I made a bad decision in the summer before my senior year of college. It could have been a total disaster, but a thirst for learning turned it into a hidden wealth opportunity. Let me explain.

Who would sign up for a non-existent apartment?

My friend Pat and I set out to find an apartment for our final year. We had a promising lead with Steve, the leader of Pat’s band. We agreed to meet with him to talk about the place. Steve suggested that we meet over a beer, which was a bit odd, the normal practice being a meeting at the property being offered. But a free beer to a student is a fantastic tenant inducement, so off we went.

Steve explained his vision for the place. Very functional, but stylish. Two equal sized bedrooms, lots of natural light. A cosy kitchen. Neutral palate throughout. It sounded like a good fit. I asked if we could, you know, have a look at it. It was then that he explained that it wasn’t quite done yet, but that he would be working on it all summer. No problem for it to be ready for the beginning of September. The check arrived and Steve realized that he had forgotten his wallet. I didn’t connect on that bit of character foreshadowing. I laid down some bills. We agreed to view the place the following week.

The palate was neutral all right

We entered through the front of the house and then descended some well worn steps to the basement. Looked like they were salvaged from the Mayflower. A single bare bulb  lit the dusty foundation walls and the gently undulating dirt floor. No sign of the natural light. It was a bit like the cave they bricked Fortunato in. Steve rhapsodized about where the kitchen would go and how he would excavate and put in the drains, where the bedrooms would be and how a separate entrance would materialize in an exterior wall. The vision sounded promising so, without so much as an artist’s rendering, we signed up. I left a week later to head west for a tree planting job, excited about moving into the new apartment upon my return.

Four weeks before school and I faced a nasty decision

I called Steve when I returned in late July and he ruefully agreed to meet at the place. There was a big, rough, gaping  hole cut into the side of the house that would form a separate entrance. Other than that, it looked pretty much like the cave I had seen 3 months earlier. Steve’s silver tongue clicked into gear. There was talk of rent discounts, accelerated progress and a bountiful stream of promises. Then came the unholy suggestion that the work would go faster if I helped him. An astute person would have walked. Run. Moved in with Mom and Dad. Anyone’s Mom and Dad. Or slept in the school library. Or couch surfed with friends for the year. I was keen to learn and loved an adventure. After a short trip home to grab some tools, we set to work.

I had found a hidden wealth opportunity

Steve was a master craftsman. Concrete, plumbing, drywall, wiring and carpentry. He knew it all. Each task began with a lesson and I logged 10 hour days, watching him then applying the skills in an attempt to, well, have shelter. He did it all with proper inspections that I watched to learn even more. Pat wasn’t really a “construction guy” so we didn’t see much of him that summer.  Meanwhile, the place began to take shape. We focused on building my bedroom and  the basics of a bathroom. When school started, I had moved in, filled my waterbed (de rigour in those days) and was ready for school. There still was no exterior door, just a big hole,  which was an issue because of: 1. The chilly fall weather, 2. The possibility of vagrants moving in and, 3. The robust squirrel population in the area. By October I had a door, a full bathroom and a kitchen. In the end, I traded some long work days for a lifetime of skills. It was a hidden wealth opportunity.

Work to learn, not to earn

Over the next 36 year or so, I have used every one of those skills many times over. A rookie mistake about renting a non-existent apartment set me up with a lifetime of trade skills that have helped me build decks, finish basements, move walls and insulate attics. So what was the overall benefit to me of the Learning? Maybe $100k. Maybe more. But the savings got invested and continued to grow over the years. Looking back, every inch of me wanted to take the normal reaction to the situation. Some yelling. A small claims court filing. Or at least a scramble for another apartment. And a wiser person would never have signed up to rent an apartment that didn’t exist. But I would have missed a big opportunity. I read somewhere the phrase “Work to learn, not to earn”. Brilliant.

Never miss the chance to learn new skills. They will serve you for a lifetime.

Have you found some hidden wealth opportunities? Let me know in the comments.


  1. I have been waiting to read a follow up article on your hearing aids from Costco.
    Was wanting to look into them if you felt they work well.

    • Gordon Stein Reply

      Thanks Linda. The short answer is that they are working well and I continue to recommend them. They are a tremendous value at the price and they have been a lifesaver for me as a professional speaker with a hearing impairment. I will be doing a more complete followup post on my experiences with them, likely within a week or two. Stay tuned and thanks for your interest.

  2. Don Hockin Reply

    Gord, I remember that summer/fall and the development of the ‘cave’ and the before and after tour!

    • Gordon Stein Reply

      Indeed! Fond memories from those days. So wonderful when the place actually had a door!

  3. I have followed a similar path with DIY Reno’s over the years and have made countless mistakes. However, in 25 years and 3 properties I have saved well over $100,000 and learned valuable skills as well.

    • Gordon Stein Reply

      Great to hear Mark. Hour for hour, doing some of your own handiwork can provide some of the best returns. And nothing can beat the satisfaction of a successful project that you did with your own hands.

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