Monday, March 23, 2015

Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership

After discussing some of the headaches involved in aircraft ownership on Facebook, I half-jokingly said I should resurrect this blog and title it "Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership."  Surprisingly, a few people indicated they'd like to see such a thing, so here we are.  I'm not overhauling the blog entirely and making it all about my ownership oopses, but I will tag any related posts "Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership" and will title any posts starting with "MIAO."

To kick things off, things to consider when you are first struck with the genius thought "Hey!  I should totally buy an airplane!"

1.) Define your mission.  The best description I heard of this came from a fellow named Bill Rusk who is working on building his second experimental Super Cub.  "Build for 90% of your flying" is his motto, and it holds true for those of us that decided we'd much rather fly something that someone else built.  Sure, a go-fast airplane would be pretty cool, as would be something that goes upside-down, but that is a very small part of my mission.  I am, at my core, a "puddlejumper" as a wise old man once told me.  You need to be very honest with yourself during this process.  If you over- or under-buy to meet your mission, you won't be happy.  Compromise is a necessity, but you need to be aware of what you're compromising on.  Otherwise, you'll be unhappy down the road and may end up blaming the whole concept of aircraft ownership for your discontent, when the root cause may just be that you bought the wrong airplane. 

2.) Research heavily.  Think about airplanes that would meet your mission (keeping in mind your mission may change in the future).  Once you've narrowed your options down, become involved in the community.  Go fly an RV, or take a BFR in a Citabria.  There's no sense falling in love with the idea of an airplane and then finding out it's terribly uncomfortable for you (or your significant other).  You might want to consider renting for several hours if it's possible, or becoming involved in a type group or type club to get experience with the airplane you're considering.

3.) Get your financing (if needed) in order.  Now that you've selected an airplane, you can research the approximate prices for what you're looking for.  This might be a good time for a reality check . . . but better now than later.  Things to consider include investigating multiple lenders and comparing their offerings.  Credit unions are a great option with some preferable interest rates, but they may require a higher down payment.  Do your research ahead of time, and you'll be able to plan for the appropriate down payment in advance.  

4.) Start with a soft inquiry.  The best deals in aviation tend to happen outside of Barnstormers and Trade-a-Plane and are complete before the airplane in question could even be listed.  It bears noting that you should not be in a hurry to choose an aircraft model or to choose a candidate for purchase.  I told a few friends in  November of 2013 I was going to start looking for an airplane in the next six months or so, with a goal of owning an airplane by the end of summer.  Disclaimer:  That was an entirely arbitrary timeline.  I figured I could talk myself out of buying an airplane, so I set a deadline of my 25th birthday back when I was still in college.  You may or may not want to give yourself a timeline, but, if you do, be sure it's conservative.  Things happen. 

Inquire with friends, on type forums, and at local airports.  If you don't hear of anything after a while (and "a while" may vary depending upon your goals), start looking on websites like Barnstormers, Trade-a-Plane, Controller, ASO, etc., as well as the classifieds on type forums.  I started looking at Barnstormers and Trade-a-Plane about the same time I started telling a few folks to keep their eyes open for any good deals.  This allowed me to have a basic understanding of asking prices in advance (note: asking price is not necessarily equal to selling price.  It's common sense but easy to forget once you start to get attached to an airplane). 

Another key thing to consider is that your previous involvement in a community and their awareness of your search for an airplane will help you find an appropriate person to do your prebuy.  

5.) Research some more.

6.) When you find a good candidate, you have a few options.  First, go see the airplane, decide if you're interested, and then schedule a prebuy.  This is what I did, but it requires multiple trips and you run the risk of falling in love with the airplane before you can get an objective opinion of it from a neutral third party.  I felt fairly confident I could figure out if the airplane was a total pile or likely ok, and I wanted to get the prebuy scheduled relatively quickly if it turned out ok.  This was because the Kid was a pretty good deal for what I got, but you have to temper hastiness with steady resolve. 

The second option is to schedule the prebuy and do the prebuy as soon as you see the airplane.  If you go this route, it means you've been in contact with the seller in advance.  Ideally, your mechanic should have gotten an electronic copy of the logbooks to review for any showstoppers prior to inspecting the airplane.  The seller may request some earnest money in exchange for you coming to poke at their airplane, since they will want to be able to tell other prospective buyers that you're making a trip to inspect the aircraft. 

A prebuy may also (and arguably should also) include a chance to fly the airplane.  This is subject to the seller's comfort level, insurance, and annual status.  You might very well go along for a ride and never touch the controls if the seller isn't comfortable with a stranger flying their airplane.  When I bought the Kid, I rode in the back seat and the seller did the takeoff and landing.  I made some turns and Dutch rolls, checked oil temperature and pressure, airspeed, and general rigging. 

Most people will say that a prebuy should basically entail an annual (the higher priced the airplane, the more intensive the inspection).  In fact, many people will advise you to have the prebuy done as an annual.  If everything looks good, you have a fresh annual and a solid understanding of the airplane's potential issues.  If it doesn't, you can start figuring out what it will cost you to get the airplane where you want it or need it to be, from both a pilot preference and airworthiness perspective.  It should go without saying that the prebuy should not be done by the seller's mechanic (in most cases).  They're probably perfectly capable mechanics, but they are likely not the ones that will be maintaining the airplane going forward.  Exceptions include well-regarded mechanics in the community that others besides the seller vouch for.  Otherwise, find someone you trust and get their professional opinion.  It might be expensive to do a thorough prebuy, but it's more expensive to do a cursory one and find all of the issues later.  Also, don't be afraid to wave off the airplane over a prebuy.  You are under no obligation to buy the airplane, unless you signed a contract in advance.  Be sure to consider what are "no-go" issues for you, including a total dollar value of discrepancies. 

7.) After you've evaluated the results of your prebuy, make an offer or run away.  You might already have an offer existing that's contingent on the results of the prebuy.  At this point, you should be well-versed in what you're looking for in an airplane, what you're willing to spend, and what the market looks like--or you should have someone there to guide you along. 

8.) Go get your airplane!

This feels like a very brief overview, but I'm sure you'll hear more about my misadventures in future posts.  Additionally, if this sounds intimidating or confusing, don't underestimate the value of knowledgeable folks in the field.  These can be experienced maintainers, pilots, builders, etc.  You can also engage a skilled aircraft sales specialist to find you an airplane and handle all of the paperwork.  You'll pay more for this, but aircraft sales representatives can find airplanes that aren't listed and likely have extensive experience with your aircraft type (or can find you someone who does).  Most smaller aircraft don't have a high enough margin to warrant a sales representative, but you can always seek one out.  More complex aircraft are much more likely to be represented by a sales department. 

That's all for now . . .


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