LONDON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - British estate agency Countrywide said it was on the hunt for a partner to help it build a 1 billion pound ($1.7 billion) fund to invest in rental property, as it posted its first profit since returning to the stock market. Britain's largest estate agency by revenue said on Thursday it had committed 20 million pounds of its own capital to buy a portfolio of rental properties. It is now looking for an institution or fund manager partner to help it build a fund with a target size of 1 billion pounds invested over the next five years. "We believe Countrywide is uniquely placed to play a major role in the growth of this developing sector," it said. Institutional investor interest in the private rental sector has picked up as Britain, traditionally a nation of homeowners, has seen record numbers of households move into the rental sector in recent years due to a shortage of homes. In November, Gatehouse Bank formed a joint venture with property developer Sigma Capital to build thousands of rental homes in Britain. Countrywide, which enjoyed a strong return to the market in March after a six year absence, operates from about 1,300 offices under 46 brands including Hamptons International and Bairstow Eves across Britain. Total income for the year to end-December rose 11 percent to 584.8 million pounds ($973 million), while adjusted earnings before interest, tax, debt and amortisation increased by 37 percent to 86.6 million pounds. It also said its chief executive of seven years, Grenville Turner, would step down this year to become its non-executive chairman. Investors usually frown upon such moves due to concerns over possible conflicts between the new and old chief executives. Turner, who owns less than 2 percent of Countrywide's shares, said the decision had been made after consulting with shareholders. Countrywide's results come as housebuilders such as Barratt Developments and Redrow announced increased dividend payouts to shareholders as Britain's housing market recovers.