fed clan produced more children and maintained a higher survival rate, those with land ownership expanded to become tribes. Soon villages were formed around these successful food areas with enough people to form defenses against raiders.

The protection afforded by the earliest armies did not come for free. All members of village communities paid a fee, much like rent, for the luxury of this protection. As villages expanded the leadership models in each become more complicated. This eventually led to monarchies and the royalty they included were able to give away the first land titles, usually to friends and family.

All people living on the land were required to pay the royal landlords some form of rent or tax. This afforded he plebeians protection by the king’s armies. And because not everyone had the ability to construct a home, trades and skills became valuable commodities that could be used as barter for structures built upon the lands. As builders became more highly valued, they would construct multiple houses and rent them to people with less fortunate skills.

The evolution away from the willingness to wander the earth created more safety, heath and strength, and the first stakes in claiming land. Once it became clear that survival rates exploded, land ownership became something to fight over until the end.

In Medieval times, land was the only source of wealth available. Before the use of titles and laws, proof of ownership was in the actual possession of a thing, and the ability to defend that possession physically. Land owners were their own enforcers and there were only the armies to maintain borders.

There were no courts or police to enforce “legal rights” as we know them today but all of this changed in 1066 when real estate law had its beginnings.

Real Estate Laws and Terms

It was the feudal land systems of England that spawned the first laws of real estate devised to protect and regulate a person’s most valuable asset. One could take personal possessions anywhere and by virtue of this prove ownership of anything moveable. Since land wasn’t moveable, it required some method of transfer where ownership could be established.

William The Conqueror defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with approximately 7,000 troops and cavalry. After this victory he went on to London and was declared the first Norman king of England. King William then decreed that he owned all the land of England by virtue of his conquest and that nobody else owned any land but the king.

The way the king kept tabs on all his land was through allowing others to have tenure, a major component of the feudal system. Lords held direct tenure from their king and in essence, agreed to become property managers.

This group of aristocrats could then sublet the land by contracting with commoners for goods and services. The commoners, or tenants, agreed to serve in armies, provide food from their farming efforts, or exchange prayers for land use. All tenants took an oath of loyalty or “fidelity” to their lord as this provided the legal basis for the arrangements, thus becoming the first laws of real estate.

The Spread of Real Estate to the United States

After the colonization and the Revolutionary War, and free from England’s rule, the federal government sold and granted land to private owners to use for agriculture, farming and building. In 1862 the Homestead Act exchanged private ownership of land in the United States in exchange for improving and developing it for at least five years. There were more than 300 million acres of public property granted and this is thought to have created the base for our modern day real estate market.

As we entered the industrial times, towns swelled as more and more people moved to work in factories. The Industrial Revolution brought income and money to spend on real estate. Our country’s economy grew because of industry and it was during this time that banks started lending money to the middle class and blue-collar workers to secure mortgages making home ownership more common.

In conclusion, there is a lot more detail to the history of real estate, including the development of the Multiple Listing Service, the National Association of Realtors, Open Houses etc. Each of these areas is worthy of its own exploration in future articles.



Even though it feels like winter, spring will be upon us in the blink of an eye. Be prepared for your next real estate transaction by meeting Alice Pierce, one of the best listing and selling agents on the South Shore of Boston. Alice Pierce is a Premier Realtor with Coldwell BankeR Residential Brokerage, and a lifelong resident of Hingham who knows all of the coastal towns and the neighborhoods within them. Whether you are interested in Hingham, MA, Cohasset, MA, Hull, MA, Norwell, MA and any other South Shore towns, give her a call at 781-724-7622, anytime. Alice Pierce can also be reached by email or through her Coldwell Banker real estate website.


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