A History of the World Via Real Estate

The more I learn about real estate, the more evident it becomes that the industry touches everything. That’s definitely the feeling I got while reading Placemakers: Emperors, Kings, Entrepreneurs: A Brief History of Real Estate Development (Figure 1 Publishing Inc., 2017), by Herb Auerbach with Ira Nadel. It’s sort of a cross between a coffee table book and a truncated textbook about the history of real estate development from ancient times to today. Before I jump into the review, let me share a couple of the many interesting tidbits I learned from the book:Screen Shot 2017-06-06 at 3.43.09 PM

  • Many concepts within real estate development (including the definition of a real estate developer) are discussed throughout the Bible. Similarly, laws about transfer of property and real estate records shaped one of the world’s oldest set of laws (known as the Code of Hammurabi, created around 1780 BCE).
  • The first known lighthouse (built by the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Alexandria between 280 and 247 BCE) was not only the tallest building in the world for centuries, but it was also the first known instance where a developer fought over naming rights.
  • Rome could be considered the birthplace of the hi-rise, with buildings called insulae rising between six and twelve stories high in the center of the ancient city. Ancient Romans also invented concrete, utilized an advanced form of central heating, and used foreign building materials as a way to show off their control over distant lands.
  • During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), it was China’s women who were in charge of land sales, supervising home building, and accounting for rent and property tax. Also, widows were allowed to inherit their husbands’ properties without restrictions.
  • Though the word had been used in the 1700s to define co-ownership of islands in disputed territories, the term “condominium” wasn’t used in regard to apartment ownership until the mid-1800s in Paris. The concept didn’t become codified in the United States until 1962.

While much of the book concentrates on our history, later chapters look at how certain cities and towns came to be, and how their development influenced modern places and movements. One I found fascinating was the examination of how Napoleon III’s redesign of Paris (possibly just to make it easier to control the masses with his military) helped spur the fashion and cafe culture the city is so well known for today. Also, learning how England’s Bedford Park community became a template for suburbs across Canada and the United States may be particularly interesting for Book Scan readers.

In the final chapter, readers get a glance at development in outer space. I had no idea that speculators have been buying and selling land on the moon for decades! But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the exploration of what it means to be a real estate developer. In both the first chapter and the afterward, the authors explore what motivates these ambitious, creative people who have “made places” throughout history. If you’ve ever wanted to make the leap to real estate development, you’ll enjoy this ride.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]realtors.org.

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  1. Great Read!

  2. Meg,
    Who owns the moon, to the extent they can sell it? Your review of this book was very interesting and well done.

  3. Danny Barforough

    The first ever transaction was recorded in the old testament when Abrham bought the land as burial ground for his wife for 400 silver weight coins called the cave of Patriarchs in Hebron .

  4. Great article! It’s amazing how territories have evolved!

  5. What an interesting idea—the history of the world as seen in terms of real estate development. What I found especially fascinating was the fact about the ancient Romans using foreign building materials as a way of showing off their control over distant lands. Thanks for the review Meg.