What is Chattel?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Chattel is a term in the financial world which refers to personal property which can be moved; it is also known as movable property. Some examples of chattel include jewelry, cars, and furniture. The opposite of chattel is immovable property, like real estate and buildings, although in some circumstances, of course buildings can be moved. Some people just call chattel “personal property,” differentiating it from things like real estate with the term “immovable property.”

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

The word is derived from the Middle English chatel, which means “movable property.” It is related to the Old French chatel, meaning “cattle,” a reference to one of the most famous examples of movable property of all time. Humans have had chattel for thousands of years; movable property was probably the introduction to the concept of property for early humans, as people learned to make and use things, thereby attaching value to them.

This term has another, more sinister meaning, which dates to 1649. In the 1600s, abolitionists started calling slaves chattel, emphasizing the fact that slaves were viewed as personal property, rather than human beings. Although slave owners resisted the use of the term, it was remarkably apt and also correct: like inanimate chattel, slaves could be seized by the government and sold to recoup debt, for example. You may still encounter terms like “human chattel” in literature from anti-slavery organizations.

Economically, chattel is viewed differently from immovable property. As a general rule, the value of chattel drops rapidly, thanks to a process called depreciation. Anyone who has purchased a new car is probably aware of this phenomenon. Typically, the decline in value cannot be arrested with improvements to the chattel, unlike real property, which can constantly be made more valuable with the use of improvements and renovation. Because of this issue, chattel is treated differently from real estate in financial assessments like those involved in determining how much money someone owes in taxes.

You might be surprised by the value of your chattel. While an individual piece of movable property may not be that valuable, it is easy to pack a home with a substantial amount of belongings. Because replacing such belongings can be expensive and stressful, some people like to get insurance to protect their movable property from things like theft and fires, ensuring that their movable goods are protected along with their real estate and providing rapid replacements for things like cars and computers which may be vitally necessary for work.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Don't spend anymore energy on the situation. As long as you met the terms of the agreement for renting the commercial space as it stood, you have no problem. The Landlord of the building is not entitled to your personal property unless he pays you for it. Hopefully, you repaired the walls where you removed the cabinets to return the space to as was condition.


I have heard, it's not definitive though. That once you "install" something you must leave it.


i rented a commercial property and did $35,000.00 worth of improvements and put in metal cabinets in the kitchen area. ($2000.00 worth.)

i have since moved and took the cabinets with me as there were none when i moved in.

The leaser has contacted me about the cabinets and wants them put back. I contend they are mine as I have receipts for them and the building was completely bare when i rented it and now has walls and doors that I paid to put in.

I do have pictures of the building on the date of rental to prove the non-existence of walls and cabinets of any kind in the building on that date.

The only thing in the building at the time of rental was a non suctioning toilet and a bathtub that leaked. there was not even a kitchen area at that point in time in this industrial building.

In fact the upstairs rooms were not even safely nor properly supported which I have pictures of also. do the cabinets need to be returned?

signed; not wanting to give the metal up

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