The brick fireplace in your new place was slathered in white paint by a former resident, or it's so soot-stained you can't tell the original color of the brick. The firebox has definitely seen a lot of use, and the hearth is not so welcoming. Time to reinvigorate that focal point and restore it to like-new appearance. Brick is warm, traditional, rustic and rich -- your fireplace can be all those things with some first-aid or a good cover-up.
Clean It Up
Brick is forgiving and a good cleaning will reveal character and restore its natural beauty. Dust, dry-wipe and vacuum first to remove loose dirt and ash. Press or wipe a chimney sponge or light-colored modeling dough against the brick to remove soot. Wash the brick with mild detergent to clean up light soiling. Tackle serious staining with a solution of 1/2 cup each of TSP and dry laundry detergent, dissolved in a gallon of water. TSP emits toxic fumes, so wear safety gloves, goggles and a mask, and be sure to ventilate the room well. Always test any cleaning method on an unseen area of the brick -- old brick can crumble when disturbed or vigorously cleaned. Once the brick and mortar are clean, lightly reface any discolored or worn-away mortar.
Sometimes the damage is so difficult to undo that it's easier and more cost-effective to cover it up. A cheap way to do that is to faux-paint the brick. Unleash your inner artist and prepare to sink some time into creating a lovely "new" brick fireplace with a mixed palette of brick colors: chestnut, terra-cotta, cocoa, burnt umber, burnt sienna, harvest gold and maybe a brick red. Acrylic hobby paint is fine for this. You first clean the whole surface and then use a small brush to paint cement color on the mortar. Then roll a base coat of warm, medium dark brown over the brick and, while the paint is still wet, sponge the other colors randomly on individual bricks to create a variegated surface. Work on small sections at a time and don't worry if the porous, rough brick -- previously painted over or not -- doesn't evenly soak up paint. The spottiness will resemble the discoloration of aged brick and give your faux finish a greater appearance of authenticity.
Reface With Veneer
Brick veneer is 3/8 to 3/4 inch thick and is light and easy to work with. For a fireplace with badly stained, painted or damaged brick, veneer might be cheaper and less messy than sandblasting or rebricking. Apply the brick veneer so you get a variegated finish, using the old brick as a guide and following manufacturer's instructions for application of bonding agents and mixing the thinset mortar. Clean the old brick first, put a thick coating of mortar on each veneer brick and press it into place over the existing brick. When it's finished and dried, grout the spaces between the bricks with a mortar bag -- it works like a cake decorator -- and use the tip-handle of a wood paintbrush to smooth the grout as it dries. Sanded grout works best because you can sweep away the excess around the edges of the brick veneer with the brush end of the dry paintbrush. Seal the finished veneer for easier cleaning.
A fireplace is a de facto fire hazard when it is not properly maintained, and a neglected exterior could point to the need for a new chimney sleeve or liner, opening walls to get at the inner workings of the flue, unblocking unsafely stopped flues and other messy but essential repairs. Have your fireplace checked by a certified chimney sweep or licensed inspector to determine what replacements or repairs the job will require. Do it before refinishing the brick to save yourself a frustrating and unnecessary do-over.