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The earliest evidence of bricks and mortar can be traced to the Indus Valley in Pakistan, where, in about 6,500 BCE, sun-dried bricks were used to construct buildings. Gypsum mortar, also known as plaster of Paris, appeared at the same period. 

Mud huts may have long pre-dated this innovation but bricks and mortar came to define the future of what is known so widely as property but do we really understand the importance of having a home?

Do we view a property as more of a money making commodity, a vehicle to deliver a pension or should it be lauded as a home for people to thrive in and build the foundations for a secure, happy and safe family life?

The Big Step Forward

The history of the human race is remarkably short compared to other life on the planet. It’s a couple of million years since our earliest ancestors emerged but human life didn’t develop into anything we’d recognise until about 60,000 years ago. 

The earliest humans lived a nomadic life in tribes as hunters and gatherers. They roamed widely in search of food and water, building temporary shelters against the elements but never laying ‘concrete foundations’ or settling in one place. 

We know they grew proficient at fashioning rudimentary clothing, tools and weapons, while the urge to record details of their lives is evident in cave paintings, the oldest of which dates back 64,000 years. 

But while they may have had a sense of ownership of these modest items, the wider concept of property based on a foundation of permanent homes and exclusivity of land was still a long way off.

It’s often suggested that the notion of individualism developed when the ownership of substantial private property became possible. For that to happen, humans needed technological innovation. 

The discovery of methods to build durable dwellings may have been the first example of technology enabling a quantum social shift. The rest of our history has been, well, full of them!

Property and the Law

As with most technological advances, the creation of appropriate legal frameworks lagged some way behind. The most notable codification of property rights occurred under the Roman Empire in the first three centuries CE, when classical Roman law recognised the concept of ‘dominium’, or ownership.

In England, property law tended to follow the foundations laid by the Romans but started to change in the Middle Ages. During the 13th century, the position of the feudal lord – who owned the land and was paid by the tenants who worked it – changed significantly. 

There had long been a system of appeal by which tenants could petition the monarch to provide relief from a feudal law’s abuse of power. This transmuted into a recognition of the free tenant being the owner of the land – in the sense we understand today – and the lord’s rights becoming restricted to the right to receive payment. 

We could describe this as laying the foundations for an early form of leasehold ownership.

However, although the concept of property ownership was starting to look something akin to our current version, there were still narrow legal restrictions on inheritance which allowed the conveyor of property to stipulate that it could only be passed on to direct descendants. 

If there was no direct line, the conveyor was entitled to claim it back. This was the concept of entail which survived into the 20th century.

It played a significant part in the plot of the TV drama ‘Downton Abbey‘ – so much so that when the series was broadcast in the USA, the networks felt compelled to produce an accompanying film to explain the doctrine of entail, for fear of leaving millions of Americans scratching their heads as to what the British way of life, back then, actually was all about!

When Renting Was the Norm

For centuries, home ownership in the UK remained the preserve of the extremely wealthy and members of the aristocracy. The vast majority of individuals, couples and families lived in rented accommodation.

There are comprehensive records to demonstrate this, such as the story of a fire in London’s Soho during the summer of 1785. 

It spread from the home of a candlemaker, who used his dwelling for business, and left 15 houses burnt to their literal foundations. It isn’t the circumstances of the fire which are interesting, but the number of people who claimed compensation for loss. The total was 85. 

16 of these were householders who held leases from the freeholder, the Portland Estate and 29 were servants and business employees. However, there were 40 lodger claimants, who represented some 65 people, all of them effectively sub-letting.

The fact is that in the Georgian period, thousands of people, from small business owners to famous artists and poets, chose to rent and had little interest in the ownership of property. As the borders of London spread across the surrounding green fields, so too did the practice of renting. 

Fitzrovia, Islington, Kensington and Marylebone became new hot spots for London, with home ownership largely restricted to the aristocratic squares of the West End.

The appeal of lodging or renting in the 18th and 19th centuries sounds familiar. It was flexible and therefore suited people who had no reason or motivation to put down any roots or foundations. They were simply looking for a simple base where they could sleep and often work. 

When Samuel Johnson arrived in London in 1737 to try earning a living as a writer, he took up lodgings because he preferred to spend his money on his clothes and appearance. He felt that did more to enhance his reputation than the conditions in which he lived.

There was also a freedom in renting because it entailed no responsibility for maintenance and property taxes. 

The home became a largely functional thing, as the author Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1831: “One needs but little room to work profitably in; my craft especially requires nothing but a chair, a table, and a piece of paper.”

It’s fair to say that while money, clothes, possessions and status were common priorities, the ownership of one’s home was not a major concern. However, people’s homes were nevertheless the hub and foundation for family life and frequently the place where trade was conducted. Retail business had not yet fully transferred from the home to the shop. 

Just as the first settler tribes of thousands of years ago had pooled their resources to claim, protect and develop land, so too did the working and middle classes place their homes – albeit rented – at the centre of their lives.

The Rise of Home Ownership

In the UK, owning your own home became both desirable and possible in the early part of the 20th century. It’s often said that the First World War marked the real end of the Victorian era, not the death of the Queen in 1900.

Life continued relatively unchanged until 1914.

The four years of brutal war led to significant social and economic changes. During the interwar years property prices fell, incomes rose and the availability of building society mortgages spread. 

By the end of that 20-year period of peace a third of Britons owned their homes. It had become an aspiration within the reach of those with only modest means. 

The economic hardships of the Second World War, which almost bankrupted the country and forced the extension of rationing into peacetime, put the brakes on those aspirations.

The Labour government of Clement Atlee, which came to power in 1945, defied the shortages of materials and construction labour to create the foundations to build over a million homes in five years. While the vast majority of these were council homes – now known as social housing – the boom in the industry rekindled the desire to own instead of rent.

Successive governments encouraged home ownership for a mixture of reasons. For one thing, it would relieve the pressure on central and local governments to solve the nation’s housing needs, for another, it might fuel consumer spending on which the wider economy relies. 

From a more philosophical point of view, it represented a means to bring stability to society by strengthening the family unit which from all points on the political spectrum was seen as the foundation of social cohesion and prosperity. 

Owning your home in those post-war years was much more about extending and normalising the concept of property and possession than it was about investment. By 1970 the number of homeowners overtook the number of renters for the first time.

The Right to Buy

Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the most radical initiative when it gave council house tenants the right to buy their homes at substantial discounts. Some 2 million council properties were consequently sold into private ownership. 

What Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers either failed to foresee or did not consider the huge numbers of people who chose not to hold onto their cut-price homes but instead sold up to make a large, quick profit and move out. 

The government didn’t merely fail to build new council homes to replace the stock that had been sold off, they created the very foundations that then prevented councils from using the proceeds of sale to build.

Inevitably private ownership grew until it reached its peak in 2001 when nearly 70% of homes in England and Wales were privately owned. Since then, the number has fallen below 64%. 

Since 2000 house prices have risen at twice the speed of wages, a gap that is widening every year. This has had a downward impact on the housing market with many hopeful first-time buyers unable to make that first step onto the housing ladder.

Renting in the 21st Century

This, of course, has led to the resurgence of the private rental sector. For a period in the ’80s and ’90s, legislation favouring landlords made the position of tenants seem slightly precarious. 

Security of tenure was removed and various measures were introduced to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants. Although this gave some power back to the people who invested in property and made the private sector viable, it also turned renting into the poor cousin of owning. 

In the long term, that was never going to be the reputation the industry wanted or sought. It is in the interests of landlords as well as society that renting is seen as a positive choice rather than a burdensome necessity. 

At Inventory Base, we provide specialist services to the private rental sector and have witnessed first-hand the changing fortunes of both landlords and tenants.

All our experience tells us that tenants can and do feel as much of a proprietorial connection with their homes as owner-occupiers as they have taken the steps to develop their own foundations in their chosen communities. 

We believe that’s a very good thing, because ownership is not the only foundation on which you can feel house-proud, settled and at home.

Landlords generally are very happy to maintain lengthy relationships with their tenants. It makes their lives much easier, provides the right circumstances and foundations that create certainty and removes the chore of finding new tenants every year or so. 

In such circumstances, it barely matters that a tenant has possession rather than ownership. It is their home, where they live and possibly raise a family. Increasingly, with remote and hybrid technology, it is also where they work. It is as much the centre of their lives as that of a homeowner. 

We need fewer, not more divisions within our society. 

Bricks and Mortar – The True Foundations of Life?

Renting your home is a perfectly legitimate choice which has as many benefits as owning.

It is also part of a valuable industry sector which supports many ancillary jobs and is able to take up the slack when housing is in short supply or recession further complicates the market.

So a home, rented or owned, is more than just Bricks and Mortar – is creates the solid foundations for a family and society in general to build a real connection both to the local community and as a unit.

It matters less whose name is on the documents of ownership than who is in daily possession of a property which to a landlord is first and foremost an asset but to their tenants is simply ‘home’. 

Perhaps we are unconsciously redefining the foundations of what we understand about property and the notion of ‘dominium’.