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.”
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.