Author Mark R. Twombly previously owned a Piper Aztec with two partners and co-owned a Piper Twin Comanche.
I’ve owned all or parts of (in one case it was nothing but parts) five airplanes. Three were bought from or in partnership with friends, and two were partnerships with family. Of the five, not one was acquired through a traditional comb-the-classifieds buying experience. That unblemished record is over.
I’ve recently been advising someone who wants to buy his first airplane, and we’ve done it the old-fashioned way—scour the listings, call to check out the more promising ones, settle on a short list to look at up close and personal, spend way too much time and money traveling around looking at the candidates on the short list, and, when none live up to expectations, start all over again.
This went on for weeks until we finally found The One. Or so we think. We’ll know soon—it’s in the shop now undergoing a prepurchase annual inspection. This much I do know about the used-airplane buying process: It has not been easy, but it has been an education. I’ve never been a great shopper of anything—my specialty is buying high and selling low—but this most recent experience (a euphemism) has armed me with a few tips that should come in handy the next time I go looking for an airplane. Here are my 12 personal rules to buy by:
1. What do sellers want? That’s easy—a motivated buyer who is packing cash and is realistic about price. What do buyers want? Also easy—a seller who represents the product honestly and is realistic about price. It’s that simple. So how come it’s not really that simple? Because of rule number one: Never underestimate the potential for odd, head-scratching behavior. Even though we’re not talking much more money than most have in the pickups they drive to the airport, something about selling, or buying, an airplane brings out the strange.
2. Price is not an accurate measure of quality. Whether out of emotion or chutzpah, some owners wildly overestimate the value of their aircraft. Near as I can tell, they arrive at an asking price by starting with a base figure taken from the absolute peak of the market years ago, then add the full amount they invested in every upgrade and repair they ever did—including the inop 8-track cassette player residing in the panel. Four words, folks: It’s a buyer’s market.
3. Never underestimate the power of emotion. My buyer friend fell in love with one airplane within about five seconds of seeing it, and continued to proclaim his affection even though it failed to meet our basic criteria. When, fortunately, that one fell through, he immediately and instantly fell in love again. I felt like the father of a 16-year-old who wanders into a sorority.
4. Get yourself a junkyard-dog mechanic to do a prepurchase inspection, and let him off the leash. We had Kevin Kasley, a young guy who runs Florida Aircraft Services at Avon Park (AVO), along to bite at sellers’ ankles. If there was a squawk anywhere on the airplane, Kasley would track it down and flush it out like a bird dog possessed.
5. Buy local if at all possible. You’ll probably look at a lot of airplanes before you find The One, and if you don’t confine your search geographically you’ll quickly consume mass quantities of time and money.
6. And you thought fresh annual means the airplane has just been through a thorough inspection and is squawk-free. C’mon, wake up and smell the garbage. It may really mean that someone has paid as little as is humanly possible to have an annual inspection entered into the engine, propeller, and airframe logbooks.
7. Once an owner decides to sell, no more money may be spent on the airplane. (See rule number six above.) I suppose it’s because selling your airplane is an emotional thing, like breaking up with a love interest. Once you decide it’s over, it’s over.
8. Beware of shiny new paint and a flawless interior. Like an actor who has just emerged from rehab looking like a million, the blinding glare may hide serious internal issues.
9. Don’t even try to make sense of sales jargon. I thought that the number “8” when used to describe the condition of the interior, for example, meant “8 on a scale of 10.” In other words, much better than average. Silly me. I’ve since learned that in the peculiar patois of sales, “8” actually translates as “Sure, the purple vinyl seat covering is splitting at the seams, the green shag carpet is greasy, and the cheesy plastic window frames are yellowed and cracked, but how about those Rosen visors!” And then there are the endless abbreviations—TT, TSTO, TSFO, TSPTO, and my favorite, NDH, which is a compact way to say, “You’ll have to dig a lot deeper into the logbooks than that to find out where we hid the repairs to the gear-up landing.”
10. Be on the lookout for good old-fashioned honesty in a seller. Take heart—sightings do occasionally occur. If you’re lucky enough to happen upon it, it’s worth paying extra for whatever they’re selling.
11. You will spend more to buy an airplane and put it in service than the budget your spouse has approved will allow. Start working now on your begging-forgiveness speech.
12. And, my final rule to buy by: These things may be better left to professionals.
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