With ongoing housing reform and profound changes in housing consumption in urban China, this article aims to understand tenure transition from rental to homeownership. Because of different housing systems in China over time, and thus different connotations attached to homeownership, tenure transition should be understood within its historic context. Using a sample survey of life history in 20 cities and the method of event history analysis, this article examines the tenure transition to the first homeownership during 1949–94, a period covering both the socialist era and the early stage of housing reform. In contrast to conventional wisdom, older and married people, and those working in the public sector and living in public housing were less likely to change to homeownership before housing reform, mainly because the socialist housing system was ironically in favor of those households with higher socio‐economic positions. In the reform era, while there are remnants of the socialist housing system, tenure transition has different dynamics with factors such as marital status, work units and previous housing tenure no longer important, at least by the mid‐1990s. In addition, crowded housing conditions and long duration in the rental sector generally encourage the transition to homeownership, and there are significant regional variations.