Most people rely on investments such as savings accounts, common stocks, government and corporate bonds, and mutual funds to build a nest egg and prepare for the future. Traditional investments are easily acquired or sold for minimal fees without minimum transaction amounts, and you can get detailed information and independent analysis of most investments for free.
Traditional securities are universally popular with typical savers because they come with federal and state regulations and oversight, providing tax savings in some cases, while ensuring that all transactions are fair and transparent.
But what if you prefer to walk on the wild side and add some zest to your financial holdings? Here are several unconventional high-risk, high-reward investments to consider.
Unconventional Alternative Investments for the Daring
The following investments are not appropriate for most people due to their inherent risks and low liquidity. However, for those rare investors who have a high tolerance for risk and the willingness to invest the time and money to gain expertise in the specific unconventional investing methods, the returns can be astounding.
1. Property Tax Liens
Government entities levy billions of dollars of property taxes each year to pay for the services they provide to citizens. According to the National Tax Lien Association, $3 billion to $5 billion in delinquent real estate taxes are offered for sale each year by more than 2,500 taxing authorities in 29 states. Negligent property owners are subject to a tax lien on the assessed property, allowing the lienholder to foreclose on the property for nonpayment of the taxes. Taxing authorities then sell the tax liens through auctions to third parties, who either collect the delinquent taxes or foreclose on the property.
Buying and collecting delinquent taxes is regulated by state law, which typically includes the maximum rate of interest the property owner can be charged, as well as the length of time before the property can be foreclosed. Brad Westover, Executive Director of the National Tax Lien Association, tells U.S. News & World Report that 98% of delinquent accounts are paid before foreclosure, so if you’re looking to obtain a piece of a property below market value, the likelihood is very low — about 2%, or one in 50.
Florida CPA Richard Rampell, who has invested in tax liens since the 1990s, recommends that the average investor should avoid tax lien investments because of their risks. A tax lien investment strategy takes quite a bit of work to be successful. At the same time, institutional investors often drive down return rates. Nevertheless, Rampell claims that your return on investment in tax liens can exceed those of traditional investments if you’re willing to accept the risks.
Businesses, always aware of cash flow, often turn to accounts receivable from banks and financial institutions. Others, seeking to avoid the costs, time, and hassle required to collect accounts receivable, simply sell the receivables to a third party at a discount to face value — for example, a receivable for $1,000 might be sold for $800. This process is called factoring, and it has been practiced for centuries. Adroit Market Research estimates that the global factoring market will be worth more than $9.275 trillion annually by 2025.
The organization or individual who purchases receivables, known as the factor, has the responsibility of collecting on them. They earn profits equal to the collected amount minus the acquisition cost of the receivable and the costs of collection efforts. Due to the administrative requirements, individuals interested in factors typically invest directly in a factoring company as an owner or finance the acquisition of the receivables as a loan to a factoring organization. In either case, they assume the risk that collected amounts might be less than anticipated.
Larry Swedroe, Director of Research for BAM Advisor Services, warns that evaluating the creditworthiness of receivables requires strong financial skills, since accounts purchased are likely to be less than investment-grade.
3. Small-Business Partnerships
Most investors are familiar with venture capitalists and angel investors who fund high-tech ventures and make huge returns on their investment. Few realize that less than 1% of the investments a venture capitalist views are actually funded, according to Marc Andreessen, a partner in a venture capital fund. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of new companies are formed each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many of which depend on friends and family for capital.
QuickBooks reports that 70% of those starting a new company in the last decade began with less than $25,000 in startup capital. Entrepreneurs in service businesses ranging from dry cleaners to construction firms averaged $14,000 in initial capital.
Since few of these companies find funding readily available, some private investors and groups have discovered that capitalizing small business can be profitable and serve socially desirable objectives such as increasing opportunities for women and minorities.
Investments with individual entrepreneurs are incredibly flexible and may take the form of debt with interest, equity, a percentage of gross revenues or net profits, trade credits, or a mix of these options. For example, one venture capitalist began financing new salons and barber shops for a declining percentage of gross revenues as his investment was repaid. After repayment, he received 3% of the total revenues for 10 years.
The benefits of investing in small businesses include low investment amounts — typically under $20,000 — financing structure flexibility with capital protection, the delivery of an easily understood service to customers, and day-to-day communication when necessary. On the negative side, the odds that any small business will succeed are notoriously low, despite the capability and effort of the entrepreneur; only about half survive longer than five years.
If you’d like to invest in small individual businesses, you must be able to accurately evaluate the entrepreneur’s commitment, ability, and resilience to the success of the investment. But your prior knowledge and experience in the industry are critical as well, as is your ability to establish a productive working relationship with the entrepreneur. Be prepared to take an active role as a mentor and counselor, and make sure you’re able and willing to intervene to protect the company if necessary.
4. Fine Art
When you think of fine art, you likely think of a painting that you’ll buy and put on your wall, but investing in art is much bigger than that. According to Statista, in 2018, fine art sales around the globe came in at a whopping $67 billion.
Where there’s a big-money industry, there are huge opportunities for profitable investments.
Investing in art is quite a bit like making traditional investments. The idea is to buy fine art at a relatively low price, giving you the opportunity to sell it for a profit as the price appreciates.
For some, fine art offers a colorful hedge against their bets in the stock market. After all, values of fine art have a mind on their own and do not ebb and flow with market and economic conditions.
However, an investment in fine art is also a risky play. Some of the most pressing risks to consider include:
- Storage and Maintenance Costs. Some pieces of fine art have serious storage requirements to avoid any age-related damage. Fine art storage and maintenance services are not free. In fact, these types of services can come with hefty price tags that may surprise many beginner fine-art investors.
- Price Depreciation. Art isn’t just at the mercy of supply and demand. Sure, when demand for a piece rises, the price will rise. However, there are many uncertain factors associated with investments in fine art. A piece that’s hot in the industry today may not be hot tomorrow, and serious price depreciation may be the result. So, you should never invest anything into art that you’re not prepared to lose.
- Liquidity Concerns. Finally, fine art is one of the least liquid investments you can make. Even if a piece of art skyrockets in value, you’ll need to find a buyer in order to cash in on that value. This either includes a lot of work on your end or paying potentially exorbitant fees to an expert in the space. When it’s time to cash in, you could find yourself waiting months, or even years, to find the right buyer for your piece.
Pro tip: You can eliminate many of the obstacles that come with investing in art by going through a platform like Masterworks.
5. Artistic Rights and Royalties
Warner/Chappell Music purchased the rights to the famous song “Happy Birthday” in 1990 for $15 million, allowing them to collect about $2 million per year in royalties until a federal judge ruled that the original songwriters had failed to obtain copyrights on the lyrics, only the musical arrangement. Whether singing “Happy Birthday” to its original tune will require a royalty payment today remains unknown.
However, the situation could have been avoided if the original songwriters had properly secured the copyrights. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” for instance, has made royalties of over $36 million since 1940, while the owners of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” have collected over $21 million.
Artistic creations, or “intellectual property” — music, films, literature, and photographs — are protected by copyrights that govern their use or exhibition. Copyright owners are entitled to collect royalties for the use of this property for up to 120 years after its creation. Even in cases where the listener believes the music is free, the distributor must pay copyright fees to the owner of the copyright. While the band playing favorite songs at the local nightclub doesn’t pay a royalty fee, the venue pays a licensing fee to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), or Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) that is then shared with copyright owners.
There is an active market for music portfolios, as illustrated by Michael Jackson’s purchase of the rights to 251 Beatles songs, among others, for $47.5 million in 1985. Jackson then sold a 50% interest in the songs to Sony in 1995 for $95 million. Jackson’s estate sold the remaining 50% to Sony in 2016 for $750 million.
In 2018, Forbes noted that “songs are evergreen investments and, with streaming, their earnings potential now spans decades rather than years.”
Music royalties typically sell for a multiple of four to eight times the past 12 months’ worth of fees earned. For example, Royalty Exchange reports that a 25% share of the songwriter’s public performance royalties for Alabama’s “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas” sold in 2017 for $56,000 — 11.2 times the previous 12 months’ royalties of $4,992. A 100% share of the public performance royalties from Michael Martin Murphey’s 1975 hit “Wildfire” sold for $68,000 — 17.4 times the previous 12 months’ royalties of $3,906.
If you’re thinking of purchasing music royalties, you need to understand what rights you’re purchasing, as well as the term of those rights. Individuals can buy music royalties for established performers from Royalty Exchange or undiscovered or up-and-coming musicians from SongVest. The amount of royalties reflects the music’s popularity; as a consequence, most artistic royalties are illiquid and extremely volatile.
There’s a limited market for non-music artist royalties, since the typical royalty paid to authors is less than 20% of the publisher’s net price, and any author advances are recovered before additional royalties are paid. Those interested in acquiring royalties for their return should limit their investments to popular music titles.
6. Mineral Rights and Royalties
Owning a mineral royalty is, in many ways, better than holding the actual minerals, since you have no exposure to operational costs. Extracting minerals requires staff, management, and equipment, all of which can be expensive.
When you own mineral rights and royalties, your income comes directly from the top — the revenues — and is not tied to profits. Historically, the underlying assets — the minerals themselves — have become more valuable in an inflationary environment.
Minerals are a part of the land on which they are found. As a consequence, you can acquire the rights to minerals by:
- Purchasing Real Estate. Unless mineral rights have been previously segregated and sold distinct from the physical property, the landowner retains ownership of all mineral assets on or under the property.
- Leasing the Mineral Rights. Many landowners, wanting to use the surface property but unwilling or unable to fund the costs of exploring and developing any underlying minerals, lease the rights to interested third parties, usually for a cash fee per acre and a percentage of the revenues as the mineral is produced and sold. The lease is a legal contract and contains clauses to protect the lessor and lessee. The lessee is primarily responsible for determining that the lessor has legal ownership of the property and the right to sell. This determination is generally made by specialized attorneys.
- Optioning the Land or Mineral Rights for a Definite Period. An option differs from a lease in that the only agreement defined in an option contract is the right to execute a pre-negotiated lease. Options are generally short term and best used when the potential owner or lessee wishes to determine the presence of minerals in commercial amounts. The owner of an option can either (a) exercise the option by entering into a purchase or lease agreement, (b) sell the option to a third party willing to accept the option conditions, or (c) let the option expire.
- Purchasing Royalties or Working Interest in a Producing Property. The difference between a royalty and a working interest is that, with the latter, the owner is responsible for the costs of producing the mineral according to the proportion of working interest they own. For example, a 25% working interest owner is responsible for a quarter of all production costs. A royalty owner has no liability for costs but receives a percentage of total revenue from the mineral’s production and sale.
While oil and natural gas are the most common minerals produced in the United States, gold, copper, and gold royalties are also popular investments. Due to the costs of exploration and production, most mineral properties are owned by multiple owners, whether corporations, partnerships, or individuals.
According to National Geographic, freshwater accounts for just 2.5% of the water on earth, with more than half trapped in glaciers and icefields. While the amount of water has remained constant since prehistoric times, its use has exploded due to population growth and global industrialization. Adding to the crisis is the contamination of freshwater sources by modern pollutants.
Grace Communications Foundation’s Water Footprint Calculator estimated in 2017 that the U.S. uses 2,200 gallons of water per person annually, while still-developing China uses about one-third that amount (775 gallons per person). As developing countries become more industrialized, water use will increase further.
Freshwater is present in the aforementioned glaciers and snow; as surface water in rivers, streams, and collection areas; and as groundwater trapped below the surface in porous rocks, or aquifers. According to NASA, more than half of the planet’s largest aquifers are not sustainable — in other words, we’re draining the pool in higher volumes than nature can replace. As a consequence, the United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed regions by 2025.
As with all valuable commodities, the impending shortage will increase demand for water and drive prices upward, and create a potential profit opportunity for investors who:
- Purchase Water Rights. A water right is a legal right to use water from a specific source (surface or groundwater). Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens made considerable investments in water during the mid-2000s, accumulating the rights to 65 billion gallons annually. After failing to negotiate an acceptable price for his water rights with the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, he sold his portfolio for $103 million to a West Texas municipal water authority.
- Buy Farmland in Water-Rich Areas. Many scientists predict that the number of droughts will increase and extend over larger land masses in the 21st century, prompting an increase in drylands farming and a decrease in the cultivation of water-dependent crops. Farmland located in temperate zones with ready sources of water nearby is likely to increase in value due to its ability to support multiple types of plants.
- Invest in Water Utilities and Infrastructure. An estimated 1.7 trillion gallons of water are wasted each year due to breaks and gaps in the nation’s water transportation system. Estimates for the cost of replacing and repairing these issues range from $650 billion to over $1 trillion. The public’s demand for fresh, potable water and better wastewater remediation will be funded through government programs and the increased privatization of companies in or serving America’s water delivery networks.
Investing in water rights or farmland requires significant funds and potentially years of payback. Acquiring equities in individual publicly traded companies, mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds ETFs serving the industry are the optimum method for most investors who wish to participate in the future demand for water.
8. Viatical Settlements
Viatical settlements, sometimes called life settlements, refer to the sale of an in-force life insurance policy to a third party, thereby allowing the buyer to collect the death benefits when the insured person dies. In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that an existing insurance policy is an asset whose owner has the right to sell it to a third party without an insurable interest. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s spurred increased sales, thereby allowing infected persons the funds to pay for expensive drug treatments.
The buyer of a viatical settlement purchases the life insurance policy for a negotiated payment that’s typically higher than the cash value of the policy but significantly lower than the face amount. The owner can withdraw the cash value at any time but must pay interest on withdrawals and continued premiums to keep the insurance in force.
The seller of the policy benefits by getting a cash sum much higher than the cash value, as well as an end to premium payments — the responsibility for which transfers to the new owner. The buyer benefits by receiving the face amount of the policy at the insured’s death, their profits being the difference between the face value and the sum of the cash amount paid initially and any required premium payments.
For example, consider the case of Bill, a 60-year-old male with a terminal illness who owns a policy with a face value of $1 million. While the policy has a cash value of $120,000, Bill must pay annual premiums of $10,000 for his remaining life. Bill sells his plan to Andrew for a lump sum of $300,000 — more than double the cash value — with Andrew replacing Bill’s estate as the beneficiary. When Bill dies in three years, Andrew will collect the $1 million payment, earning an annual rate of return higher than 40% on his initial purchase price plus three years of premium payments.
Despite the potentially lucrative returns, an investor in viatical settlements must bear the following risks:
- Miscalculation of Life Expectancy. Misdiagnoses occur regularly in medicine — for up to 5% of adult patients, according to a CBS News report. With medical advances, people are living longer than previously estimated. Before 1996, a person with AIDS had a life expectancy of 18 months after diagnosis. Today, a person with AIDS can live decades with the disease.
- Indeterminate Financial Costs. Due to misdiagnoses and incorrect life expectancy estimates, owners of viatical settlements may be required to pay years of premiums to keep the policy in force until the death of the insured, each payment reducing the estimated rate of return initially projected.
- Potential Litigation. Heirs designated as beneficiaries of the transferred policy may sue the new owners, claiming that the previous owner lacked the mental capacity to enter into contracts or was fraudulently convinced to sell the insurance policy. Finally, regulatory bodies may assert that the investor failed to comply with the relevant federal and state laws.
As a consequence of the expertise needed to be successful in buying viatical settlements and the potential risks, Money Magazine advises that life settlements “generally do not make sense for individual investors.” However, despite the risks, knowledgeable investors who perform proper due diligence and follow competent legal advice can make extraordinary returns with viaticals.
Mortality tables are frequently updated as medical advances extend life, and unknown risks can be moderated by increasing the discount factor or extending the term in the present value calculation of the purchase payment in the insurance contract. As with any investment, it’s important to do your research and understand the risks and potential reward prior to making an investment.
9. Triple Net Leases
A triple net lease is a financing agreement in which the lessee (usually the tenant) bears all operating expenses — insurance, taxes, and maintenance — for a single-use commercial property during the term of the lease (10 years or more). Sometimes referred to as a turnkey or absolute net lease, the arrangement is intended to provide the lessor a predictable, hassle-free, long-term revenue return while the lessee typically gets unrestricted use of the property for lower rent or the need to make a capital investment.
While any property may be subject to a triple net lease, these leases are especially popular with retailers, pharmacies, and restaurants. For example, an investor might acquire a 20- to 25-year triple net lease of a single Walgreens, CVS, or Rite Aid Pharmacy store, a branch bank property of Bank of America or Chase Bank, or a standalone Walmart property.
Triple net leases are not risk-free. The risks include:
- Tenant Risk. A lease is only as safe as the tenant or guarantor behind it. Even large companies can go bankrupt, as evidenced by the bankruptcy of Toys “R” Us in 2017 and Sears in 2018.
- Interest Rate Risk. Much like bonds, the investor’s return is established at the beginning of the lease and does not change over its term. Changes in interest rates can adversely affect the property’s value if it’s sold before the lease terminates.
- End-of-Lease Expenses. If the original tenant fails to extend the contract or alters the term, it may require the owner of the property to forgo income until a new tenant is secured or to incur expenses to rehabilitate or re-lease the property.
- Coordination of Lease Income and Mortgage Payments. Lease terms and debt payments may not match. For example, you may find a 20-year lease on a property with a 30-year mortgage. If the contract is not renewed, and the owner can’t find a new tenant, it will result in negative cash flows.
- Uncertain Tax Treatment. The tax treatment for a property owner who enters into a triple net lease arrangement is unsettled. In particular, triple net leases do not qualify for the qualified business income deduction due to the IRS position that a triple net lease arrangement does not fall under the definition of an “active trade or business.”
Triple net leases are complicated legal agreements often challenging to understand by non-legal professionals. The definition of a triple net lease is not dependent upon the term but upon the actual provisions defined and agreed to in the contract. As a consequence, investors seeking to purchase properties under triple net contracts should engage legal experts to ensure they fully understand their obligations before entering into a transaction.
10. Green Equipment Leasing
As concerns about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment increase, the use of alternative energy sources — specifically solar and wind — have increased. Just as utilities and large companies have invested in solar and wind farms to supplement or replace fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, homeowners across the nation are adding solar panels and wind rotors to their properties to supplement or replace their public electricity suppliers.
At various times, federal and state governments have offered tax breaks and other incentives to encourage greater use of alternative fuels, including requiring local utilities to compensate homeowners who supply excess power to the electric grid. In recent years, power companies have successfully resisted or modified such legislation, affecting the economic benefits that might accrue to homeowners considering adding solar panels.
Solar equipment is expensive, and the payback period for the investment can be up to a decade. As a consequence, alternative energy suppliers, their affiliates, finance companies, and individuals offer long-term — up to 25-year — solar equipment leasing plans to property owners who don’t want to purchase such equipment outright. In some cases, the leasing company guarantees homeowners a lease amount no higher than the charges they would pay to their previous electricity supplier.
At this point, the economic viability of alternative energy projects, small and large, is uncertain. The traditional power industry has generally resisted their use, as it threatens their considerable investments in fossil fuel power plants. Public authorities have been inconsistent in their support. At times, governments have created favorable incentives — including tax credits, rapid depreciation, and sales of excess power — followed by willingly letting such benefits expire. As a consequence, if you’re considering investing in green equipment for leasing purposes, minimize your financial risk by limiting your activities to creditworthy purchasers locked into long-term contracts.
The U.S. consumes more than 10 billion cubic feet of timber annually for wood products and paper from roughly 500 million acres of forest. Pine and other conifer species account for three-quarters of this consumption, while hardwoods — including elms, maples, and oaks — account for the remainder. Approximately one-half of America’s woods and forests are owned privately, with the remainder owned by federal and state governments and large corporations.
Timber is one of the nation’s most abundant cash crops. It is harvested for pulp, poles, and finished lumber several times over a 25- to 30-year period. The first harvests are primarily to thin the timberland, allowing the healthier, straighter trees room to grow and be sold for higher prices as poles. In some areas of the country, the timber on a piece of land may be more valuable than the raw land would be for other agricultural uses.
In many ways, acquiring timberland is like buying other types of real estate. Timberland owners consider the value of the trees in their calculations —usually, with the help of an expert timber buyer — so immediate cash returns on an investment are unlikely. Fortunately, trees continue to grow and become more valuable — a natural inflation hedge — while the new owners may receive income from the annual sale of fishing, hunting, and other entertainment rights, as well as pine needles for landscaping purposes.
On the negative side, wooded tracts less than 200 acres are not likely to produce extraordinary gains from timber sales, according to Jim Hourdequin, Managing Director of Lyme Timber in Hanover, New Hampshire. He tells The New York Times, “I’d say it’s not until you get into a $1-million-plus range that you’d start getting into properties that are mostly driven by their investment return.” In addition to a low investment return on smaller properties, owners must contend with violent weather, fires, illegal logging, and future environmental restrictions. In some cases, insurance protection may be available, although it’s expensive and offers limited coverage.
Farmland is an abundant resource in the United States, with an estimated 911 million acres of it on the map according to the USDA. This land is dedicated to producing grains, corn, cotton, and other cash crops necessary to sustain the population.
Farmland is a valuable addition to investment portfolios for two key reasons:
- Price Appreciation. Land is one asset that simply can’t be created — the supply is fixed. What we have is what we have, and as demand grows, prices will follow. As a result, farmland prices have a history of relatively consistent growth, even in times of economic and market downturns.
- Rent. Once you own farmland, you have the ability to expand your earnings by renting that land to farmers. According to the USDA, farmers paid an average of $140 per acre per month for land without irrigation and $220 per acre per month for land with irrigation in the United States in 2019. Depending on the size of the farmland being rented, this could become substantial income.
Between price appreciation and rent, wise investments in farmland have the potential to yield tremendous gains (platforms like Acretrader make investing simple). According to Iowa State University, investments in farmland have yielded an average annual return of 13.6% from 1970 to the present. These gains are the accumulation of land price increases, which take place at an average rate of 6.7% annually, and rent income representing the additional 6.9% in returns.
There are some risks to consider when investing in farmland:
- Specialty. Farming is a specialty industry. Investors need to know what makes farmland valuable and how to maintain the value within their tracts. This often takes a bit of a time commitment and serious research prior to making an investment.
- Environmental Risks. Environmental changes can wreak havoc on the value of farmland. Once-productive land can become barren dust if soil quality is not maintained or a drought takes place, leading the property value on a downward spiral.
- Difficult to Maintain. Some investors purchase farmland in an attempt to produce their own crops. However, maintaining a farm yourself is hard work. Many who own and operate their own farms build homes on their farms so that they can properly maintain their land, which can represent a major lifestyle change.
Unconventional investments provide great cocktail-hour talk and, in some cases, can offer higher returns than traditional investments in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. However, they should be avoided by the average investor who is uncomfortable with unknown risks or unwilling to spend the time and effort necessary to understand the intricacies of the unconventional investment vehicle they’ve chosen.
Few investors participate in more than one type of these investment categories due to their complexity, legal uncertainties, and unclear returns. Those who choose to pursue any of the investments mentioned above typically have the necessary expertise as a consequence of being employed in the industry. Others have the financial ability to hire industry experts for advice and counsel.
Even so, success is not inevitable. Furthermore, successful investors should limit their financial exposure to unconventional investments to no more than 5% to 15% of their total investment capital.
If you’re contemplating an investment in one of these categories, consider purchasing the stocks and bonds of individual companies that specialize in the industry or mutual funds and ETFs focused on such companies. Remember that the key to excellent investment returns is neither luck nor short-term results, but the practice of consistent investment over the long term and the ability to limit your losses by controlling risk. Unless you truly love living on the edge, if you want to gamble, you may be better off buying a $2 lotto ticket.
Do you make unique, nontraditional investments? What is your track record? What advice would you give someone considering a walk on the wild side of investing?