The History of London’s Property Market: From Roman Times to Present Day

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Written By Freddie Smith

Freddie Smith, a seasoned real estate advisor, specializes in guiding first-time buyers through the complexities of London's property market. With a talent for simplifying financial and legal jargon, Freddie offers clear, actionable advice. His insights into market trends and buyer strategies make them an invaluable guide for anyone embarking on their first property purchase in London.

London’s vibrant and multifaceted property market has its roots in the city’s rich past. From mayoralty reforms during the 1700s to post-war regeneration initiatives, the decisions that have been made have defined the shape of London’s current landscape. As Britain’s economic and political centre evolves, so too does its property market, adapting to new influences and influences from beyond the UK borders. It is the cumulative effect of these factors that helps us understand the market’s current form and anticipate its prospects in the future.

Throughout its history, London’s property market has experienced a series of pivotal moments, such as the invention of the leasehold system in the 18th century, and the 1918 Housing and Town Planning Act. These events were outgrowths of the existing socio-economic conditions, including the mass migration of people to London, the rising cost of housing, and the tightening of land use regulations. Today, these forces of change still cast their shadows over the property market as Londoners seek to purchase and rent property in a city with historically high prices and limited space. By learning from the past, we can better prepare for the future.

Roman Times to 18th Century

In the days of the Roman Empire, and up until the 18th century, property ownership was a sought-after indicator of wealth and status. Landlords owned expansive plots of land and gained income from tenants, most of whom were farmers at the time. As cities grew in size and the population began to move to more urban areas, property values rose steadily. In wealthier districts, landowners were known to use their luxuriously decorated properties to host grand events for their peers.

During the 18th century, property ownership was still closely linked to individuals’ social standing, and local governments began to recognize this by introducing property tax laws. Any landowner, no matter his or her status in society, was expected to pay a flat tax rate throughout the country. This equalized the playing field between wealthy and poorer landlords and discouraged landlords from owning large areas of land. Despite this, property remained a viable option for gaining wealth and power, and it was often used to gain favor with the local government.

To this day, property ownership is still regarded as a sign of financial security and social standing. Though the tax laws have become more progressive, the basics of property ownership remain the same and the concept of property ownership has become a core part of the economy.

The 18th to 20th Century Property Expansion

The 18th century marked a turning point when the middle class began to take shape and gain purchasing power, leading to an uptick in property demand. This era also saw more people flock to urban areas for work opportunities and better standards of living—a trend that accelerated in the 19th century with the advent of railway development, much of which was possible due to advances in engineering. As cities became increasingly populated, the urgent need for adequate housing also grew, and social housing was introduced in the early 20th century as a remedy.}

Still, this accommodation couldn’t keep up with the endless influx of people hoping to make a living in the cities and many remained unsheltered or living in slum-like conditions. In response, private organizations and government initiatives aimed to address the problem of homelessness, food insecurity and poverty, but unfortunately much of this proved to be inadequate and long-term solutions were often hard to implement.

Property Expansion: The Battle between Supply and Demand

The increased property demand of the 19th century was met with a steady supply from established landowners and new investors, though there were disagreements over whether the expansion should be in line with public health concerns or if it should primarily benefit corporations. The struggle between different economic forces continues today and has resulted in some of the most densely populated areas in cities like London, Paris, and New York.


The 18th to 20th centuries marked a massive expansion of the property market, driven by the rise of the middle class and the development of the railway system. This period also saw the introduction of social housing as a means to combat housing affordability issues though this wasn’t enough to meet the burgeoning demand. As a result, a struggle between different economic interests has continued to this day, with government interventions often attempting to balance the interests of individuals and corporations.

21st Century – The Impact of Technology on the Property Market

As technology continues to evolve and become increasingly pervasive, the impact of this development on the property market has been undeniable. Proptech, which presents an opportunity for property buyers, sellers, renters, managers, and investors to benefit from the improvements wrought by technology, has fuelled the advancement of the property market in the 21st century. From online databases being used to forecast market values more accurately to property management applications streamlining processes and slackening time taken to secure a rental – the property market has been revolutionized.

The urban landscapes of London speak to one specific challenge that has emerged in the 21st century property market – the housing crisis. This has become particularly acute in the capital, where demand for property has spiralled in recent years, and yet there remains a marked shortage in the availability of affordable properties. While the frequent causes of this price rise vary – foreign investment, excessive areas of gentrification, population growth – the stark truth remains that the 21st century London housing crisis demands a solution that can be found through technology.

Leading property technology businesses have already begun unlocking new opportunities to help ameliorate the London housing crisis. From utilizing bike deliveries to speed up the tenancy process and reduce the need for physical meetings to providing landlords with automated onboarding and data analytics tools to track efficiency in their rental operations, the new wave of technology-driven property companies are profoundly reshaping the housing landscape of London.

Technology Effect on Property Market
Online databases More accurate foreacasting
Property management applications Streamlining processes and reducing time
Data analytics tools Data to track operations
Bike delivery services Reduce physical meetings and tenant onboarding

London’s property market is a fascinating and intricate system, with a continual evolution driven by a range of political, social, and economic conditions. The current market is a reflection of this complex history, with both challenges and opportunities for buyers, investors, and developers. To have a full understanding of the implications of the market and the potential for gain, it is vital for those interested in entering the market to fully comprehend its multi-faceted, multifarious history.

The future of London’s property market is sure to be one of transformation, as economic uncertainty and technological advancement bring both opportunities and risks. As the market continues to evolve, those who are looking to invest, develop, and buy in the capital would be wise to continue to stay abreast of changes in the housing market and be mindful of the unpredictable influences that shape the London landscape. With education and insight, the city’s property market continues to present an array of investing possibilities.

Freddie Smith