Most goods hold their value a whole lot better than cars…

Posted on December 19th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

It seems to be a recurring
theme in my life. I get besotted with a product – normally one much more
expensive than I can afford at the time – and I hanker after it year after year.

And, eventually, I often
end up buying it.

Many, many years ago it was
a Canon Typestar 5 mini word processor – I saw one being used by a lecturer when
I was a student teacher and I decided on the spot that I just had to have one.
The fact that I ended up buying the Brother equivalent was of no consequence.

A similar situation
happened with a Bose Wave Radio – I saw one at a hi-fi show demo and decided
that one day I would own one. It took about ten years but in the end I did buy
it – and, like the other products that have entered this subconscious hedonistic
buyers’ paradise, it has been a purchase made without longstanding regret. After
all, I’ve had just the same thoughts about other consumer goods that have often
ended up (finally) entering my life.

Of course, being realistic,
the Cessna Citation hasn’t yet appeared on my (imaginary) personal runway, and
the Zodiac inflatable with the 4-stroke Honda outboard is still resident in the
shop and not my garage.

But one recurring theme
that my partner Georgina and I have embraced is that of an expandable
camper-trailer. A few years ago we seriously looked at the idea of going on the
road: slowly heading around Australia with a camper trailer in tow, setting up a
home in any place that took our fancy, with my work being done by satellite web
connection and Georgina picking up paying child care or teaching duties. We
looked at caravans (too big an aero drag, too heavy and not enough living
space), big tents (great, but not enough mod cons and too long in the setting-up
time) and finally settled on an expandable camper-trailer.

Click for larger image

In fact, more specific than
that, we decided on a Jayco product – something like the one pictured here
(minus the people!).

We were absolutely serious,
looking at the tow-bar rating of my Lexus, going to the local Jayco dealer, and
checking out the rental rates we’d get for our house while we were gone. For
specific advice about the camper I even rang the Jayco advisory line – only to
receive a wet shower. Jayco – or at least the guy on the other end of the phone
– didn’t at all like the idea of living in an expandable camper. For starters,
he suggested that the sides of the van would need to be guyed in windy weather,
and furthermore, he surreptitiously suggested that the canvas parts of the van
were unlikely to last the distance.

But once the idea of a
purchase is embedded, I keep on looking. In this case, to be brought up hard
against another wall.

New van prices are high,
and secondhand… well, they’re just as high! Caravans – including the
expandable campers we had been looking at – retain their value extraordinarily
well. In fact, when you scan the used ads, some appear to be selling for over their new price! Sure, often there
are included accessories like annexes, but still…

In fact, take tonight. Here
I am browsing eBay and there’s a Jayco camper caravan. Year of build: 1998. Hmm,
so 6 years old. Starting price: $8,500 – and it will go for much more than that.

In the case of cars you can
consider it odds-on if the machine has lost half its value in four years. But in
the case of caravans and campers, maybe only 25-30 per cent of the value is
wiped off in the same time. Fair enough, you say? A camper is still as capable
of sleeping and victualling people after four years as it was after one year. But
doesn’t the same apply to cars?
– they can still transport you from
place to place… four years or one year or 10 years after they were

Start to think it through
in the context of other consumer goods – houses or jewellery or, yes, caravans –
and you realize that cars are a special case. A very special case.
Fundamentally, why should they lose so much value so quickly? What aspect of
their functionality is so dramatically reduced? In short, the answer is –
nothing. It’s because their cashed-up manufacturers, wearing enormous fixed
financial costs, have to make absolutely damn sure that yesterday’s model is
valued at vastly less than today’s. Sure, that last model might not have had
curtain airbags or climate control, but when did the primary purpose of that vehicle revolve
around occupant safety or interior comfort?

Surely – surely – the primary purpose of a car
is personal transport form place to place?

The answer is self-evident,
but another questions begs to be asked. How is it that manufacturers can be
instrumental in devaluing their cars so quickly? Or, what do they do that makes
us so hanker after the latest model that we’re prepared to assume that the old
model is worth far less? The short answer is advertising: the new model is made
such a desirable commodity that the old model – by implication as much as by
overt messages – becomes relatively worthless.

Me? Well, I’ve never
believed that message. Despite owning a lot of cars, I’ve never bought a new one
and I can’t see myself ever doing so. In fact, partly because here in Australia
the new car market has been booming over the last few years, the price of used
cars is now ridiculously cheap. Barely a week goes past without my jaw dropping at the incredibly low prices being charged for late model, excellent cars.
Especially if they’re unfashionable, they’re just incredible value for money.
The all-wheel-drive Magna, AU Falcon, Toyota Avalon… the list goes on. And
that’s fantastic news for people who don’t care about being seen in the latest
and greatest.

But just don’t go looking
for caravans or campers and expect the same $$$ depreciation – it’s simply not

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