Buying things of real value.
May 11, 2012 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I would like to buy things that have a money value based on their actual utility. For example, I think gold is something that is overvalued since the shiny, soft metal doesn't have so many practical uses to justify its value. The second criteria is that the value of the thing would not go down much over a span of about 30 years, even if the economy went in the tank. Thirdly, I've a preference for commodity-like items that can be sold without much work.

For example...
A shipping container if not in use and stored correctly will not wear out. It would not retain its value well in a bad economy with low shipping activity, but the scrap metal value is at least 25% of its full value, and containers have other purposes than shipping. so that would be some consolation. It can be sold without effort to demonstrate its features, which are standard and commodity-like. Points off for being a bit difficult to take delivery of and store.
posted by ErikH2000 to Work & Money (39 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Palladium is an undervalued* precious metal that has industrial uses similar to platinum (electronic circuitry and catalytic converters in gas-powered automobiles.)

(* -option)
posted by oblio_one at 8:23 AM on May 11, 2012

Soft toilet paper.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:26 AM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Petrol / gasoline
posted by richb at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2012

What about real property?
posted by insectosaurus at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

How about a decent road/mountain bike?

It is useful but not exorbitant. You pay directly for better quality as long as you stay in the midrange.
It should hold its value. Bikes are bikes.
It is easily sold.
posted by smackfu at 8:29 AM on May 11, 2012

Canned (or otherwise preserved) food.


Warm clothing.

Instructional books.
posted by Etrigan at 8:33 AM on May 11, 2012

US silver quarters (quarters dated 1964 or earlier). The bullion value of each, in current US dollars, has always been worth a gallon of gas or more, for 100 years and still holding.
posted by caclwmr4 at 8:35 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by contraption at 8:39 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by jgirl at 8:42 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding bullets/cartridges.

Less commodity-like, but knives and weapons would also fit this bill.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2012

Don't the primers in ammunition change over time so that very old cartridges don't always fire right away?
posted by VTX at 8:47 AM on May 11, 2012

Etrigan: "Canned (or otherwise preserved) food."

It's recommended that canned food be used with a year of canning. I haven't tested this though since all I've canned at home is strawberry jam and I've never given it a chance to go bad.
posted by theichibun at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2012

Why not buy farmland?
posted by Sfving at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A Lie-Nielsen bench plane.
posted by birdwatcher at 8:52 AM on May 11, 2012

Best answer: There is no real such thing. Almost everything has a fluctuating value that goes unexpectedly into flux in times of crisis.

Except, perhaps, wheat land—which is inexpensive, remote, unimproved land. (Without water access, or electricity, even.) It's easy to have percentage-paid tenant farmers if you're not near, and the wheat profit always far exceeds the property taxes and fees. As a kicker, the government pays you to grow it. (Yup, even when you make a healthy profit. Really sick.)

The price of wheat DOES fluctuate as a commodity, but it does so realistically, unlike metals, say, or currencies. (Or even built property.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 9:03 AM on May 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: A friend of mine who's been given a shipping container in a yard run by a non-profit, in which to run his non-profit, would definitely disagree with you on the "wear out" factor. He'll be building a new roof structure to go over it. So you'd have to enclose the shipping container, which means that storing it has a cost, which means that you really want something that's going to appreciate if you're gonna dedicate barn space to it.

To smackfu's mountain bike suggestion, bike, and even just generic materials, technology advances so fast that bikes depreciate hella quick. A couple hundred dollar beach cruiser might hold its value, but that's not really an investment.

The "real value" really comes down to "what's going to be several times more expensive to manufacture in 30 years?" In big metal things, you're kind of betting on energy costs, in ammo you're betting on broken legal systems, and so forth. I do like birdwatcher's suggestion of high end hand tools, because the value of those is in the skilled labor necessary to take a basic casting and turn it in to a tuned instrument, and because the demand for those is small enough that the real advances in materials technology probably won't impact that market much.

However, finding the buyers for those things is expensive, as anyone who's ever participated in (either as buyer or seller) a tool-heavy estate sale can tell you.
posted by straw at 9:05 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would like to buy things that have a money value based on their actual utility.

Utility is a flexible concept. In your shipping container example, your shipping container may have less worth if the price of oil goes up, as it will become more and more expensive to move your shipping container (and the goods within it) from place to place. Or the opposite could happen -- there could be a glut of shipping capability. Or your shipping container could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If you know how to predict the future utility of an item ... then I'd like to buy whatever crystal ball you have.

Instead, try to focus on things that may not have great right-now utility, but ones where the future utility is more predictable because of built-in scarcity or balance.

* Real estate
* Bonds
* Index funds
* Spectrum licenses
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:10 AM on May 11, 2012

Chateau Mouton-Rothschild
posted by roofus at 9:12 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

You didn't say why you want to buy such things. Maybe we're to presume it's a hedge against the world going to hell over the next 30 years, and normal places to store your wealth ceasing to work?

Things that will hold their value in such a scenario are going to be pretty difficult to find unless they specifically become more valuable in such times. (Your example of shipping containers shows why: the demand for containers and scrap metal will tank with the economy.)

And if you do choose things that gain in value in dire times, they'll probably drop in value if the times turn out not to be dire after all.

Anyway, you might try things like jewelry, artworks and fine wines if you consider them to have utility.
posted by philipy at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2012

What about camera lenses? I don't know about over 30 years, but lenses that fit common brands of cameras (Canon, Nikon) definitely hold onto their value over 5-7 years in my experience. As long as they're kept dry and not exposed to temperature fluctuations they won't wear out.
posted by House of Leaves of Grass at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2012

High quality firearms made by companies like Colt and Smith & Wesson tend to appreciate in value, and are potentially useful while you 'own' them.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 9:25 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Old but reliable technology may fit the bill.

I recall reading that NASA almost permanently lost a bunch of original magnetic tape footage from the moon because somewhere along the way they scrapped the machines capable of reading that tape format.

Current trends tell us that portable magnetic (floppy disks, VHS) and optical (CD/DVD/Blu ray) media will eventually be completely replaced by smaller, cheaper, more reliable sold-state storage. So perhaps well-manufactured, reliable media readers might work, for people in 2040 wanting to recover home movies or archived computer files?
posted by trivia genius at 9:25 AM on May 11, 2012

posted by seanmpuckett at 9:30 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Lanark at 9:51 AM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

AK-47s. Bury them in a box filled with carbon dioxide.
posted by Tom-B at 10:02 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good furniture? It will fluctuate as it goes in or out of style, but should retain much of its value.

Hardwoods are a nice, storable raw material that's been getting generally scarcer over time; presumably large pieces of oak or teak or walnut or (???) would retain value. If you're feeling ghoulish you could choose species that are more likely to be affected by climate change.

Other raw minerals from this previous AskMe
posted by hattifattener at 10:36 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Booze. Cigarettes.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:37 AM on May 11, 2012

Don't the primers in ammunition change over time so that very old cartridges don't always fire right away?

If the ammo is properly stored this isn't a major concern. For instance, surplus ammo from WWII works just fine.

As for the idea that buying ammo means betting on social collapse: not necessarily. The price of ammunition depends on popularity/rarity along with the price of metal, just as with tools. If you buy a few thousand rounds of a common caliber and store them properly, there will be a market for them in thirty years even if the economy holds steady. The only problem here is that ammo prices are high right now; for maximum yield you'll want to wait.
posted by vorfeed at 11:27 AM on May 11, 2012

posted by ob1quixote at 11:56 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll argue with the idea that gold has no inherent utility aside from being shiny. Its malleability and conductivity makes it an excellent raw material for electronics, wiring, and other practical applications.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 12:07 PM on May 11, 2012

Hardwood is actually a pretty good idea if the assumptions I read in an article a few years ago still hold. Basically two guys inherited the family farm which was just big enough that one of them could be a pauper and the other could get a job doing something other than farming. What they did instead was plant the whole thing in walnut trees (on like three foot centers) with a plan of thinning them out as they got bigger and after deer and the weather took their share.

The numbers were interesting. A bundle of 100 trees (ok, sticks with roots) is pretty cheap, so setting this up wasn't that costly, apart from their labor. Then for 30 years they pretty much get nothing (apart from a huge tax break for soil blanking the land) in year 30 though they can start harvesting and replanting. From year 30 to 60 the payout from harvesting 1% of the land was a nice windfall but not enough to live off of. By about year 60, when you were harvesting fully grown trees, you were looking at a pretty good income by most modern standards. Once you do one full go-round you're selling 100 year old walnut trees forever. Well your children and grandchildren.

Note: These guys were planting things themselves, but I believe their numbers assumed people coming in and buying and cutting the standing trees.

You might be better off planting mixed species given the existence of things like dutch elm disease and the emerald ash borer. Unfortunately, walnuts are like bioweapon wielding terrorists in the eyes of other trees so some expertise would be required.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:07 PM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It just doesn't work that way.

A basic economic concept is that something's current value is the sum of its future benefit, adjusted for the fact that people prefer to have things now rather than later.

In economic jargon, we say that the present value equals the discounted present value of the future stream of output. So, for example, you want to buy a truck and rent it out. You expect to get $1000 a month in rent. To figure out whether to buy it, you add up the $1000 a month for however long you expect the truck to last, discount it at the interest rate that you could otherwise earn on the money you will spend on the truck, and add it up.

Let's make the simplifying assumption that you think you can put the truck in the garage and that it will be just as useful in 30 years as it is today. (In fact, not only will it rust, but in 30 years trucks will be much better than they are today.) But instead of getting that $1000 a month for, say, 10 years beginning today, you will get 10 years at $1000 a month beginning in 30 years. You'd be much better off holding on to the money in some FINANCIAL form for 30 years, then buying a truck THEN.

Why? Because someone would be willing to borrow your money, buy a truck, make a profit, then give you your money back to you with interest. In other words, holding on to a productive asset and not using it to create something productive is inefficient.

So what do you do if you want to have something of value? You buy part of a productive asset. Fortunately, we live in modern times, and you can just go to a financial institution and lend them money (by buying bonds or investing it in an interest bearing account), and they will lend that money to a company and give you money in return - interest. Or you can buy stock, in which case you are owning part of a productive enterprise. (Or you can buy a mutual fund, in which case you own a little bid of many productive enterprises.) Or you could buy land, but in that case you'd want to rent it out rather than just hold it - otherwise you would be forgoing the income you could get from the rent, because you would be preventing people from using the land, which is effectively eliminating a possible productive use of the asset.

OK, I'm going to stop now before I've written an entire introductory finance/econ lecture. Or maybe I already have...
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:17 PM on May 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Electric Guitars
posted by travertina at 1:58 PM on May 11, 2012

Bluejeans, of good quality and stored properly, will never go bad. They have obvious, standard utility, and are therefore commodity-like. I have little doubt that people will still be wearing jeans in thirty years.

The main downside is that sizing is a bitch. Who knows what size people will be in 30 years? Also, who knows what styles will be fasionable.

The upside is that, in addition to being commodity-like, they have the possibility of greatly increasing in value as authentic vintange items. Thus, if times are tough and we're in the middle of the Neo-Robo-Dust-Bowl, they'll still be pants, good durable ones with easy and cheap upkeep. If times are great and everybody's got Neo-Robo-dollars burning a hole in their pocket, they may find a market as exclusive status symbols for Neo-Robo-Hipsters.
posted by LiteOpera at 2:53 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Good quality hand tools. I'd even go as far as to say good quality sound equipment, I've been looking into building up a good quality sound system (amp, speakers etc) and some of the second hand stuff is selling for pretty much what people paid for it 10 or 20 years ago, or so it seems to me, I could be shopping in the wrong places.
posted by wwax at 4:10 PM on May 11, 2012

Best answer: I subscribe to Mr Know-It-Some's point that utility-on-hold is riskier and costly compared to things you are getting utility from while you own them.

Not sure what kind of scale you're thinking, but I would suggest a grid-tie solar panel system.
Solar panel prices are, over the long term, likely to keep trending down (probably not the short term - we're in the middle of a glut that won't last), but that doesn't matter as long as the value of the energy you sell now exceeds the savings of buying later. (And even if that fails to happen, I'd think the difference should be slight).

After a number of years (depending where you live), the energy sales have paid for the panels, and you own your own power plant - quite the asset to own in an energy-hungry future.

And we know that demand for electricity is not going to go away.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:24 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: This is the first question I've asked on metafilter, and I'm really happy with the responses. Like already the five bucks for membership were earned.

A few people wanted to understand my motives better, but to be honest, I prefer not to talk about them much because I like answers that take the question at face value. And I'm not trying to be mysterious.

I like a lot of the ideas and some may be the seed of further research. I'm probably most intrigued by the ideas based on buying land and doing something useful/profitable with it. (Thanks, Harlequin, Kid Charlemagne, RJ Reynolds) I also checked out the separate thread on rare/disappearing materials (Hattifatener) with interest and browsed palladium (oblio_one) for a bit. The ideas related to guns, ammo, weapons (craven_morhead, VTX, vorfeed) were interesting, though I'd feel nervous about stockpiling these things.

I knew someone would poke holes in my shipping container notion (straw, philipy), and agree that gold is not just a pretty metal (BigLankyBastard). Hey, my mouth has got gold in it, because it is soft and bends easily. Just saying it's overvalued.

I thought several more thoughts about all the rest, and will think some more, and greatly appreciate the flood of ideas.
posted by ErikH2000 at 7:45 PM on May 11, 2012

Singer Featherweight sewing machines.
posted by davey_darling at 7:52 PM on May 11, 2012

If I read your question as 'what's something I could buy now that has a utility commensurate with its price, is durable, portable, likely to hold some value over time, and people might still want it if the world went to hell in a handbasket', then I'd say Opinel stainless folding knives.

You can get one for a tenner; stored reasonably carefully, it will last for ages; it doesn't take up a lot of space; it will probably still be worth the equivalent of a tenner some time down the track (we'll ignore what else you could have done with the tenner or the knife in the meantime); and in a post-apocalyptic world, we all want sharp, pointy things.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:14 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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