Everyone knows that the typical Islander’s paycheck these days is no match for the cost of a house on the Vineyard. Nearly three decades ago, things weren’t quite so lopsided. That is, unless you were daft enough to buy a jalopy of an old house. The price tag on the 200-year-old Cape was $135,000, but it was a house that cried out for a wealthy owner who could dash off checks to a platoon of plumbers, carpenters, electricians and masons.

I was not that owner.

To say the place was a wreck is an understatement. A maple sapling incongruously poked up through the rotted linoleum kitchen floor. There was a hole in the roof bigger than a beach ball and a porch that could have toppled onto Main Street with a few strategic shoves.

Then there was the peeling paint. It was so bad that during the previous owner’s tenure tour bus drivers heading out of Vineyard Haven slowed down, pointed out the window and repeated this wise-crack: “Guess who owns that place? A house painter.”

Yes, the old owner had reputedly been a house painter – back in the day when the finest product you could slap over your shingles and clapboards was lead paint. The bids just to scrape it off the exterior came in at about $30,000, and Tisbury’s health agent was all by the book. The solution lay on the mainland; in Woburn, to be exact. That’s where I attended de-leading boot camp and earned my certificate as a bona fide lead paint removal contractor. I plopped that certificate down on the table at the board of health, donned my TYVEK suit and grabbed a scraper.

Unlike today’s television shows, in which every homeowner emerges from a house of horrors into a nirvana of renovation, I never reached such a place. Over the years I came away with little more than bloodied knuckles, weary bones and nostrils full of paint dust and grime. The fire of my frustration was stoked by measly paychecks eaten up by the cost of gas and a bag of groceries at Cronig’s. Eventually, though, I grew to see my house as an emblem of truth. Many Islanders I knew lived with painted plywood for kitchen floors and curtains instead of cupboard doors under their kitchen sinks.

My first summer visit to the Island, I worked part-time for a farmer whose ramshackle house had holes in the floorboards and a beam propped up against an outside wall. A few times that summer, the farmer dispatched me to drive a beat-up truck down to the freight ferry in Vineyard Haven to fetch bushels of vegetables for the stand. Driving that old truck through the tourist traffic at Five Corners was a feeling similar to owning a house that never quite got gussied up: I felt like I fit right in.

Chris Burrell is a journalist, illustrator and former staff writer for the Vineyard Gazette.