Selling Your Airplane

Sentimental farewell or business transaction?

April 1, 2004

An ideal airplane sale should be relatively painless. But many owners have real problems selling their airplanes.

Here's one scenario. The owner tells himself he has a good, airworthy airplane. He tells himself that he's taken good care of it, and he's sure that after the new owner learns all four of the special tricks it takes to get the old girl started and running smoothly...well, you get the drift about this airplane. It will be tough to sell because the seller hasn't been honest.

Every year a few owners justify and rationalize the condition and the worth of their airplanes to the point that the airplanes won't ever fly again. You see these airplanes at small airports all around the country. They're easy to spot — they're the ones with the dull paint, crazed windows, and flat tires. A few haven't flown for years. And many of them will never fly again. They will rot on that spot.

But selling an airplane also can be approached from the standpoint of a business proposition. The valuable asset (the airplane) is no longer being used often enough to justify the expense of a hangar, maintenance, and insurance. In addition, the value can be invested elsewhere perhaps in another airplane. Financially savvy owners know that spending a little cash so their asset shows well is worth every penny.

Some airplane owners never think of their airplanes as assets. Their whole view of airplane ownership is more personal — they're emotionally involved, the airplane has been given a name, and the owner calls it by name. The idea of selling their Air Scooter, Freedom Flyer, or Skookum Kid has the same emotional impact as the thought of selling a child. These owners believe that no one could possibly take as good care of their bird as they do.

These folks have a hard time letting go — they fail to realize that other pilots aren't hoping to adopt a somewhat-quirky member of another family — buyers are looking for a trouble-free, airworthy airplane that's ready to fly.

Somewhere between the cold, hard factual outlook of the asset manager and the let's-overlook-the-quirks-because-it's-lovable sentimentalist is the average seller.

It doesn't matter where you fit on this spectrum, there are a number of simple steps that will help you sell your airplane.

Honesty

Periodically each airplane owner must inventory his or her flying habits. Provided there haven't been illnesses or injuries that have interrupted an owner's average flying schedule, it's easy to determine if the present airplane fits the owners' flying needs. I sold my honest, comfortable 1966 Cessna 182 after I realized that I had more airplane than I needed based on the trips I'd taken in the preceding two years. I'd taken three long cross-country flights from my home in Santa Maria, California — one to Nogales, Arizona, one to Phoenix, and one to Seattle. There were a few two-hour flights, but most of the time in my logbook was accumulated in flights of less than an hour. I was paying for too much airplane. A Cessna 172 or a Piper PA-28 would have done the job quite safely for a lot less money. So I let her go.

The needs test is one way to determine if it's time to sell. Another part of the equation is the cost of flying. If the cost of maintenance is rising and the hours flown are shrinking, there will come a time when it's so much less expensive to join a local flying club and rent an airplane that the costs of sole ownership no longer can be justified. For insight into the cost of owning an airplane, fill in the worksheet on AOPA Online ( https://www.aopa.org/apps/iforms/opcosts/).

The reason I'm bringing up all these factors — which many AOPA members say are only a small part of the decision to own an airplane — is to help owners come to grips with the often-difficult decision to sell their airplanes at a time when the airplane is still worth something. An airplane is still worth something when it's receiving regular maintenance, when it's being flown often, when the owner is spending time keeping the bugs off the airframe and the carpet vacuumed, and when the records are organized and complete.

When an airplane sits still for two, three, or four weeks in a row, and this rolls from one month into the next, the value of the airplane is going to decrease. When this happens it's time to accept the facts and get the asset or little darling, depending on your attitude, ready to sell.

Getting ready

The first step is to clean it up. Joe Stancil, owner of Stancil Aviation Enterprises in Placerville, California, runs a very successful light-airplane sales business. Stancil says, "Cosmetics are more important than the actual mechanical condition of an airplane, especially to the first-time buyer."

Take your airplane to a wash rack and shine it up. If the belly is oily, buy some concentrated airplane-safe cleaner such as Carbon X and wash it clean.

Get some spray-on upholstery cleaner and a vacuum cleaner and de-crud the interior. A soft brush helps clean the dust off of the tops of radios and between the knobs of panel instruments. Clean the windows inside and out.

Airplane detailers will spiff up the grubbiest airplane for a fee. If you're too busy to get to it, or can't get into the cleaning mode in spite of your intentions to the contrary, bite the bullet and spend the money for a detailer. Line workers are always looking for a way to augment their income, and they know about cleaning airplanes. This is an important point — tricks that work on cars may damage airplanes.

The physical appearance of an airplane is the first thing a prospective buyer sees. If the airplane looks like the seller has neglected it, the buyer may walk away — or he may want the seller to discount the price because his instinct is that the airplane has been misrepresented. It will cost you if the airplane doesn't show well.

If you're showing the airplane in your hangar, take some time to square away the hangar before you slide open the doors. It doesn't have to be spotless, but buyers are looking for clues to help them determine whether they can trust the seller — it's not very reassuring to see a disorganized or junky hangar.

Records

There's a saying in the airplane maintenance business — when the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the airplane, the airplane is airworthy. When the paperwork, such as the propeller, engine, and airframe logbooks, is jammed in a shoebox with wads of miscellaneous receipts, assorted manufacturer's service bulletins, the odd maintenance release (yellow tags), and a selection of odd screws and washers, the required records research can feel overwhelming for a buyer. And it will surely delay the sale should the buyer take the airplane to an independent mechanic for a prepurchase survey.

A well-organized set of records helps put a prospective buyer at ease. A good guide for inventorying the required paperwork can be found in AOPA's "Tips on Buying Used Aircraft" ( www.aopa.org/members/files/guides/tipsbuy.html).

I used a three-ring binder with zip-up pocket pages — I had a pocket for each logbook with labeled dividers for the engine log, the airframe log, the propeller log, one-time airworthiness directives, recurring airworthiness directives, and service bulletins.

Title search

Stancil, who has sold almost 250 airplanes over the past three years, also says, "Many airplanes don't have clear titles." Sellers who want to guarantee a smooth selling experience should go ahead and pay for a title search before they start marketing their airplane. AOPA Aircraft Title Services can help ( www.aopa.org/info/certified/tne/).

If there's a cloud hanging over the title, it takes some time to clear it. Again, one of the keys to selling an airplane is to make it easy for the buyer. The buyer may be willing to pay a little more for an airplane he likes if he can take it home right away — the delay in clearing a clouded title will rain on a smoothly progressing sale.

When an airplane is advertised and then drops off the market for a while, only to show up again because the first buyer has backed out because of unexpected surprises such as a clouded title, it causes successive buyers to wonder what went wrong. Make sure your airplane is ready to sell before you advertise it.

A sign of the times

Airplanes that were purchased when the economy was booming become hard to sell when there's less money around. Prices fluctuate with the ebb and flow of a nation's economy. Popular airplanes with modern avionics and up-to-date engines draw the best prices. An airplane with a Continental 520-series engine that is not equipped with a phase-three (heavy) case and a VAR crankshaft won't be worth as much as the same-model airplane with these upgrades. This is just one example of how an honest appraisal of an airplane's equipment assists sellers in setting a sale price. It's hard to sell an airplane that's priced above fair market value, especially if the economy is shaky.

Vref is an airplane pricing reference database that AOPA members can access online ( www.aopa.org/members/vref/). It allows you to check off blocks that correspond with the equipment installed in your airplane, and enter the aircraft total time and engine hours since major overhaul. Shazam! The Vref program provides a valuation. Be advised that there's some fine print related to Vref prices. I used Vref for the valuation of a 1963 Cessna 210C recently and found that the prices were based on the airplane with complete logbooks, no damage history, and in annual with all airworthiness requirements (such as pitot system and transponder certifications) up to date. The value provided was valid for an airplane having two nav/com radios (an illegal radio such as a Mark 16 doesn't count), a mid-time engine, good paint and interior, a two-axis autopilot, a glideslope indicator, an ADF, and DME. Vref valuations are valid only if all this stuff is in working condition.

While these valuations are somewhat fuzzy, they provide a good starting point for setting a sale price. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter if an owner has spent megabucks to reconfigure the instrument panel or to install a larger engine; the value added by upgrades is never as great as the cost of the upgrade.

An airplane that is in excellent condition, with no damage history, modern avionics, and complete maintenance records, can bring a sale price that's higher than Vref prices, especially if it's a highly desirable model that has been flown regularly and is in impeccable condition.

Advertising

Pictures help sell airplanes. Whether they're shown on the local airport bulletin board or on one of the many online airplane-sale Web sites (AOPA members can advertise their for-sale items free at www.aopa.org/classifieds/), it pays to have good pictures to display. Pictures should be in focus and fully saturated with color. There should be at least one picture of the instrument panel, one of the interior, and one of the exterior.

If there's a big hole in the instrument panel because a piece of avionics equipment is missing or in the shop, wait until you get the box reinstalled or ask the avionics shop if it has a loaner unit you can install for the picture. When taking exterior shots, wait for a sunny day and position the airplane with the sun at the 10 o'clock or 2 o'clock position so the airplane is bathed in good strong light. Stand with the sun at your back, mind your shadow, and get close enough so that the airplane fills the viewfinder.

When you write your ad, emphasize the positive things about the airplane. Buyers decide to pursue airplanes based on first impressions. The basic ad includes the airframe total time (AFTT), the engine time since major overhaul (TSMOH), or time since factory-new engine (SFNEW). If a top overhaul has been done include that as TSTOH. If new cylinders were installed at the top overhaul, include the brand of cylinders that were installed.

If a well-known engine shop did the overhaul, include its name in the written description. Describe the avionics and include any enhancements such as STOL kits, three-blade propeller installations, an HSI (horizontal situation indicator), and enhanced-capability autopilots. If the GPS is IFR-certified, be sure to add that tidbit of information.

Tell where the airplane is located. This prevents an excited buyer in a different time zone from calling you at an inappropriate hour. An e-mail address makes it easy for buyers across the country to contact you and provides a written record of your communications with buyers.

It doesn't matter whether you look at your airplane sale as the conversion of assets or as the graduation of a beloved member of your family, AOPA members who follow these few simple rules will benefit when it's time to sell their airplanes.


E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.