'Retromodeling': Take your old house back to its roots (© Elyse Lewin/Getty Images)

© Elyse Lewin/Getty Images

So you bought an older home, perhaps a post-World War II rambler or a 19th-century rowhouse. Now you're thinking about "retromodeling," or stripping away all the odd additions that have built up over the decades, and returning the house to its original glory. (Bing: Check out photos of 19th-century rowhouses)

It can be a really smart move. "The whole country has got pockets of stuff — by that I mean historically important but not museum-quality housing," says Bruce Irving, a producer of "This Old House" for 17 years and now a renovation consultant. These homes are often really remarkably built — solid, and "definitely worth saving," he says. 

But where do you even begin a "retromodel"? And what do you need to think about? After all, revamping an old home is a huge undertaking.

We've surveyed remodeling and restoration experts to compile their top tips so you can start with confidence.

Step 1: Define your goal
Your first step is basic. Ask yourself, "What's my goal?" says George Nash, a former builder and renovation specialist and author of "Renovating Old Houses." "There's a whole bunch of different approaches" to retooling old houses, Nash says. "It's almost like there are [wars] waged" over what's proper to do to an old house, he says.

Here are the basic levels of tinkering:

  • Preservation means cleaning up a home but also capturing it in amber, keeping all of the changes and additions that have occurred over the eras.
  • Restoration is "returning it to its original condition, as it was originally built"— that is, getting rid of a porch if it was added later "even if it's pretty," Nash says.
  • Renovation "is adapting it to modern use without doing violence to the spirit," he says.

So before you get started, know what you want the result to look like and how you'll use the home, Nash says. (Check out "Caring for Your Historic House".) 

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Step 2: I.D. your house
You can't return your home to past glory if you don't know exactly what type it is and the year it was built — and thus know what belongs and what doesn't.

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Here are some ways to do it:

Hit the books. There are some great books that — like birding guides — can help you identify your home by its characteristics, Nash says. Check out "American Shelter," by Lester Walker; "Where We Lived" by Jack Larkin; or "Roots of Home" by Russell Versaci. Irving suggests "A Field Guide to American Houses." 

Then, if you want to discover precisely when the home was built, go to the city's real-estate records and the chain of transactions, Nash says. "In our town, every deed has a chain that goes back to the original deed." 

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Find a picture. "The real historical gold I think is in historic photos," says Irving, who's also vice chairman of the Cambridge (Mass.) Historical Commission. "It depends on where you live, but many towns and cities have historic commissions or societies" that may keep photos of homes in neighborhoods, and especially more prominent homes. "It's always something of a crapshoot" in terms of what's been kept, "but always worth a visit" to these societies, he says. 

What you're trying to do with all of this is place your house on a continuum, so you can see how much of the original is still there and how much has been lost or changed, experts say. It will also help you know what you'll need to do to bring it back to the original.

Step 3: Be a voyeur
Here's another way to know more about your original house: Go look at others.

"If you can't find photographs, take a tour of the neighborhood," Irving suggests. "A lot of houses went off in twos and threes or 10s and 20s. You may find a ringer of your house [in much better original shape] just walking around the neighborhood."

Often, he adds, "The box itself is the same, but the builders would rotate where they put the gable, what kind of trim package they put up. They would play with the basic form."

Once you've identified the style of the house, there's probably going to be a museum-quality example of it somewhere. See if one is on the route of your next vacation, Irving suggests — to see what your house looked like and felt like when it was first built, and even see long-lost subtleties such as how glossy the floor was. Then you can decide just how faithful to the original you want to be. 

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Step 4: Do a gut check
Renovating an old house "is really not for everybody," says Jeanne Lawson, author of "The Complete Guide to Renovating Older Homes." "A lot of people jump in feet first and they really don't think it through." Even renovating a 50-year-old home "can take years," Lawson says. Don't jump into a big retromodel unless you're someone who is dogged, willing to see something through to a finish and you want to keep the house for a long time, Lawson says. "Many people say, 'I'm glad I did it, but I'd never do it again.'"

Step 5: Start at the bottom
Before you dive into all the sexy remodeling stuff you see on PBS, get out your legal pad. Starting with the foundation, draw up an "extreme home inspection list" of the entire house, Lawson says — what works, what doesn't, what's missing. Your list should include the basement, the roof, the plumbing, the chimney and the electrical system — as well as a detailed look at every room.

"All the things that aren't much fun" — the bones of the house, as it were — "really are the things that you need to look at first" before you tackle the creative things such as restoring a balustrade or painting walls, she says. The big, unsexy stuff is where you're really going to start getting a sense of the cost and time of your undertaking, she says. "That's where commitment comes in." 

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Step 6: Finding old blueprints?
Do you need your home's old blueprints as a road map? You often won't find them, Nash says. And blueprints of old homes "are less detailed than most people expect, and they're just not that useful," Irving says.

But if you want to look for them, here are some suggestions on where to look:

  • The attic (seriously). You might be surprised, Nash says.
  • The county clerk. This office, sometimes called the recorder or the registrar, may keep blueprints for housing developments. Expect to pay for copies, if they have them. You could also ask for the original building permit and try to track down the contractor or builder, if still around, and see if the builder still has plans.
  • The previous owners. You never know what information they may have. Or, they may be able to point you toward their original lender, who might have blueprints that were part of the loan information.