Buying a Used Cessna

Should You Buy a Plane?

You’ll hear many people say “If it floats, flies, or f***, rent don’t buy.” Those people are sexist idiots; you should not listen to them. Whether you should buy depends on whether you plan to fly often, and if you can afford a plane. If the answer to both is yes, then buy a plane.

As you start the process, here are a few things to consider:

The most important thing is to take it slow, and divorce your decision making from emotion. When you start thinking about buying a plane the natural thing is to want to expedite as much as possible. What you need to do is the opposite. Time is very much on your side. Every day you wait you learn more about the market, your financial situation improves, and your knowledge of planes improves. There is no single plane soul mate you might miss; in fact, planes are relatively fungible. Be patient; wait until you’re certain you know what type of plane to buy, your finances are in order, and you’re ready to maintain it. Remember, you can’t un-buy a plane once you sign the paperwork.

Steps to Buying a Plane

If you’ve ever bought a house, this process will look very familiar. This is the overview. I’ll go into detail on each one.

  1. Define your budget. Examine your financial situation, and determine how much you want to spend per month on flying. It’s important to do this before you start looking at planes. Buying a plane is a major financial commitment, and you risk allowing emotion to cloud your financial judgment if you allow yourself to get attached to a plane before making a frank assessment of your means.
  2. Define your mission. Before you start thinking about makes and models, you need to figure out what you plan to do with your plane. Combined with your budget, this will allow you to rapidly narrow down the field of available planes.
  3. Select a make and model. Once you know how much you can afford and what you plan to do with your plane, it’s relatively easy to determine the exact model of plane you should buy.
  4. Get pre-approved. If financing, get pre-approved before starting your search so that you can make an offer as soon as you find something.
  5. Find a candidate plane. At this point, you know the right type of plane for you. Now you need to find one that’s for sale.
  6. Review the logbooks. Before spending money on a test flight or prebuy, get a copy of the logbooks and 337s. Go through them carefully and make sure you feel good about the plane.
  7. Open an escrow account. This lets you make a deposit, start a title search, and will handle closing if the deal goes through.
  8. Conduct a test flight. This lets you get a feel for the plane, find small internal things that are broken, and make sure it’s a good fit for you.
  9. Conduct a prebuy evaluation. Before buying the plane, have a mechanic thoroughly evaluate the plane.
  10. Negotiate the purchase. Reach a handshake agreement with the seller on the price and logistics of the transaction.
  11. Close. Deposit the remaining money with the escrow firm and submit written closing instructions.

Defining Your Mission

This is the most important step in buying a plane. If you do this correctly, you will probably be OK. If you do this incorrectly, you will probably be a cautionary tale.

The basic question you need to answer is how many people you usually want to take and how far you want to go. The key word there is usually. Let’s say your vision for plane ownership is flying the spouse and kids to fun day trips once a month or so, and flying them plus two brothers to a family reunion 800 miles away every other year. In this case, your mission is not flying 5 people 800 miles; it’s flying 3 people 200 miles.

Don’t limit your thoughts to the number of seats; you also care about payload. For instance, if you want to fly a family of 4 to a weeklong trip every quarter, you’ll need to consider how much baggage capacity they’ll demand.

Also, consider your destination plans; depending on where you plan to fly your mission definition might include good short field performance, strong climb performance.

Here’s what a typical mission might look like:

Spouse (150lbs), 2 children (180 lbs), and 50lbs baggage flying out to family cabin 600 miles away. Nearest airport to the cabin has 2000ft runway and requires a 900fpm climb; density altitude frequently ~4000ft.

Another possibility:

Myself (and sometimes a <200lbs friend) flying <100mi for a $100 burger.

Above all be honest with yourself and treat your mission as completely immutable. When considering your passengers, be realistic about who will and won’t want to come along; not everyone likes flying. And as you begin your search, resist the urge to rationalize changing or relaxing your mission. If you decided you need a useful load of 1000lbs, then that’s what you need even if a less capable plane catches your eye.

Choosing a Plane

For some reason, many articles suggest you buy the most plane you can afford. This is the sort of dangerous advice that’s pithy enough to have the ring of truth, and does seem fairly plausible. Most people would agree that if you’re deciding between a 1974 Skylane with the original velour interior and one with a beautiful restored interior, you’ll be better off the the restored interior. However, this glosses over the critical fact that you should never buy a plane that doesn’t fit your mission. If the most plane you can afford is an early 172, and your mission is flying a family of 4 people 500 miles to visit family, then you should not buy a plane. Maybe down the line when your financial situation improves you can reevaluate, or you can figure out something creative with a partnership, or you can wait for a market hiccup to bring something larger within reach. But at that moment, buying the most plane you can afford is a huge mistake: what’s the point of owning a plane that doesn’t do what you want?

Once you know your mission, you need to find the cheapest plane that will satisfy your mission. The broad strokes of the used Cessna market are pretty simple, but the individual features of an aircraft can have a big impact on whether it suits your mission. Here are some features and modifications you’re likely to see on your search:

Bladders vs wet wings: Early Cessnas used rubber bladders to store fuel. Unfortunately, some bladders tended to develop small ridges that trapped water. This trapped water couldn’t be drained during preflight, but it would work its way into the fuel system and cause fuel starvation. Cessna solved the problem through a series of airworthiness directives that involved changing the fuel bladders and replacing the fuel caps with a better design less likely to allow water to enter the tanks. Combined, these changes make it almost impossible for water to get into the tanks and prevent the water from being trapped if it does manage to sneak in. Of course, you still need to draw a fuel sample from every drain but you can be confident that there won’t be trapped water you can’t drain.

Despite having fixed the problem, Cessna eventually switched to a “wet wing” design, where the fuel is stored in a sealed cell within the wing. These have not been found to trap water. However, after many years of service they can develop leaks. These are expensive to fix, because at a minimum a mechanic will have to partially disassemble the wing to find and repair the leak.

The bottom line is that both are safe if all ADs are complied with.

Two vs three bladed prop: A three bladed prop can take a much bigger bite of air with each rotation. This means that you can set a lower RPM (thus enjoying a lower noise level in the cabin) and get comparable performance. You also gain a few hundred feet/min of climb. The downside is that you’ll give up a few knots of speed in cruise. If you’ll fly in mountains or with heavy loads, it’s worth considering since the added climb will make you safer. On the other hand, if you stay in the flatlands and travel light it’s probaby not worth losing a few knots of cruise.

Turbocharger/Turbonormalizer: A turbocharger is a big air compressor that allows the engine to develop full power in thin air. This allows you to climb up near or even in the flight levels to take advantage of the strong winds, and to enjoy good performance even on hot days. Of course, maintenance will be more expensive. You also have to be more careful with the engine; in the case of a turbocharger (as opposed to a turbonormalizer) it’s possible to overboost the engine and severely damage it by requesting too much power. Despite those caveats, if your missing involves long flights, flights over mountains, or visits to mountain airports a turbo will come in handy.

Retractable gear: Looks neat and adds a few knots in cruise. However, expect to pay a substantial premium in maintenance and insurance. The damage will depend on your experience, but if you only have a few hours of complex time your insurance will be at least $2,000 more per year. As you build complex time without any incidents, this will go down. The retractable gear is also less sturdy than the conventional gear.

STCs: The FAA allows planes to be modified by applying a Supplemental Type Certificate, or STC. Different companies will develop a modification, perhaps to improve speed or handling. After sufficient testing, the FAA will certify the modification and allow the company to start selling it. Applying an STC legally changes the type of plane you have; it will come with a fancy looking certificate and a series of POH supplements. Some also have instructions for continued airworthiness. Make sure to scrutinize these; you don’t want to buy a plane with STCs that’s missing some of the materials or hasn’t been maintained in accordance with the STC. Doing this is just as bad as buying a plane out of annual or without a valid airworthiness certificate.

Speed mods: STC-happy owners like to slather their planes in all manner of seals, fiberglass bits, and racing stripes. The results will not be game-changing; in practice you can expect a few knots better than book numbers. Also, wheel pants are prone to damage in hard landings or rough fields, and they prevent you from inspecting or filling the tires or breaks.

Strikefinder / Stormscope: At first glance, these seem almost as good as weather radar. After all, they display real-time information about weather surrounding the aircraft. But they’re really more like “pretend weather radar”. They work by detecting lightning strikes (Strikefinder) or areas of severe turbulence (Stormscope) and averaging them over a brief time window to present a stable display. In theory, those areas will be well correlated with thunderstorms. However, it’s important to note that these are not weather radar: they are less accurate and update less frequently. They are certainly fun toys and provide slightly increased situational awareness, but they do not increase your ability to navigate thunderstorms.

Pressurization: Envious of Piper’s success with the pressurized Piper Malibu, Cessna tried their hands at a similar line with the pressurized Cessna P206. The P206 is a neat concept, but it suffers from two major handicaps. Firstly, it’s built on a modified 206 airframe which has never intended to be pressurized. It also uses a single engine, and it’s tough for a single engine to produce enough energy to fly the plane and pressurize it. As a result, the cabin tends to leak and the pressurization isn’t that strong, leading to a fairly weak pressure differential. You’ll also give up substantial payload and money to maintain the system.

Continental vs Lycoming Engines: They’re the same. The plane’s maintenance history is vastly more important than the engine manufacturer. If it’s been well looked after, you’ll probably be fine. If the previous owner skipped oil changes and stretched it well past TBO, it won’t matter who made the engine.

Mogas STC: Many Cessnas have a popular STC that allows running the engine on automotive gas, or “mogas”. In theory this lets you save money by using cheaper gas, but in practice you’d never want to use this. You can only use automotive gas without ethanol, which is hard to find. Even if you find approved gas, it will cause the engine to wear more quickly and reduce the odds you’ll reach TBO. Even if the impact is small, why use a fuel that will reduce your performance and might damage your engine just to save a little bit of money? Better play it safe and use 100LL.

Hail damage: Many old planes are running around with at least light hail damage. It’s unsightly and largely unrepairable, but doesn’t compromise the plane’s handling.

KAP 140 autopilot: A great little autopilot that supports flying a heading, flying an RNAV flight plan, and flying coupled approaches. It can also climb to a set altitude at a set rate. The only downside is that it tends to induce a slight altitude oscillation when in altitude hold mode.

STEC 55x autopilot: Similar to the KAP140, but only supports holding a pressure altitude or maintaining a vertical speed. It doesn’t have the altitude oscillation problem of the KAP140, but it has a much slower response to sudden attitude changes. This means that in practice you can’t really use it in turbulence, unless you’re confident all your passengers will tolerate sudden altitude changes and rolls of ~30 degress.

Engine monitor: Many pre-G1000 Cessnas come with only a single cylinder head temperature gauge. This doesn’t do much to help you lean the engine or spot engine trouble. To remedy this, many owners install a dedicated engine monitor. This instrument tells indicates the EGT and CHT for each cylinder. This lets you lean far more precisely (which saves you money on gas) and can provide advance warning of engine trouble (which saves you a bad day).

Fuel totalizer: These are great; you tell it how much fuel you have at the start of the flight, and it measures the fuel flow to track consumption. If initialized correctly, it will provide you with a very accurate fuel level and endurance remaining throughout the flight.

Estimating Cost to Operate

Once you have a rough sense of what will meet your mission (e. g. new 172, pre-restart 182, 152) you need to figure out how much it will cost you; not just to acquire, but to operate.

Fortunately, getting a good sense of what you’ll pay is pretty easy. You’ll have some initial fixed costs (in addition to the cost to acquire):

One-Time Expense How to Estimate
Escrow Fees and Title Insurance Call a title company that deals in aircraft sales, and ask for a quote. The price will depend on the plane's cost.
Aircraft Cover Bruce's is the gold standard. Their website has a price list. They usually give out modest discounts around Oshkosh and other large aviation events.
Sales Tax Ask an account familiar with aviation issues, or call your county tax commissioner. You may be able to get a casual sale exemption.
Misc plane accessories Depending on what the previous owner throws in, you might be in the market for GATS jars, chocks, windshield cleaning equipment, and so on. Sporty's is the place to go for such sundries.

Then there are fixed costs you’ll incur every year, regardless of how much or how little you fly.

Yearly Expense How to estimate
Tiedown or Hangar Call your airport, or better yet call a few airports to compare
Insurance Call AOPA's insurance hotline. If you tell them a bit about yourself and the plane you want to get, they can give you a ballpark right away.
IFR GPS Data Check Jeppesen's website.
Annual/IFR inspections Call a few local mechanics. They'll give you an estimate if you tell them the type of plane.
Ad Valorem Tax This will be a few % of a fraction of your plane's value. Ideally your local county will have a rate table online; failing that you can call them on the phone.

As much as I’d like to, I can’t provide a ballpark estimate for your case because all of these vary so widely by pilot, aircraft, and location. However, here’s a representative example for a pre-restart fixed-gear 182 based at a towered airport flown by a single IFR-rated pilot:

Expense Amount
Tiedown $90/month
Insurance $1,400/yr
IFR GPS Data $500/yr
Annual/IFR Inspections $2,000/yr
Ad Valorem $1,500/yr
Total Yearly Cost $6,480/yr

Next, let’s figure out the hourly operating costs. These are the hardest to figure out, but we’ll do our best.

Hourly Expense Amount
Fuel Look at fuel burn rate in the POH, and multiply by the cost of fuel in the areas you plan to fly.
Oil This will be $2-4 an hour
Prop reserve Ask a mechanic how much it costs to overhaul a prop, and divide by the prop's TBO
Engine reserve Your plane's engine will need to be overhauled very rarely (probably less than once a decade). However, when it happens it costs more than $25,000. You don't want to be in a situation where you have to delay an overhaul for financial reasons; that's very dangerous. To avoid this situation, for every hour you fly transfer some money to a separate savings account so it's ready when you need it. To estimate the amount to reserve per hour, divide the cost to overhaul (probably around $25,000) by the engine's TBO (1500 or 2000) hours
Misc MX reserve Things other than the engine and prop will periodically break and need repairs. Call a few mechanics and ask for their input. Hourly fuel cost / 4 isn't a bad starting point.

Returning to our 182 example, you might get something like this:

Hourly Expense Amount
Fuel $80
Oil $2
Prop reserve $2
Engine reserve $19
Misc MX reserve $20
Total Hourly Cost $123

For bonus points, you can also consider the costs per trip such as landing fees or customs use fees. However, even at a busy towered airport, they will generally be less than $100 so unless you fly almost every day it won’t move the needle.

Finally, combine the fixed operating costs with the variable costs for a range of realistic flight times per year. This will give you total operating costs. For our example, that works out to:

Hours per year Total operating expense Cost to operate/hr
50 $12,630 $252.60
100 $18,780 $187.80
200 $31,080 $155.40

A 182 seems to rent for >$200/hr wet these days, so you can see that after several years of flying you’ll break even, assuming you fly often. Also, remember that only the fuel is an immediate out of pocket expense; the maintenance reserves will be earning you interest and might not come due for many years if you buy a plane with a good and/or low-time engine.

At this point, you are ready for the scariest part of buying a plane: checking your finances to verify that you can afford a plane, and getting your family on board.

Renting vs Buying

You’ll probably hear and read a great deal about how buying is always more expensive than renting. Generally the argument goes something like this: “You and the FBO have the same basic expenses: maintenance, fuel, financing, insurance. However, the FBO can amortize those costs over a far greater number hours. Plus, it can use its expertise, volume, and connections to get better deals than you ever will.” However, this analysis excludes a number of crucial points:

Overnight rental fees: Very few FBOs will allow taking the plane for multiple nights without charging an overnight fee. This is understanding from their perspective; it’s far more profitable to keep planes booked solid on training flights and local hops than to allow them to fly off somewhere and sit quietly while you enjoy a weekend trip. For you, however, it’s rough. Suppose your typical mission is visiting family two hours away. If you own a plane, you pay four hours worth of variable costs. If you rent, however, you might end up paying four hours, plus a minimum of a few hours for each day you’re away from home. This quickly renders renting unrealistic for multi-day trips.

Profit: The FBO needs to make a profit; you don’t. Unless a business enjoys massive scale (definitely not the typical FBO), it needs to target a gross margin of at least 10%. If you own your own plane, you don’t pay that markup.

Additional fixed costs: The FBO needs to pay for marketing, front desk staff and scheduling software. You don’t!

Additional variable costs: FBOs operate their planes for hire, which brings a host of bonus costs. Their planes need to get 100hr inspections. That’s equivalent to an annual, which could add a few dollars to the hourly rate. Most recreational pilots fly <100 hours a year, and those that fly more aren’t legally required to do the 100hr.

Since FBOs do so much commercial work, their insurance is also much more expensive. That eye-watering insurance needs to be baked into the hourly rental cost. FBOs often use their planes for training. Think back to your training. How many landings pounded the gear, how much time did you spend riding the brakes, how many times did you over-crank the engine on start, how often did you run too lean or too rich? Despite instructors’ best efforts, that abuse translates into extra maintenance you won’t have in an owned plane.

Hobbs time vs actual expenses: Almost all FBOs and flight school charge a wet rate based on Hobbs time. Even when you’re waiting on the ground at 1000RPM burning <5GPH, you’re paying the full hourly rate. With an owned plane, however, you pay based on the resources your plane actually uses. This difference can be enormous. For short flights, you can run in economy cruise and cut your cruise fuel consumption by 25%. If you use the engine more gently than the average student, you’ll pay less in maintenance.

In other words, the FBO hourly rate is based on how much is costs to operate a plane in the most expensive phase of flight, not how much it costs to operate a plane on average for your particular flights.

Present vs future cash: When you rent a plane, you have to pay the hourly rate right when you land. Owners, however, only need to pay fuel up front. The other expenses might not be due for months or even years in the case of an overhaul. Until the expense is actually due, the owner can let the money reserved for the expense accrue interest. For larger expenses like the annuals and overhauls, this difference can be huge.

In short, if you fly regularly your experience will probably be that your immediate cash expenditures after every flight are much lower after you buy. Also, you will most likely find that your per-hour operating cost is at least competitive with the FBO if not appreciably lower.

Should You Finance?

This is a hugely complex question, and the answer depends largely on your personal financial situation. Also, aircraft loans are inflexible compared to consumer loans. Lenders will want 20% down, the first few payments in liquid holdings, and they generally won’t bother loaning you less than $50k-$100k. This means that if you can afford to finance an expensive plane, you can probably afford to buy a small plane outright. The converse is also probably true: if you can’t afford to buy any plane, you can’t afford to finance a plane. In other words, think of financing as a tool to expand the pool of planes you might buy or to buy a large plane early, not a crutch that you rely on to make owning any plane affordable.

Here are some additional details to consider when deciding whether to finance:

Tax advantages: If you will use the plane for business, you may be able to take a tax deduction on the interest or reap other accounting benefits.

Short-term ownership: Suppose you’re planning to own a plane for only a few years, maybe to get a rating or build some hours before upgrading. In this scenario, you only pay interest for a year or two. That might be cheap enough to be worth being able to avoid committing the cash needed to buy the plane outright.

Complexity: If you do finance, the purchase process will take longer and be more complex. The lender will want to approve your insurance choices, since they’re counting on insurance for getting paid if the plane is ever totaled. They’ll also need to be involved with your escrow service, since the money for closing will come from them.

Aircraft limitations: Aviation lenders will not give you a set amount of money to buy any plane you want; that’s far too risky from their perspective. Instead, you will get final loan approval for a specific range of models or even a specific N-number. Many lenders won’t issue a loan to buy an old aircraft or an exotic aircraft. If you’re buying a 172R that won’t be a problem, but if you’re looking at aircraft from the 70s or before you might not be able to get financing on any terms.

Financial requirements: Aviation loans carry far more stringent requirements than credit card, car or even boat loans. In the application, process you’ll need to provide extensive financial records. Limited job history, limited credit history, and insufficient liquid assets will all disqualify you. Terms are also less flexible: you’ll need to put at least 20% down.

Cost: Interest rates on aviation loans tend to be higher than the benchmark rate, and the benchmark rate is rising. Your cost to operate will be significantly higher if you’re paying interest on a financial loan.

Home equity line of credit: If you own a home with significant equity, you could consider tapping it. Your interest rates might be a bit lower, and the loan can probably be processed more quickly and simply than an aviation loan.

Risk: If you buy a plane outright and later need to stop flying, the worst case scenario is that you can’t sell the plane and need to scrap it. That’s a very extreme worst case, but even if it comes to that at least you can stop the financial bleeding. If you finance, however, that’s not the case. You need to keep making payments every month even if you scrap the plane. If you try to sell, you might even find yourself underwater and be unable to recoup the outstanding loan amount. Financing a plane is like any leveraged financial transaction: you take on risk.

Liquidity: If you finance, the lender will have a lien on your plane. This will make it slightly more cumbersome to sell in the future.

It’s worth at least talking to AOPA finance and see what they offer. They might reject you, or give you a stellar offer; both outcomes make the decision easy. It also costs you nothing, you don’t have to use it, and all else equal more flexibility is better when buying a plane.


It’s worth at least considering a partnership. Essentially, you and at least one other person agree to share the costs of acquiring and operating the plane, and of course the benefits of owning it. A partnership provides many advantages:

Of course, they come with their downsides:

Think of a partnership as a joint business venture or shared vacation home. It lets you do more than you could do alone, and it can be fun to share an experience with someone. But, it comes with tangible risks. Don’t do it unless you know the people involved, understand the risks, and have a plan to control them.

Building Your Network

Buying a used plane is not something you want to do in a vacuum; there’s too much tribal knowledge. Early in the process, start building a network of people that are willing to give you dispassionate advice. There’s a good chance you already have at least a budding network in the form of friends and CFIs, but you want to think more formally about this as your search gets serious. Some useful people to contact:

Don’t be shy about asking people for help or information. Most pilots and people connected to aviation love general aviation and want to get more people involved. If someone asks me 1000 questions about owning a plane, I don’t hear 1000 annoying questions but rather 1000 opportunities to help someone fully immerse themselves in the world of flying. That attitude is nearly universal; when shopping around I asked many people dozens of questions. Everyone seemed happy to help and their assistance was invaluable.

Finding a Plane

At this point, you have a set of criteria for your plane such as speed, range, useful load, cost, and aesthetics. Now you need to find some planes that meet that criteria! Thanks to the internet, this step is easy and fun. Simply check sites like,, and It doesn’t hurt to ask around your network just in case, but realistically any serious seller will list their plane on at least one of those sites.

Every few days, log on to each of those sites and scroll through the listings. The used plane market is large, but not so large that you can’t realistically keep abreast of all the planes for sale that match your criteria.

After a few weeks of doing this, you’ll start to develop an intuition for realistic price points, common avionics packages, and so on. Whenever you see a plane that seems like a good fit, contact the seller to request logbook scans and information about the plane’s background. It’s free and easy for everyone to provide this information remotely. It’s much better for everyone involved to verify as much as possible remotely; you don’t want to travel to view the plane only to find it has major damage history or incomplete logs.

Throughout this phase, it’s easy to get stuck agonizing about finding the perfect plane. Remember that you don’t need to find the perfect plane; you just need to find one that meets your requirements. After watching the market for a few weeks you’ll have a good sense of realistic prices. If you see a plane that meets your needs and is priced reasonably, just buy that plane. It’s unlikely you’ll find another plane that’s just as good but significantly cheaper, and you’ll incur the opportunity cost of not having a plane yet. If this approach seems too radical, you can also apply a crude heuristic to solving the “fussy suitors problem”: keep looking until you find a plane that would meet your needs. Then buy the next plane that is better. This provides a reasonable compromise between settling too early and wasting too much time waiting for the perfect plane.


Many plane listings will include scanned logbooks. If the listing doesn’t, you should request copies. Before diving in, make sure the logbooks are complete and cover everything from the plane’s first year to the present day. Gaps or missing logbooks are a deal-breaker. Without a logbook review, you have no way of knowing whether the plane is airworthy. To be legal, you would need to do all the inspections and comply with all outstanding ADs. You also won’t be able to evaluate the plane’s health well. Are there parts that tend to fail? Damage that needed to be repaired? Without complete logbooks, you can’t tell. It will also be harder to sell your airplane since almost all buyers will be leery of planes with problematic logbooks.

To do an initial logbook evaluation, do the following three steps:

  1. Your first pass should be just like the start of a private pilot oral exam: determining airworthiness. At least the annual, transponder, and ELT inspections should be in order. Don’t fret if 100hr inspections are missing; they’re not required unless the plane operates for hire. It also tends to be a moot point for private owners, since most owners fly less than 100 hours a year and the 100hr inspection is the same as an annual. Also, check for current IFR inspections. A VFR-only seller might have skipped them, but if you plan to fly IFR you’ll need to get them. This could be a useful point when negotiating.

  2. Next, delve further back into the past. Has the plane had oil changes every 50 or 25 hours? Do required inspections happen regularly? Is the owner diligent about recurring ADs? Are annuals generally clean, or do they tend to find discrepancies? You want to verify that the plane has been well maintained and that there are no recurring maintenance problems.

  3. Then, zoom in on any major events in the plane’s life. If there was damage, was it repaired correctly? Are upgrades done properly? Your network is very useful here; don’t be shy about polling your network if you’re not sure how to interpret a log entry, plane-specific things to look out for, or a neutral opinion about whether damage is a deal-breaker.


Whenever a plane has a major alteration or repair, the mechanic doing the work must file a 337 form with the FAA. The escrow company will probably give you copies of the 337s. You can also order forms on CD for $10 from the FAA at It’s worth going through the 337s and cross-referencing with the logs. They should match up nicely. If they don’t, it means that someone did major work on the airframe without logging it properly. At best that means a sloppy mechanic worked on the plane; at worst the plane is unairworthy or someone could have tried to hide damage history. Obviously, such discrepancies are a huge red flag.

Test Flight

At this point you’ve found an affordable plane that meets your mission. Your logbook review was satisfactory, and a document search hasn’t found anything unsettling. On paper, this is the plane you should buy. Before getting too excited, however, remember the “on paper” part of that. There could be any number of things wrong with the plane that kill the deal. The pre-buy evaluation is one arm of your defense against problems that don’t appear in the logbook; the test flight is the other.

The test flight is your opportunity to experience what owning the plane will be like. It’s your opportunity to test every part of the plane, and asses its subjective quality. It’s common for non-critical components to gradually decay and break, especially if the owner has been planning to sell for some time. Also, not every plane handles the same. It’s possible for a plane to be perfectly safe yet have rough handling on the ground, INOP avionics, annoying feedback on the intercom, and so on. A pre-buy evaluation from an A&P won’t catch things like that so you need to catch them in the test flight.

Doing a thorough test flight is tricky because it will probably be a short, day VFR flight near an airport, but most of your flying will probably be longer cross countries, possibly on an IFR flight plan, possibly with passengers. This means it’s easy to overlook things you wouldn’t normally use on a local flight plan like navigation equipment, lights, and rear headset plugs. In order to do a good test flight, you need to prepare a checklist beforehand. A reasonable starting point:

Start from that list, and expand it with other items that are important to you or unique to the aircraft. If possible, bring a friend or spouse that will fly often with you. Give them a copy of your checklist, and highlight everything that they can evaluate. Make sure they know what they’re looking for, and give them paper + pen to take notes. As a pilot, your focus will be on things in the panel and engine compartment, making it easy for you to overlook things that passengers care about like noise levels and seat comfort (especially in the back seat).

Don’t fret too much about finding every single thing. The main purpose is to determine whether the plane is unacceptable, and find anything you can use to help in the negotiation. Inevitably, you will miss things that need to be repaired later. That’s OK! Things break on planes; that’s why you maintain a maintenance reserve. Whether small things break shortly before or or after you buy the plane doesn’t make a huge difference.

Resolving Discrepancies

Inevitably, the pre-buy evaluation will find some things that are broken. This is completely normal; many used planes are decades old. With how many defects exist in brand new machines, it’s hardly surprising to find defects in a machine that remembers Eisenhower.

But be that as it may, you still need to do something about those discrepancies. The most common solution is to have the seller resolve them. This is appealing because it shifts a headache onto the seller. It also makes the negotiation a bit easier for you because you don’t need to estimate how large a reduction you should demand for each discrepancy.

However, if most of the discrepancies are things you don’t mind then it might be worth taking the plane as-is, getting the critical things fixed, and letting the other things ride. For instance, suppose the mechanic report says that COM2 radio is inop, the tape deck is broken, and the autopilot doesn’t seem to be connected to any nav sources. The COM2 radio is a huge bummer, but depending on your needs the other things aren’t the end of the world. In this situation, you might be better off using all three discrepancies as leverage to get the cost knocked down, but then only fix the Com2 radio. Note that for this to work in your favor, you need to be a fairly good negotiator.

You also might want to consider the impact to the delivery timeline. Let’s say the evaluation turns up a couple of airworthiness items and a horde of cosmetic issues. Even if the owner is open to fixing everything, you might only want them to fix the airworthiness items and knock some off the price for the rest, rather than wait weeks for the minor things to get sorted.


At this point, you’ve found a plane you want to buy, and you have the funding lined up. You could just pay the list price, but it’s likely that a brief negotiation can save you at least a few percent on the sales price. If you hate haggling, don’t worry! It’s not so painful with this process, and it will save you a meaningful amount of money.

Marshalling information

To have any chance of coming out ahead in the negotiation, you need to have as much information as possible. When buying a plane, the key pieces of information are how much the plane is worth, how much you’re willing to pay, and how much the seller is willing to take.

Determining how much you’re willing to pay is easy, since you should have determined that fact long ago.

Evaluating the plane’s cost is also relatively straightforward. Start by using AOPA’s vref tool. The “as configured” number is your starting point. Next, adjust it based on any upcoming costs. For instance, a Skyhawk that had an annual 1 month ago is worth about $700 more than a Skyhawk that had an annual 11 months ago. A plane with an ADS-B out transponder is worth a few thousand dollars more than an identical plane without ADS-B since the plane without will need to be upgraded before 2020. The number you end up with for the plane’s value should be the list price +/- 20%. If the difference is much bigger, that suggests that you and the seller have a very different sense of the plane’s value. This does not bode well.

Obviously, you can’t know the exact minimum the seller will accept, but you can guess. If the seller financed the plane, you’ll know the lien value from the title search. That number is almost certainly a hard floor. Unless something happened to the plane, the owner will expect to be able to pay off their loan. It’s worth asking the seller why they’re selling, and doing a bit of research about them. Unless you have reason to think the seller is motivated, they will probably demand something close to the plane’s value.

If all three numbers are within ~15% of each other, the deal will probably go through. Now you just need to try tipping the scales in your favor. If you’re not used to negotiating, have no fear! The seller fully expects you to make a counter offer and is planning on some back and forth. Their feelings will not be hurt, and it will not be awkward. Before getting on the phone, decide on your opening offer. This should be the plane’s value, minus any plausible adjustments you can come up with. Upcoming inspections, obvious avionics upgrades, shoddy interior or exterior are all sensible reasons to expect a price reduction. So, your opening negotiation salvo will probably go something like this:

“Hello Seller. N1234 seems like a good fit for me. However, I would need to redo the interior soon since it still has the stock velour from the 70s. I’d also need to hire a ferry pilot. Because of those upcoming expenses, I was thinking about $X”

Where things go from there depends on the seller. They will probably make a counter offer somewhere between the list price and your offer. Alternatively, they might offer something besides a price adjustment. For instance, in our example, the seller might point out that some people love velour and offer to deliver the plane. It all comes back to your price ceiling. If you get the price to come down a bit but it’s still over your ceiling, then politely decline. If the price is below your ceiling then you accept, and you’re going to buy a plane!

Financial Preparation

Now that you’re committed to owning this plane, you need to prepare to fund its care and operation. Even if you didn’t form an LLC to hold the plane, you should still treat it as a separate entity. That means a separate account to hold the plane’s maintenance reserve, and separate books to track the plane’s expenses. Here are some concrete steps I recommend taking:

Ownership Structure

Once the purchase is a done deal, you need to decide who will legally own the plane. You have various options:

Single human owner: Simplest and most obvious; you legally own the plane. The advantages are convenience, simplicity, and potentially tax savings. Most states have a “casual sale” exemption for sales tax which waives sales tax when a plane is sold by individuals to individuals. The downside is that if you plan to use the plane for business (e. g. flying to sales calls), it’s more difficult to take the tax deduction.

Multiple human owners: In this model, the plane is owned by multiple individuals. This can be useful for partnerships, or if you have a spouse. The owners need not be pilots or named insured. One thing to note is that to transfer the registration in the future, you’ll need signatures from all registered owners.

Corporate owner: If you choose, the plane can be legally owned by an LLC, S corp, or other legal entity. This is a useful structure if the aircraft will be used for business purposes. However, make sure you fully understand the ramifications:

The bottom line is that unless you have a business situation that will allow you to deduct most of your flights, registering the plane to an LLC is probably not worth the complexity and cost of forming and maintaining an LLC.


Aircraft Registration Database

The FAA maintains a database of all aircraft registrations. It makes this database publicly available, including the names of all owners and their home addresses. As a practical matter, this means that anyone who searches for your name or your plane’s N-number on the internet can easily find your home addresses, your name, the names of any co-owners, and all the planes you own.

If you want to hide this information, there are two things you can do.

Flight Tracking Services

A variety of services (most notably FlightAware) combine real-time FAA feeds with networked ADS-B receivers to provide live tracking for all IFR and limited VFR traffic in the US. These services usually also archive the data, allowing users who pay a fee to view all the flights a particular plane has flown. This means that if your fly IFR, anyone can look up your plane on these services and see where it’s gone. If it unsettles you that anyone can Google your name and see your plane’s location, add your plane to the FAA’s blocking list. The information is on the FAA’s BARR page. In brief, you send an email to with your name, N-number, and your contact information. After some back-and-forth to verify your identity, the FAA will add your aircraft to the block list. This will prevent your aircraft from showing up on any flight tracking services like FlightAware. If you still want to be able to use FlightAware for your own purposes, FlightAware can give you private access in exchange for a fee as explained on their commercial offerings page.

Shopping List

Now that you have a plane, it’s natural to start nesting. There are a few things you’ll want to buy right off the bat (just make sure to ask the seller what’s included):

Arranging Delivery

If you can, I recommend flying the plane home yourself. The first flight in a plane all your own is unforgettable. The only fiddly bit is that the plane might be far away, and since you haven’t taken possession you’re in a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. How you handle it depends on how for the plane is:

Note than on your first flight in the new plane, you will discover a problem that was somehow missed in the prebuy, logbook review, test flight, and final walkaround. No matter how minor, your first instinct will probably be to kick yourself (or maybe the A&P who did the prebuy). Refrain from doing so! Things large and small break on planes all the time; in the long run it doesn’t matter if it happens 10 minutes or 10 months after you bought the plane. This is why you carefully calculated the maintenance costs you expect and developed a good relationship with a mechanic you trust. Keeping the plane repaired is just as much a part of plane ownership as showing it off on the ramp or setting off on amazing trips. Don’t let an early taste of this sour your first flight.

Things To Do With Your Plane

Armed with the flexibility of your own plane, you’ll want to venture farther afield in terms of where you go and what you do.


The purchase process can be stressful and frustrating at times, and it’s intimidating to take on the responsibility for an entire aircraft. I’ve found the emotional and financial costs to be completely worth it, however. Owning a plane has allowed me to fly far more than I could while renting. In addition to flying more hours, I’m able to do longer overnight trips. As a fun bonus, it appears I’ll save money over renting over the long run. If you like flying, I can’t recommend plane ownership enough.