I was wondering about something. After the last financial crisis, many people have talked about not buying a house, but renting one, and they made it sound like a "new" idea. So what was it like hundreds and thousands of years ago (when people already lived in houses and cities)? How would this compare to something more recent, such as pre-WW2?

Did everyone own a house? When did renting appear? When did leasing, which is a "cousin" of renting, come into the picture?

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    Not a real answer, but: You pretty much rented houses from the lord during feudalism, although it might not have been called that. And renting apartments was done already in Rome. So renting is old. How common it was to rent an actual house, I don't know. – Lennart Regebro Dec 2 '11 at 13:59
  • Lennart - thanks for the answer. I didn't really mean an actual house - but some kind of living accommodation. – roman Dec 2 '11 at 14:32
  • I would guess that the idea of "leasing" in DVK's meaning (ie Closed-end leasing) is much newer that renting, so that makes for a more challenging question. – Lennart Regebro Dec 3 '11 at 10:11

After some digging I found this:

"AKHIBTE has taken the house of Mashqu from Mashqu, the owner, on a lease for one year. He will pay one shekel of silver, the rent of one year. On the fifth of Tammuz he takes possession. (Then follow the names of four witnesses.) Dated the fifth of Tammuz, the year of the wall of Kar-Shamash."

That's a Babylonian rental contact. It's dated to the year of the wall of Kar-Shamash, which seems to be a year under Hammurabi, so it's probably from the 18th century BC.

I can't find anything about any estimates of how common it was though. It was clearly common enough to have somewhat formalized contracts as above, with mentioning of which date you take possession etc, but that doesn't mean very much.

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  • That's awesome! many thanks :) that means we have no "news" here about renting apartments. That's interesting though - so did we have times that we had many (lets say more than 60%) "low class" people who possessed apartments and didn't rent? I'm trying to understand if we have a new situation on our hands in those turbulent times or it's still the same world as the last thousands of years. – roman Dec 2 '11 at 22:37
  • I'm sorry but I don't think this qualifies. It's an excellent find, but it seems to explicitly be a lease (namely, eventually the house becomes the property of the payer), as opposed to rent (where the renter never receives equity in the property). @roman - I would suggest that you either expand your question to both renting and leasing, or create a new one of leasing, so this answer can still be valid. – DVK Dec 2 '11 at 22:58
  • @DVK - you're right. I shall expand to leasing. The idea is similar. – roman Dec 2 '11 at 23:09
  • @DVK: You mean "Closed-end leasing" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closed-end_leasing) . The word "lease" by itself does not mean anything else than renting. And in any case, you can't assume that ancient Babylonian would have the same sort of implications and differences between two words. The contract in itself contains nothing about property transfer, and must therefore be assumed to not include it. Hence it is a rental contract, nothing else. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lease – Lennart Regebro Dec 3 '11 at 10:13
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    @LennartRegebro - could the reason for Rome as start of common renting be because they were AFAIR seemingly the first to combine dense urban habitation with architectural/technological ability to construct apartment buildings of many-family size for reasonable cost? – DVK Dec 3 '11 at 12:52

As Lennart said - this was done as early as Rome.


The lower floors were typically occupied by either shops or wealthy families, while the upper stories were rented out to the lower classes..

Reference: Gregory S. Aldrete: "Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii and Ostia", 2004, ISBN 978-0-313-33174-9, p.79f.

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  • Thanks. Interesting that today mostly it's the opposite - the higher floors are accommodated by wealthy families and the lower by more poor families. – roman Dec 2 '11 at 22:51
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    @roman: The reason for that change is elevators. :-) – Lennart Regebro Dec 3 '11 at 15:38

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