American homeownership used to require a lot more than a decent credit score.
Unless you were a friend of the King, willing to starve on a communally-managed plot, or brave a trip out West in a covered wagon, your dreams of homeownership were for naught.
Makes house hunting on the Internet seem like a privilege, doesn’t it? It’s safe to say that owning property in America used to be much more difficult. Let’s check out three historic routes to homeownership (and praise modern society in the process):
Route 1: Befriend the King (late 16th century-late 18th century)
If you weren’t a friend of the crown, you weren’t likely to be a landowner in colonial America.
The King of England owned all American property in colonial days, and transferred ownership via land grant. Most grants were handed out to businessmen or companies that could stimulate economic development in America (and ship more cash to the King).
Route 2: Own Communally (and Potentially Starve) (1621-1675)
The Plymouth colonists chose communal ownership of their plot. Fields were commonly managed and goods were divided equally between families.
But the colonists sensed unfairness and revolt quickly ensued, according to documents from Plymouth Governor William Bradford. Colonists refused to work in the common fields, produce rotted on the ground, and mass starvation quickly followed.
The colony changed course, and granted small plots of land to each colonist. “The colony survived and thrived and the abundance which resulted was what was celebrated at that iconic Thanksgiving feast,” said Forbes contributor Jerry Bowyer.
Many other early American colonies also had communal roots. But as the “tragedy of the commons” persisted, most of New England abandoned shared-ownership in favor of private property.
Route 3: Head West to Homestead (1862-1986)
Wouldn’t it be awesome to head west and lay claim to 160 acres? The 1862 Homestead Act encouraged smaller, independent farmers to do just that. Seeking to grant Western lands to family farmers rather than rich slave owners, Congress invited adventurers to stake their claims.
Eligibility restrictions were lax. The government required homesteaders to be at least 21 years of age (or the head of the household), build a home on the homestead, farm there for at least five years and pay an $18 filing fee. Immigrants, single women and former slaves were all eligible applicants.
But homesteading wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t great news for everyone. Homesteading involved years of backbreaking labor and solitude, and took place on lands formerly occupied by Native Americans. Uprooted from their homes and their communities, Native Americans were consigned to various Indian reservations.
The Homestead Act continued until 1976, and a variation of homesteading continued in Alaska until 1986.
Route 4: Call an Agent (Present Day)
These days, you don’t have to know a royal or join a commune to call a property your own.
As a potential homebuyer in modern America, there’s still work ahead. But thankfully, the process no longer involves a voyage across the country via mule. For most buyers, anyway.