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Buying your first airplane

Tips for an enjoyable experience

Whether you have 10 or 10,000 hours in your logbook, every pilot dreams of owning an aircraft. There is nothing better than being able to fly "your" airplane whenever and wherever you want -- without ever wondering who was flying or how it was flown before you or just what kind of mechanical shape it's really in.

But, as a student or very recent private pilot, you may believe that aircraft ownership is one of those "some day" things. If you approach it right, "some day" just may be today.

"We've sold a number of airplanes to student pilots with just a few hours in their logbooks," said Fred Ahles, president, Premier Aircraft Sales, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "In fact, a growing number of our clients have been low-time, first-time buyers."

The biggest hurdle for most low-time buyers is the fear of taking the plunge. "Buying an $80,000 car is no big deal because you've owned cars before and know what it's all about," Ahles said. "But owning an airplane is a huge unknown. We spend a lot of time coaching our customers through the buying process.

"Just like your first solo, if you apply good judgment and attention to detail, buying your first airplane will become a fondly remembered event," he continued. "And just like preparing for your solo, there are people ready to help you."

But what if you don't have a top-end aircraft dealer nearby? All the help and guidance that you need for turning your aircraft ownership dream into a reality is available from your friends at AOPA.

10 tips for first-time buyers

AOPA technical specialists Larry Barnhart and Rodney Martz offer these tips to help make your first aircraft purchase a wonderful experience.

  1. Consider why you want to own an airplane. Can you really justify to yourself and your significant other the financial commitment that comes with ownership?
  2. Look in your logbook and see what kind of flying you do or plan to do. Then look for an airplane that fits 80 percent of those needs.
  3. Start simple. Don't buy an airplane that's too complex to fly safely.
  4. Set a budget for what you can afford each month and stick to it.
  5. Add 25 percent to that budget for unexpected maintenance costs.
  6. Talk to people at your airport who currently own that type of aircraft.
  7. Talk to their mechanics.
  8. Discuss your flying experience and goals with an experienced aviation insurance specialist -- you don't want to buy an airplane that's too expensive to insure.
  9. Consider finding a partner or co-owner to share the expenses.
  10. Before you do anything call AOPA's Pilot Information Center (800/USA-AOPA) or visit AOPA Online and spend some time learning about all the valuable information the association makes available to its members.

First time's the charm

"Whether they go to AOPA Online or call the Pilot Information Center, prospective owners will find all the information they're looking for to help make their first aircraft purchase a great experience," said Rodney Martz, senior aviation technical specialist in AOPA's technical services department.

Larry Barnhart, another of AOPA's technical specialists, added, "We have a lot of experience for members to draw from. And if I get a question I can't answer, I'll go to one of our other specialists for help. There are a number of people here in the department who are previous or current aircraft owners, and we've all been through the process."

With all that kind of information and help available to AOPA members, what is the number one question first-time buyers pose to the team of technical specialists?

"I'd say that by far first-time buyers want help with what type of aircraft to buy," Martz said. "I tell them to start by thinking about how they are going to actually use the airplane. Look for an airplane that will fit 80 percent of your missions -- that's a good way to guide yourself, because no airplane is going to meet all of your requirements all the time.

"When you look at your needs, it helps to think in three-year spans," he said. "It's common for pilots to trade up in three to five years as their skills and uses grow. But you need to buy an airplane that you can really use right now."

"I get calls from student pilots who want to start right off buying a high-performance retractable," Barnhart said. "In my opinion, they don't have the experience or hours to safely fly that kind of airplane, regardless of whether they have the deep pockets to afford one.

"I try and direct them toward an airplane that is more like what they are training in right now," he said. "Something that is simpler and more forgiving, that they can safely fly for a hundred hours or so, and then move up to a more complex aircraft."

After you build that 100 hours or so, Barnhart said, you will probably have a much better idea of just how you will be using your airplane and what type of aircraft will best fit those missions.

First-timers also need to consider whether they can get adequate insurance coverage for the new airplane. In the words of a representative for a large aviation insurance company, "Low time and high performance is a bad combination." You may be able to get an insurance policy, but it could well cost a lot more than you think, which can really balloon your monthly ownership cost.

Beyond the basic skills and experience questions, AOPA's technical staff can help you with information pertaining to specific aircraft types so that you'll know which ones have troublesome maintenance histories that can lead to higher costs.

"We certainly don't consider ourselves engineers, but as a group of technical specialists, we certainly know what the word of mouth is on just about any type of airplane on the market," Martz said. "And that is more information than first-time buyers typically have before they start looking." AOPA has access to virtually all the feature articles that have appeared in AOPA Pilot magazine. The specialists use them and other resources to develop aircraft profiles and other type-specific information for members, he said.

The inside scoop

Getting to know the inside story of any particular model is important not only when it comes to making the right selection, but also to prevent you from making the all-too-common mistake of buying an airplane at a "bargain" price only to discover that its upkeep is financially staggering.

"Different years of the same model can have dramatically different maintenance needs," Martz explained. "That's something that's really good for new buyers to understand. We can help point out mechanical issues on each model so prospective buyers get an idea of what they're getting into. Often the differences in sale prices are directly related to maintenance issues."

Barnhart and Martz also recommend talking to the mechanics based at your home airport to get their thoughts on different models -- after all, you'll be counting on them to keep you in the air. The association's technical experts can even go so far as to use their experience to help you draft a list of specific questions for your local mechanics.

"You're going to be spending a lot of money with your local mechanic over the next few years, and if he has a particular opinion on a make and model, it's good to hear about it early," Barnhart said. "Most mechanics are happy to talk with you, and you can also find owners based at your airport and ask them what's it's really like to own a particular model." That's also a way to see if a particular airplane is right for you -- offer to buy the owner some fuel in exchange for an hour or two in his or her airplane.

A vital area to research in an aircraft's maintenance logs is whether any potentially expensive airworthiness directives (ADs) need to be performed. Often a too-good-to-be-true offering price on an aircraft is explained by the need to comply with a costly AD. A high-time engine can also lower the asking price, but you could face five-figure overhaul expenses soon if the engine isn't up to snuff.

AOPA's Operating Cost Calculator can help you to devise some general estimates of monthly costs for particular models. The interactive page lets you plug in costs for insurance, tiedowns, loan payments, fuel use, approximate maintenance, etc. "It's not type specific, but it sure gives you a great place to start," said Barnhart.

First-time favorites

Thinking about buying your first airplane? These five categories -- each of which comprises several models -- are most popular among first-time airplane purchasers, according to AOPA Pilot Information Center staff.

  1. High-wing Cessnas in the 150/152, 172, 177, 182, and 206 series. The line offers many choices; the performance differences are significant, while other characteristics are remarkably similar. Cessnas' singles remain the volume leader.
  2. The Piper PA28 Cherokee series. If you trained in a low-wing aircraft, you'll typically look at the Cherokee 140, Cherokee 180, Warrior, Archer, or Dakota first. They offer a lot of value for your money.
  3. Less-common four-place aircraft. The fixed-gear Socata Tobago, Beech Musketeer and Sport, and Grumman's Tiger and Cheetah are versatile, capable aircraft. Only their smaller production numbers have kept these models in the background.
  4. Tailwheel and/or sport aircraft. Citabrias, Maules, Ercoupes, experimental and aerobatic airplanes, as well as classic Cessna and Piper models, are particularly popular among pilots who have rented for a while and enjoy these models' utility -- and comparatively lower operating costs.
  5. Retractable-gear aircraft. Mooneys; the Beach Sundowner and Bonanza; Piper's Arrow, Comanche, and Saratoga; and the Commander 112/114 are popular choices with pilots who have rented for five, 10, or maybe 15 years; know the optimum speed versus cost equations; and can buy what they want.

Dialing to save dollars

Speaking of loan payments, along with the Operating Cost Calculator, AOPA Online's Aircraft Purchasing Resources page also has links to MBNA, AOPA's financial partner, so buyers can get pre-approved for loans before they start shopping. "A lot of buyers are surprised that they can actually afford more airplane than they thought," Martz said. "I remind most buyers, and my wife, all the time that airplanes are really good investments. Typically single-engine piston airplanes have appreciated over time, which is good news for any prospective buyer."

Another tool that can help you avoid paying too much for the airplane in the first place is the association's aircraft valuation service, provided by Vref. "Members can go online or call us and we can help them figure out if a particular airplane is priced in line with the market," Barnhart explained. "In many cases, prospective buyers are pretty surprised by what the current market conditions are versus what someone is asking for their aircraft. It gives the buyer a place to start to see if the asking price is reasonable."

Prequalifying for their loan and getting a realistic idea of a particular aircraft's value are just the beginning of the money-saving information members can get from AOPA's Pilot Information Center. "One of the most beneficial types of information we can offer is the title searches," Barnhart said. "No matter how perfect it is, you never want to buy someone else's problem. We can help determine if an airplane has had a lien on it from 10 or 15 years ago or longer.

"Maybe it's as simple as someone not filing the proper paperwork," he added.

New or used?

Most first-time buyers initially believe that they can only afford a used airplane, but with record-low interest rates and attractive tax incentives available now, buying a new airplane may not be so far-fetched.

"Many first-time buyers are in a financial position where they can afford a new airplane, and others may even elect to lease back their airplane to a flight school to help write off the costs," Ahles said. "It all comes down to price and comfort. Can you really afford a new model of the airplane you want? And do you want the added comfort in knowing that your new airplane is covered by a factory warranty? If your answer is yes and yes, then new is the way to go."

Partnerships and co-ownerships

Partnerships or co-ownerships can be viable options for the first-time buyer. "We talk to a lot of new pilots who want to buy with a partner," Martz said. "It's an inexpensive way to get in, but it does require some additional care in selecting the right partner and doing the right paperwork.

"The buyer has to find the partner, but we have all the documentation they will need posted on AOPA Online," he said. "A member can go and get whatever they need. And like anything else that has to do with owning and flying, we're always here to help them in any way we can."

Dale Smith is an aviation journalist in Jacksonville, Florida. A private pilot, he has been flying since 1976.

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