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Based on the TF2 Spreadsheet, and my experience in trade servers and trade websites, it would seem that most craftable items sell at much lower than the cost of crafting them or uncrating them. For example:

  • A random hat costs 2.66 refined (2 craft hats) to craft, but the average craftable hat sells at 1.33 refined.
  • A key sells for 2.55 refined. The average item you get from a crate, by my calculations, is worth around 1 refined. Unusual items are worth much more, but the probability of getting one is only 1%.

Is it ever statistically more profitable to craft or uncrate, rather than just buy the items you want via trading?

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FWIW, you can combine two craftable hats to make another hat as well gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/29182/… (which is the entire point of them being called "craftable") Since it usually costs less than the 3-ref crafting recipe, most people take that route instead. –  The Annoying Pyro Jul 16 '12 at 9:31
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Also possibly relevant: Arbitrage and equilibrium in the Team Fortress 2 economy (a blog post from the economist at Valve, no less) –  The Annoying Pyro Jul 16 '12 at 9:32
    
@TheAnnoyingPyro I agree that it's less costly to just craft two hats together, but is it profitable? It costs 2 to 2.66 ref, and I suppose whatever hat you get will most likely sell for less - though I haven't compiled any numbers on that. –  jSepia Jul 16 '12 at 9:45
    
Ah, I realized I misread that part of your question. –  The Annoying Pyro Jul 16 '12 at 9:46
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3 Answers

The only reason you want to un-crate for profit is for unusuals, salvaged crates, and the special holiday crates. All ususuals are worth more than a key, so are most (probably all) salvaged crate stranges. The holiday crate items don't start with a high price, but they usualy skyrocket after a few months. Look at festives. If you want specific items from crates, it is better to sell the keys for metal, or trade the keys directly for the items you want.

It all depends on what you are looking for. If you want profit, uncrating is not good. If you want to have the thrill of luck, then uncrating is good for you. But, usually profit is not gained from uncrating.

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It really is not profitable most of the time to unbox or craft. Trying to unbox a crate or craft a hat is putting luck to the test. For example, like you said, keys cost about 2.55 ref. while most of the items in a crate cost 1-2 ref, you are always shooting for that unusual, yet you need a lot of luck to get it. If you try crafting a hat, it takes 3 ref, or 2.66 in craft hats. While most outcomes would spit out another craft hat, you could get something worth 4x what you put in, like an all father. It is all luck.

To conclude, it really isn't a good investment to unbox or craft a hat. You are just shooting for that lucky craft or unbox that you might get, and hope to make it worth it. If you want something, best bet is to just try and get it from someone else. Hope this helps

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Agreed, trading is the way to go. –  Steve V. Jul 23 '12 at 19:20
    
Thanks for the answer, but you did say "It is not profitable most of the time"... So is there any case in which it is profitable? (aside from luck-based things like unusuals) That was my question. –  jSepia Jul 25 '12 at 1:59
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As for crafting hat for 3 ref, there is always a chance to craft The Allfather, which is worth far more ref (around 20).

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The original post already states that the author is aware that you can craft high-value hats, but that the average value of a crafted hat is only 1.33 ref. –  Schism Oct 22 '12 at 21:13
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