Use housing resources to learn more about how your ancestors provided a home for their families.

Resources on the Internet

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Research Questions to Consider


Where did your ancestors live; where did they call home? What were the features of their dwelling? Learning more about the homes of our ancestors can help us to learn more about their daily lives and their values. Looking beyond the names and dates of genealogy research, looking into the history of a house can add depth to a family history. For more information about researching the history of a house, read the House Histories GenGuide.


Resources on the Internet

The websites presented here are just a sampling of what can be found on the Internet to help you learn about your ancestors’ homes. Use these website examples as a guide to customize searches for your specific research goal.

Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records: This site has over five million records for federal land titles issued between 1788 and the present.

List of House Types: Wikipedia provides an extensive list of house types with links to further information.

House Styles: From This Old House, an annotated slide show of American house styles.

Old House Web: Explore the Architectural Housing Styles section for descriptions and photos of houses.

Analyzing Deeds for Useful Clues: A wonderful article by Elizabeth Shown Mills with much helpful information on using deeds for research.

House Histories: An online article by Kimberly Powell to help you trace the genealogy of your house.

Old House History: Read articles and tips on discovering the genealogy or architectural ancestry of your old house.


Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps are a wonderful resource to learn more about your ancestors’ homes. Originally created between 1867 and the mid-1900s to help insurance companies establish premiums, these maps provide a wealth of information for genealogists. They are very detailed and can indicate building materials (stone, concrete, brick, frame), the dimensions of the structures, window openings, and dwelling use (home, business, stable). The maps give street names, lot lines and house/lot numbers, and street widths. Other notes on the maps can indicate, for example, a sprinkler system or that a warehouse has no watchman.

When using Sanborn maps, pay close attention to the legend of symbols and colors. They help to accurately interpret the drawings on the maps. You may also want to locate maps in sequential years to make comparisons over time.

A great place to start searching for Sanborn Fire Insurance maps is on the Sanborn Maps page on the Library of Congress (LOC) website. The LOC currently has over 25,000 sheets from over 3,000 city sets covering thirty-three states and the District of Columbia as well as Mexico and Canada.

Some libraries have directories or digitized images of Sanborn maps. A few examples are the North Carolina Sanborn maps on the University of North Carolina library website, Pennsylvania Sanborn maps on the Penn State University Libraries website, and the Sanborn Maps of Illinois on the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries of Illinois website.

Additionally, many public library systems provide access, powered by ProQuest, to state and local Sanborn maps in the research sections of their websites. If you are a library card holder for your local public library, you will want to check out these online resources.


Research Questions to Consider

What were houses built of?

Who built the home? When was it built?

How many rooms were in their house?

Were there other buildings on the property, a barn or perhaps a garage?

Was the kitchen part of the main house?

Did the house have a basement? An attic?

Did the house have a front porch? Back porch?

Was the living room casual or formal?

Was there a fireplace? Did it have a wood or marble mantel?

Was there indoor plumbing? Did they have electricity?

How did the family get water?

How did they protect against the cold? Was the home heated?

In which room was the TV or radio? Did the family watch or listen together?

Did the children have their own bedroom or did they share?

Was there a flower or vegetable garden?

What types of furnishings were in the house?

What was the architectural style of the house?

Did the house sit close to the road, or was it set back a distance?

How close were the nearest neighbors?

Was there a fence in the yard?

Is the house still standing?

What changes has the house gone through through the years?


Updated September 2017