3 Key Factors for Purchasing a Pre-Owned Aircraft

By Dave DeWalt, KCAC Pre-Owned Aircraft Sales and Piper Aircraft Sales

Considering purchasing a pre-owned aircraft? There are countless benefits to owning and operating a pre-owned aircraft, but what it really comes down to is purchasing the right plane for your mission while giving you peace of mind in the sky.

Throughout my nearly 20 years of selling airplanes, I have uncovered three key factors buyers should keep top-of-mind when purchasing a pre-owned aircraft. From understanding your budget and capabilities to reviewing the history of the aircraft and more, these tips will help ensure that your aircraft is the best fit for your mission profile and that you are satisfied with your purchase long after the paperwork has been signed.

1. DETERMINE YOUR BUDGET AND AIRCRAFT CAPABILITIES FROM THE START

To kick off the pre-owned buying process, there are two things to define: budget and capabilities. Purchasing a pre-owned aircraft is a value proposition and boils down to cost of entry into the market. Because the initial wave of depreciation is absorbed when buying pre-owned, buyers are often able to purchase more capability at a lower price point. But don’t let dollar signs be the first and last thing you see when you take stock of your options.

My best advice for today’s pre-owned buyer is to determine what capabilities are required to fit your business needs and lifestyle at the start of the buying process. Ask yourself these questions: What is your mission profile? Where do you travel? With whom? How often? The answers to these questions will determine the capabilities you require. For example, if you only fly short distances, you might not need an aircraft that is built with long-haul trips in mind.

When you account for price point, and look for the most capable aircraft that fits your budget and mission, you’ll avoid outgrowing your aircraft too quickly. And when the time does come to upgrade your aircraft, whether it’s because of weight, cabin size or other considerations, you can re-evaluate your mission and needs.

2. UNDERSTAND SUBTLE DIFFERENCES IN PRODUCTION AND MODEL YEAR CHANGES

Once you have identified the make and model of aircraft that satisfies your budget and needs, it is time to immerse yourself into its historical lineage. As you review different pre-owned aircraft, make it your mission to understand differences in production and model year changes. While some benchmarks are subtle enhancements, such as interior refinements/options, others, like avionics and windshield upgrades, are monumental. No aircraft will be the same year-to-year.

You will find that these types of production changes translate into the pricing and marketability of the aircraft. Often, buyers find that their budget qualifies them into a make and model that is not necessarily outfitted with the equipment needed to adequately perform the tasks to fulfill their missions. Proper education on production enhancements is a key part of the purchasing process.

3. COMMISSION A PRE-PURCHASE INSPECTION AND REVIEW KEY CONSIDERATIONS

There are numerous considerations that impact the value and quality of your potential aircraft. Many of these items can be vetted by the buyer as they search available inventories, but at some point, it is key to engage a professional maintenance provider to perform a pre-purchase inspection. This is the buyer’s insurance that the new aircraft not only meets the FAA requirements to be deemed airworthy, but has nothing in its past that could adversely affect safety or utilization.

Inspection requirements vary between aircraft. I typically recommend having an annual inspection or the aircraft’s next event inspection performed as your pre-purchase inspection. Most maintenance providers follow this protocol in today’s world, but never assume so. This type of inspection will ensure that the aircraft is truly ready for service and abides by the manufacturer’s inspection requirements that were set forth on the type certificate with the FAA. In addition, your maintenance clock has essentially been reset, so there should be very few surprises through your first year of ownership.

While the list below may seem obvious, every year I speak with aviators who have glossed over some of the following considerations once their emotions entered the mix.

  • Logbooks: From foreign logs to missing logs, it’s very important to do your research. According to AOPA, “In addition to a mechanical inspection, the aircraft logbooks and other records should be carefully reviewed for such things as FAA Form 337 (Report of Major Repair or Alteration), airworthiness directives compliance, the status of service bulletins and letters, and aircraft/component serial numbers.”
  • Maintenance history: Maintenance is not just a suggestion. It is necessary to keep an aircraft safe and compliant. When searching for a pre-owned aircraft, review each option’s maintenance history to ensure the aircraft has been properly cared for over time. Depending on the make and model of aircraft, the actual maintenance provider may be of consideration as well. As you move up the ranks in aircraft capability it becomes more crucial that an expert with that airframe has been caring for it.
  • Damage history: Maintenance goes hand in hand with understanding damage history. Has the aircraft been damaged? When and where was it fixed? Keep a sharp eye on this information as it can impact your flight experience and may indicate additional expenses down the road that aren’t expected. Depending on the type of damage sustained, this can also adversely affect the aircraft’s value, so it must be considered in the valuation.
  • The location it was previously operated in: The climate an aircraft operates in can have a direct impact on how it functions, so keep this information top-of-mind as it may impact the need for future maintenance activities.
  • Fly before you buy: It is always a good idea to fly the aircraft before you make your final decision. During the flight, carefully check all equipment and systems to determine if they are fully functioning properly. I’ve had buyers perform this prior to their pre-purchase inspection, some after and others who have had the inspection facility take on this responsibility. Who it is flown by and when it is flown isn’t as important as the competency of the individual performing the flight test.

Purchasing an aircraft that has been cared for will not only lower your expenses down the road, but it will also give you peace of mind when it comes to flying you and your family. While purchasing an aircraft can be an emotional decision, it is also important to look at the hard numbers, including what are the operating costs, maintenance costs, etc. Filter your options down to the aircraft that will give you the best ownership experience possible.

By accounting for these factors during your search, you will enhance your buying experience, reduce expenditures and improve the “marketability” of the plane for resale.
To help you navigate the pre-owned aircraft market, it is helpful to partner with an industry expert who can work with you to pinpoint the right aircraft for your needs, while making sure you have access to all necessary records to ensure the safety and longevity of your aircraft.

To recap, when purchasing a pre-owned aircraft, it’s key to outline a budget that matches your capabilities at the start of your search, review key considerations such as log books and maintenance history, and learn the differences in production and model year changes. When these factors align, you reap the benefits of a pre-owned aircraft and are ready to take flight.

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