Buying In

Prepurchase Inspection: Look Before You Leap

March 1, 1996

Efforts up front can save grief later

You wouldn't purchase a home without a walk-through — or even a melon without a squeeze — and you should not buy an airplane without a prepurchase inspection. Few steps in the buying process can save you from emotional and economic grief as can a well- organized prepurchase inspection.

Let's assume that you have narrowed your search to a small number of candidates. If the selling price, apparent airplane condition, and timing appear to be in your favor, then it's time to bring in an impartial third party. Seek out your own favorite A&P, or gain the services of someone who has recent, intimate knowledge of this particular make and model.

The prepurchase concept is easy to understand — a knowledgeable individual who has no fiscal interest in the airplane looks it over with a magnifying glass. That means you shouldn't take it for granted that an airplane sold with a "fresh annual" is anything other than lip service; it may well be a good inspection, but it just as likely is not. Your goals are manifold, but the emphasis should be on ascertaining whether the airplane is as represented — for instance, with no damage history, if that's what the seller is claiming — and that it has been properly maintained.

A good prepurchase begins with the paperwork. Ideally, all the airframe and engine logbooks will be present. Be wary of airplanes with curious holes in the logbook coverage, and be suspicious of explanations like, "Oh, the airplane was in Panama in the 1960s." Reconstructing logs is a laborious and expensive process, especially if there are numerous airworthiness directives (in particular, the repetitive ones) on your model of interest. Of greater importance are good records since the date of the last overhaul or replacement of major components such as the engine and prop. Be certain that the serial numbers match, as well. An airframe with a decade of missing log entries is not as troublesome as an engine whose real time in service cannot be verified. (In these cases, if you're operating under FAR Part 91 rules, you should assume that the engine is run-out and perform a detailed inspection before flying. Also, figure the logbook lapses into the selling price.)

Logbooks also should contain thorough and up-to-date information on airworthiness directive and service bulletin compliance. Pay particular attention to repetitive inspections and hope that the owner took the opportunity to upgrade AD'd parts to eliminate the recurring checks. Even though SBs aren't considered mandatory for Part 91 airplanes — even those marked by the manufacturer as mandatory — there are several that warrant compliance for the longevity and overall care of the airplane. There are a good number of SBs that many owners and mechanics consider frivolous, too; where the selling party has drawn this line will tell you something of his overall maintenance practices. You're usually better off buying an airplane from a "picky" owner who complied with most or all service bulletins.

Check the records for the status of major engine accessories and avionics. You should see green or yellow tags for any of the accessories or instruments that have been overhauled or replaced since the airplane was new. The exception is for airplanes with new or factory-remanufactured engines; the accessories that came with it are considered new or in overhauled condition. In addition, all of the paperwork for the avionics should be present. Make sure that the pitot-static and transponder inspections are up-to-date, too.

Assuming that you don't find any skeletons in the logbooks, turn your hired-gun mechanic loose on the airplane. Many of the type clubs that have or contract with maintenance facilities offer prepurchase inspections on an hourly basis, and this should be your first choice. If that's not feasible, obtain from your type club any prepurchase checklists that they may have published. The airplane maintenance manuals are an excellent reference, too, but your intent isn't to put the candidate through a fresh annual inspection. Rather, you and your mechanic are looking for the common trouble spots, corrosion, general condition of the engine and propeller, and quality of past maintenance. It is the buyer's responsibility to pay for the basic prepurchase inspection.

It may be useful to construct a written agreement with the seller, stating that you will pay for the basic annual inspection, with any major squawks to be remedied by the seller or the cost of their repair deducted from the selling price. To be fair, your task here is not to nickel-and-dime the seller in order to save you some money on the buy, but to ascertain that the airplane is in good condition and as represented. If you go into negotiations understanding that the engine is high time and the tires are bald, so be it.

In general terms, what should you be looking for?

Corrosion

One of the main worries of buying a conventional airplane these days is the specter of widespread corrosion. Check the logbooks to see where the airplane has lived most of its life. Many entries from coastal cities should tip you off to be extra cautious of corrosion. Also look for recent and consistent call-outs for corrosion protection. Treatment with products like ACF-50 and Corrosion X have been successful in stemming the spread of corrosion in even beach-bound airplanes, but they cannot replace metal that's already gone. So look carefully.

Weak engine

If you find an engine that supposedly has low time since new or overhaul but has low compression, high oil consumption, or many contaminants in the oil filter, look out. (As part of your prepurchase inspection, you should take hot and cold compression readings and a peek inside the oil filter element.) You could be dealing with either a bad overhaul, a non-overhaul (a paint and paperwork exercise), or poor maintenance. A low-time engine should look, run, and smell like a low-time engine. Be on guard for parts-bin engines, as well; you might run across a powerplant with two chrome cylinders, two steel, and two of indeterminate origin. To be conservative, in this case you should budget for a complete top-end overhaul.

Uncommonly low time

Inactivity is the bane of all aircraft, so be cautious of the glowing praise from the seller of a 500-hour-since-new 1956 (or even 1976) airplane. It's far better to have higher total time and a history of constant and frequent use than a so-called cream puff that was flown only to get a $100 hamburger on every third Sunday.

Undocumented or poor damage repair

It's said that there are two types of retractables, those that have landed gear-up and those that will. Look at both the logs and the airframe for evidence of skin patches, structural-member replacement, or mysterious "flaps replaced this date" entries. Properly fixed and documented repair notes hurt the price less than the sneaky "don't ask, don't tell" types.

Concluding notes published in the Cessna Pilots Association buyer's guides offer excellent advice to all purchasers:

1. Never buy the first airplane you look at; 2. Always do your homework before you look; 3. Never forget that a broker or dealer is working for the seller and himself, not for you; 4. Always get all warranties, guarantees, commitments, promises, agreements, inferences, etc., in writing even if you are buying the airplane from your mother; 5. Never buy an aircraft without a prepurchase inspection that you control; and 6. Always follow rule number five.


Riding the Paper Trail

Don't horse around with documentation

Just as any cattle drive isn't complete until the gate's closed on the last head, no airplane purchase is done until the proper paperwork has been completed and filed. As if finding the right airplane, setting up financing, performing the prepurchase inspection, and calming your accountant's nerves isn't enough, right? Fortunately, the paper trail isn't as long or convoluted as it would be with the purchase of, say, a nice southwestern ranch, but there are plenty of Is to dot, and Ts to cross.

Fortunately, AOPA has put together the major components of the paperwork package and has samples of many of the forms that you'll use.

Here is a list of the necessary paperwork categories. Materials that you will need come as part of AOPA's aircraft-buying package.

Sales contract

Every handshake deal you made with the seller or broker should be put into writing in the sales contract. This document will list the selling price and all contingencies, such as who will pay for discrepancies found during the prepurchase inspection. You should also have in writing a statement that the airplane, as sold, has a current annual — unless the airplane is specifically represented otherwise — and that all necessary inspections (pitot-static and VOR checks) have been completed.

AOPA offers an escrow service that can help take some of the worry out of the purchase process. AOPA's Title and Escrow Service can be reached at 800/654-4700.

Title

Another service provided by AOPA is the title search. You should have had the title search performed by the time you close the deal; if you don't, the financing institution will have done so. Chances are great that the lender won't even look at your application until the prospect airplane has passed this hurdle.

FAA bill of sale and registration

The seller should fill out an FAA Form 8050-2 Aircraft Bill of Sale, and you must file a Form 8050-1, Aircraft Registration Application. The seller keeps one copy of the bill of sale for his records. This form will also be transmitted to your state tax board, and you'll hear from them about any sales tax due. You are to keep the pink copy of the registration form to act as a temporary until the FAA puts it through the processing machine. Don't plan any trips outside the country until you have your permanent registration.

FCC radio station license

You need to submit a new FCC station license for the airplane. The new licenses cost $75 and are good for 10 years. Included is a temporary operating permit to use while the FCC pushes the paper. Just before closing the deal, however, contact AOPA on this issue. Congress recently authorized the FCC to discontinue the fees and AOPA was preparing to petition the agency to do just that.

Required airplane paperwork

At the time you are handed the keys to your new pride and joy, take a moment to make sure all the required paperwork is in the airplane. That's the new registration slip, an 8100-2 Standard Airworthiness Form (experimentals excepted, of course), current weight and balance computations, the temporary FCC license, and the correct pilot's operating handbook for the airplane. Note that some early models were so-called placard airplanes and are not required to carry the official POH. Many of these airplanes had generic owner's manuals, and you should insist that a copy of it come with the airplane. — MEC


Buying Experience

Let the prebuyer beware

Prepurchase inspections, even when done "by the book," do not come with guarantees. Just ask Scott Dyer, who bases his 1975 Cessna T210L at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York.

When Dyer bought his first airplane, a Piper Archer, in 1988, the prepurchase inspection was conducted at a shop recommended by the FBO selling the airplane — adefinite no-no. "I didn't even fly the airplane before I bought it," he said. Nevertheless, the airplane gave Dyer eight years of dependable service.

After evaluating range and payload considerations, Dyer decided last year to move up to a Cessna 210 and spent six months looking for an airplane. "There was a lot of junk out there," he said, with the mechanical condition of many airplanes misrepresented and several false claims of no damage history. Several states away from home Dyer finally found the airplane he wanted.

Dyer selected what he considered to be a reputable shop near the seller to conduct a prebuy inspection, and he sent the shop some prepurchase inspection information from the Cessna Pilots Association. Now he's not sure that the checklist was followed, and he is questioning the quality of the inspection. "Frankly, I wouldn't have bought this particular airplane if I had known what I know now," he said.

The 210 went into its annual inspection in November, about 40 flight hours after the purchase. Including down time spent waiting for parts, the airplane was in the shop until late January. The annual uncovered rusted control cables in one wing, a misrigged elevator trim tab, a crack in the engine's turbocharger housing, an oil cooler leak, and some Form 337s for modifications that never had been filed with the FAA. Dyer does not yet know how much the inspection will cost him. "It was far more than I'd anticipated or planned for," he said.

The problems probably are a combination of old-airplane woes and conditions not reported on the prepurchase inspection, said Dyer, who does not feel that he was taken advantage of by the seller.

Dyer completed the transaction from New York after flying the airplane and reviewing the logbooks and other paperwork. "The next time, I will go out there and watch the prepurchase [inspection]," he said. "I'll also ask if all the 337s have been filed with the FAA." — Michael P. Collins