How to Buy a Used Airplane
There are a number of questions that should be asked before buying an airplane:
- Buy versus Rent/Borrow - Through clubs or private organizations you can rent a plane on almost any given day. However, owning provides the pride of ownership, increased flexibility in flight times, and increased control over upkeep. Which choice makes the most sense for you?
- Is It Affordable - The costs of buying an airplane include a down payment, principal and interest on a loan, insurance, storage, the annual inspection, regular maintenance, taxes, and fuel. How much can you afford?
- What Is Your Objective - Are you interested in acrobatics, sightseeing, fun flying, short trips, or cross-country trips? The best type and model depends on how you plan to use the plane.
- Which Plane - Once you've decided on a model and a price range, how do you find, inspect and buy a used airplane?
1. Buy versus Rent/Borrow
To help clarify the trade-offs, add up how much you currently spend on rentals, and compare this number to the annual cost for owning an airplane. If you fly 50 to 75 hours a year and spend $50/hour on rentals, you are already spending $2,500 to $3,750/ year. An inexpensive plane with a grass tie down might even cost you less.
Besides the financial aspect, there are other trade-offs to consider. With rentals, you can fly different planes and don't have to worry about maintenance. With ownership, you almost always have access to your plane on your schedule and you can control maintenance and upkeep.
2. Is It Affordable
- Financing - If you are borrowing the money from a bank, calculate your down payment amount and the monthly payment based on current interest rates. If you are buying the plane 100% with your own money, don't forget to include the opportunity cost. That is, how would you have invested the money if you hadn't bought the plane, and how much interest are you forgoing through this purchase.
- Insurance - There are two types, liability and hull. The liability protects your assets against claims arising from an accident involving the use of your plane. It may be required in your state. The hull insurance covers physical damage to your aircraft and is often required by lending institutions. Insurance may range from $700 to $2,000 / year for a small, inexpensive plane depending on the options chosen.
- Storage - Options range from grass tie downs to heater hangars. Tie downs are cheaper, but hangars provide protection from sun, precipitation, wind and vandalism. Tie downs range from grass spots where you'll have to install your own anchors to marked stalls on concrete pavement. There are several choices in hangars - the most common is the T-hangar. Planes are arranged in rows facing in alternating directions. Some hangars are two walls with a roof, providing limited protection from wind and vandalism. Some are heated but cost more. Some are chaotic cramming in as many aircraft as possible. An additional cost may be "hangar rash" when the tips of the wings of one aircraft brush against another. Prices vary based on the type of amenities and the location. Grass tie downs might range from $50/ month in a rural setting to $150/month in a more metropolitan area. Closed hangars range from $100/month to $500/month and up for a small plane. Check with your local air strip for more specific rates.
- Operations - Airport fees and fuel. The actual amount depends on usage.
- Maintenance - Includes the annual inspection and other yearly maintenance. The annual inspection may cost from $500 to $1,000 for a small plane. Other maintenance may cost from $800 and up.
- Other - Includes taxes and fees. Estimate $200/year.
3. Your Objective
Before you start shopping, defining exactly what you need can help narrow down the field. How many passengers will you typically carry? How far will you fly? How fast do you need to get there? What type of airstrips will you land on? Will you be flying in congested airspace? Are there certain styles such as antiques and classics that you find more appealing? How will your needs change over the next 3-5 years?
- Jets versus Propellers - Jets are obviously much faster, but are more expensive to buy and operate
- New versus Used - Used planes cost less than new planes, but may have more mechanical problems. This does not mean that used planes are unsafe. The average general aviation airplane is over 20 years old
- Homebuilt versus Popular - Homebuilts often are faster, lighter and may cost less to operate (if you built it yourself, you may be able to do your own maintenance). However if you build it yourself, there is work in assembling, you need a place to put it together, and if you sell it, you may be liable for any problems the future owner has. If you buy it used and fully assembled, you somewhat at the mercy of the mechanical skills of the previous owner.
- Classics and Antiques - Older planes have stylistic appeal and are popular at air shows. Classic usually refers to planes build between 1945 and 1955. Antique usually refers to plans build before 1945
4. Which Plane
- Performance - What is the range? Manufacturers calculate the maximum distance the plane can fly at 75% power without refueling. Will the plane be able to land at your local airport? Standard airports have 3,000 to 4,000 feet runways, local strips may be smaller.
- Cruise - How fast do you need to travel? Crusie speed is measured as the speed at 75% power, and is usually expressed in statute miles per hour
- Number of Seats - How many seats will you need? Most planes can effectively carry fewer passengers and luggage than the number of seats they have.
- Seating Configuration - What is your seating preference, Tandem v. Side-by-side? Tandem may be faster due to narrower configuration and may give the pilot more visibility and more legroom. However, side-by-side seating makes communication between occupants easier.
- Avionics Level - What are the level and condition of the instruments and other electronics? Multiple communication radios are helpful for longer flights or flying in congested airspace.
- Construction - Low wing generally have better flight visibility for flying in crowded airspace; High-wing airplanes may be better for sightseeing. Which is more appropriate for your personal objective?
- Landing gear - Which type of gear do you prefer, Conventional or Tricycle Gear Landing gear - Conventional is more rugged and may have lower wind resistance, however a tricycle gear is less complex and may have lower maintenance costs.
- Age - How old is the plane? Will you easily be able to find replacement parts?
- Physical condition - Look for rust, cracked paint, and worn parts.
- Engine - Note the manufacturer and size. Continental and Lycoming are the most common, and therefore the least expensive to find replacement parts. Also consider fuel consumption. Will you easily and cheaply be able to fill up with the right kind of fuel?
- Gross - What is the capacity of the plane? It's measured as the allowable total weight of the plane, passengers and cargo
- Useful Load - Similar to gross, the useful load measures carrying capacity. It's the gross weight minus the weight of the empty plane.
- Stall - What is the stall speed (usually expressed in statute miles per hour)?
- Cost - How much will it cost you every year? Include purchase costs, storage costs, maintenance costs, and flight costs.
Where to Find a Plane
There are basically three sources of information on where to find used planes for sale:
- Word of Mouth - Join clubs at your local airstrip, look at the bulletin boards, and ask around.
- Print Classifieds - Look in the classifieds sections of local papers, or look in your local bookstore for classified magazines specializing in small aircraft.
- Online - Check out the online classified on the "Where" page.
The Purchase Process
- Phone Screen - Ask about the aircraft before you decide to see it.
- Buyer Inspection - Inspect the plane yourself
- Test Flight - Fly the plane yourself
- Prepurchase Inspection - Have an experienced mechanic look the plane over
- Title Search - Verify that the seller has legal rights to sell the plane. Names of title search companies can usually be found in classified sections next to the listings of aircraft for sale.
- Close - Transfer ownership
Before you make a trip to see a plane, make sure you ask the following questions:
- Flight time for the airframe and engine
- Date of the last major overhaul, last annual inspection and last avionics check
- List of all applicable airworthiness directives and whether or not the plane is in compliance
- Compression readings for each cylinder at the last time measurements were taken
- Damage history, major and minor (if any)
- Description of the avionics
- Overall condition of the interior and exterior
Walk around the plane, look to see if the plane sit level. Look at paint for consistency, it may be a indicator of replacement parts. Make sure the paint's not cracking or flaking. The wear on the paint is a good indicator of how the plane has been treated. Has it been left outside baking in the sun and buried under snow, or has it been stored in a covered hangar? Also look for dents, rust and missing pieces to get a general sense for how well the plane has been maintained.
Go inside the cabin. How well do the doors close? What is the general feel of the interior? Is it well worn? Does it have an odor? Look at the avionics. Does the plane have a Mode C transponder? Does the plane have an emergency locator transmitter? If it is missing either, find out why.
As a final step of the buyer's inspection, examine the log books. Look for the frequency of flights, repairs and inspections.
Open the windows during the start to listen to the engine. Does it sound normal. If it sounds rough, don't even take the plane up, walk away. Watch all the gauges during takeoff. Do the engines operate smoothly? Do a few turns. How does the aircraft feel? Check all the avionics.
How Much to Pay
Look on the "How" page for online providers of used aircraft prices.
It is strongly recommended that you have a mechanic inspect the plane before you buy it. In this inspection, make sure you confirm that the ADs (airworthiness directives) are up to date, all maintenance was performed and recorded correctly, and all inspections are current. Make sure you find a mechanic who is familiar with the make and model so that he/she knows which areas to focus in on. Also ask for estimated repair cost for anything found wrong. A thorough inspection may cost $400-$800.
www.tradeaplane.com - classified of used planes, plus a performance database showing specs for new and used planes.
www.aopa.org - aircraft owners and pilots association
www.aeroprice.com - offers a custom appraisal for roughly $20.
www.avantext.com - Airworthiness Directives by make and model
Books to read for additional research:
The Illustrated Buyer's Guide to Used Airplanes, Bill Clarke, $40
Aviation Consumers Used Aircraft Guide, Andrew Douglas, $70