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.