The History of Real Estate: From Hunter-Gatherers to House Hunters

Living in a world without houses or properties seems hard to imagine now, but there was a time in history when the concept of a fixed residence didn’t even exist. We started out as wanderers who lived temporarily in caves, and evolved into a species that buys, rents, and sells land. Here, we look at the birth of land ownership and the evolution of real estate.
Before humans started establishing permanent places of residence, we were nomads with no fixed dwelling to call our own. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors roamed the land in search of wild animals, fruits, nuts, and other vegetation that they needed to survive. When the resources of a particular region diminished, they were forced to move on to the next abundant area. As a result, this hunter-gatherer society never remained in one place for long. Then, over the extensive period of 30,000 B.C.E. to 15,000 B.C.E., humans slowly started to evolve out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Initially, it was replaced by a horticulturalist society. This group of humans learned to cultivate their own crops using rudimentary tools. Because they no longer had to travel constantly in order to find their food, they were the first society that was able to establish permanent homes for themselves.
About 12,000 years ago, the first agrarian societies started to emerge. This group cultivated their own food and also raised domesticated animals. Agrarians had a much greater population density than their horticulturalist predecessors and began to have an excess in resources and commodities. Those who stored their excess food and products could now sell them for a profit. This eventually led to hierarchical societies and inequality among the people. Those who had more money owned more fertile land on which they could continue to cultivate their crops or erect buildings. These individuals held power over the less fortunate and eventually started taxing them. Along with charging taxes, those in power also started charging peasants to live on the land that the rulers owned. This was the advent of paying rent. Over time, as the general level of wealth increased, commoners were able to purchase houses and shops themselves which they could later sell or rent to others.
In the late 1700s, the industrial revolution began. This period saw an increase in manufacturing processes and the development of more urban societies. There was an even more developed social hierarchy and a more complex division of labour. There was a massive influx of people moving to the city to work in factories and these people needed places to live. Because wealth was steadily increasing at this time, banks and other financial institutions stopped lending money solely to those with wealth and power. Middle class and blue-collar workers were now able to secure mortgages and home ownership became more prevalent. As urbanization continued, office buildings, stores, hotels, and houses were being built at rapid rates. The need for people to manage and sell these properties grew and this led to the first real estate transactions.
Following the industrial revolution, the first real estate board in Canada was established in 1888 in Vancouver. In 1903, the Winnipeg Real Estate Board was formed and remains the oldest, continuous running board in Canada to this day. During the early-1940s, as World War II was coming to an end, leaders of Canada’s real estate industry began to worry that the government would develop a variety of permanent policies that would affect real estate such as rent control. They knew they would have to act quickly and come together as a united organization if they hoped to have any impact on the government’s decision-making. They founded the Canadian Association of Real Estate Boards (CAREB) on March 2, 1943.
In 1951, CAREB created the “Photo Co-Op System” (now MLS) which required local organizations to establish regulated guidelines and cooperation among agents. It also required funding to operate the system. In 1955, CAREB worked hard to promote the Photo Co-Op System, which eventually led to the expansion of real estate boards across the country. As a result, most boards in Canada today originated in 1955 or later. CAREB eventually became The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA), as it is known today.
Real estate has come a long way since our ancestors slept in caves and roamed the land in search of food. We now have the power to rent or purchase a place to live and to furnish it as we see fit. We also have the ability to search for the perfect house simply by scrolling through listings on our computers—a concept our nomadic ancestors couldn’t even fathom. Perhaps the future will hold another equally exciting evolutionary leap for real estate.

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