So you’re thinking about buying an airplane but you want to make sure you’re ready for the big purchase. These are the most important details to consider.
Buying an airplane can be a stressful experience with a lot of things on your mind. Details to consider during the process include age and condition, the total cost of ownership, engine hours, airworthiness, included equipment, damage history, maintenance records, and storage location.
Most people say that the two biggest purchases in their lives are a house and a car. While that’s true for the majority of typical people, you’re not a typical person — you’re a pilot! And buying an airplane squeezes its way in there as one of the biggest purchases you’ll ever make. To help alleviate some of the stress of that decision, we’ve created this comprehensive guide to help walk you through the planning process so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
If you’re considering buying an airplane, you certainly want to know what you’re getting into. And we want to make sure that we’re giving you the best information possible to make that big purchase go as smoothly as we can. That’s why everything you read in this article has been thoroughly vetted for accuracy and relevancy. We combined research and the input from others with our own expertise to come up with a comprehensive guide of what to keep in mind while buying an airplane.
What Should You Keep In Mind When Buying An Airplane?
If you’re thinking about buying an airplane, you’ll want to spend some time really going through the decision and making sure that you make the right one for you and your situation. Maybe you’re planning on buying an airplane that’s as affordable as possible, or you’re splurging on something crazy that will set you back hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars. It’s important to think through as much as possible early on so you’re ready for anything.
If you’re at the point in your life that you’re considering airplane ownership, you’ve likely made a few major purchases before. The vast majority of airplane owners have made other large-scale purchases before, things like a house and a car. And just think about how much time and thought went into buying those things.
Well, an airplane will typically require just as much, if not even more, time and effort during the buying process to make sure you know exactly what you’re buying. After all, an airplane is one thing that you don’t want to skimp on in terms of safety and reliability. If a house or car has an issue, it’s not great but usually nothing major. If you’re in an airplane and something suddenly fails, you’re thousands of feet in the air with nowhere to go.
So there are certainly some major details to keep in mind during the plane buying process. We’ll run through much of the budgeting and buying process shortly, but let’s dive straight in. Here are the major details that you want to consider when you’re in the market for an airplane of your very own.
Age and Condition
Unlike with cars that you buy, the age of an airplane actually isn’t nearly as important as you might think. As long as a plane has been properly stored and maintained over the years, buying one that’s 30-40+ years old or more is incredibly common and should present you with no real issues. The more important thing to take a look at is the condition of the plane.
This means checking over just about every system, surface, and component of the airplane, from the controls system to the interior and exterior paint. You want to make sure everything operates as it’s designed to. If it’s in good shape mechanically, you’ll want to make sure the surface of the plane has been maintained and isn’t falling apart. Check for rust spots or flaking paint, both of which indicate poor maintenance and the potential for issues down the road.
Cost of Ownership
When making any major purchase in your life, one of the — if not the — biggest things you’ll always want to keep in mind is the total cost of ownership. Notice we said the total cost of ownership, not just the cost of the airplane. That’s because the cost to own an airplane is not just the dollar amount that you pay for the plane.
Over the course of your ownership, you’ll need to pay for a number of different things consistently. Some of the added costs of airplane ownership that you need to have an idea of when you’re budgeting for your plane include maintenance, storage fees, insurance, and more. It’s important to know how much you’re really going to need to budget for from the start.
Engine hours are the best way of getting an idea about how much wear and tear an engine has gone through. Since as we mentioned above, the age of the airplane is not as important as you might think. Engine hours, on the other hand, now that is important to know. The best analogy to think of is how you would want to know how many miles are on a car’s engine that you’re buying.
But just like with some other types of vehicles (tractors, dirt bikes, boats, etc.) airplane engines are recorded in hours of operation rather than miles of distance traveled. Engine hours have a drastic impact on the value of an aircraft, with the value lessening the higher that the number of hours reaches. You’ll want to take the engine hours in conjunction with the maintenance records, but more on that later.
Airworthiness is a word that means exactly what it sounds like — the airplane is “worthy” of flying in the air (read: capable of flying). If an aircraft is listed for sale as not being airworthy, that is a fancy way of saying that there are some major issues with the plane that prevents it from flying. If you’re not wanting to have major maintenance right off the bat, you’ll want to ensure the plane you’re buying is airworthy.
One way to confirm a plane’s airworthiness is by checking the logbooks for compliance with Airworthiness Directives (ADs). These are directives issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the plane and owner must comply with to prove that the aircraft remains airworthy. AD compliance should be recorded in the plane’s logbooks, so it’s fairly easy to check!
Since many of the airplanes that you’ll be looking at buying are going to be anywhere from 10 to 50 years old (or more!), it’s important to know what equipment is actually installed in the aircraft. Many aircraft have lots of fancy equipment installed straight from the factory, while many other planes are modified over the years to include even more.
But what kind of equipment do you want to look for? Some of the common systems or pieces of equipment that you’ll want to know about include avionics systems, interior equipment (seats, controls, etc.), air conditioning systems, de-icing equipment, and more. Some of this stuff may add or detract from the plane’s value. So you’ll want to know what it comes with!
Just like you might check a vehicle’s CarFax report before you buy your next car, you’ll want to know about any major damage history that an airplane has before you pull the trigger on the purchase. Major repairs that the airplane has had done over the years will have a large impact on the value of the plane and how much you should pay for it (and its resale value).
Significant damage to an airplane must also be repaired following strict guidelines and regulations from the FAA to ensure, you guessed it, airworthiness. So you’ll want to know what the damage was, what the extent of it was, how it was repaired, and that the repair meets and exceeds all FAA regulations. Without that info, we suggest you look elsewhere. You don’t want to buy a plane with a damage history that has not since been proved airworthy and reliable!
With the age of the airplanes that most of you will be looking at buying, the maintenance records are arguably the most important thing to consider. They’re right up there with engine hours in terms of importance, and they really go hand-in-hand. The plane’s maintenance records will show you how well it’s been taken care of over the years, and you should be wary of any plane that has no maintenance records.
If you do come across a plane with little to no maintenance records, you should pretty much always just assume the worst and plan on having a complete overhaul done on the plane’s engines as well as have the other major systems checked out. Even if the seller assures you that everything has been well-maintained, without maintenance records, you can never really know. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
This is one thing that people don’t really think of when they buy an airplane. But where exactly are you going to store it? Unlike a car, you can’t just keep it in a garage and then load it up on a trailer anytime that you need to move it. Planes are too big and cumbersome to just be loaded up on a regular trailer every weekend like that.
No, you’ll likely need to rent a spot at the airport that you’ll be flying in and out of. It’s important to look at what’s available since it could be open or covered storage and both of which will incur different overall costs. You’ll also likely need to pay a tie-down fee to keep the plane anchored where you’re storing it. Just more small things to keep in mind!
Figuring Out What Type Of Plane You Should Buy
The very first thing that you’ll want to do as early as possible during the plane buying process is to really sit down and figure out what type of plane you want to buy. Do you really need the newest, fastest, most advanced plane on the market that will set you back half a million dollars or more? In most cases, probably not!
Instead, really take some time and go through your budget, your wants, and your needs to find the perfect plane for you.
Budgeting For Your Airplane Purchase
Without a doubt, one of the most important aspects of making such a big purchase is to determine your budget. And this is something that you should really do as early as you can before you even start seriously looking for an airplane. Because you don’t want to start your search and fall in love with an airplane that is realistically outside of your budget.
When it comes to budgeting for an airplane purchase, you need to include much more in the cost than just what the plane itself costs upfront as we mentioned above. But we’ll dive in a bit deeper to budgeting for a plane in the next section.
What Type Of Plane Do You Really Need?
This is where you really want to sit down and think about what you want to get out of your airplane. Make a list of wants and a list of needs and decide what’s really important to you. Do you want to just have the most basic airplane possible that you can hop in and fly around by yourself? Or maybe you want something with four or more seats that you can use to take friends and family for a ride.
How high are you wanting to fly? How fast do you want to go? How far do you want to be able to go on each flight? These are all questions — and there are many more — that you’ll need to answer early on. Again, this is something you want to do before you start looking at planes for sale. We know from personal experience that it’s easy to fall in love with something nicer than what you really need.
And if you get caught in that rabbit hole, it’s tough to get out of! You’ll start justifying it to yourself and convince yourself that some of those wants are really needs that you just have to have. So really spend some time figuring out what type of plane you need, it’ll be well worth the time spent in the long run!
How To Make A Budget For Buying An Airplane
We’ve discussed the importance of budgeting for your airplane again and again in this article, so let’s take a bit deeper look into doing that. After all, there are all kinds of things to consider when it comes to what the total cost of ownership of an airplane will really be over the length of time you own it.
Upfront Cost Of The Airplane
This is of course the easy one. And it’s also likely the biggest cost you’ll ever incur throughout the time that you own the airplane. When you’re looking for an airplane, this is the cost that you’ll be paying when you finally decide to buy one. If someone asks how much an airplane costs, the upfront cost of the actual airplane is what most people think of.
It’s so important to know how much you’re willing to spend on the airplane upfront because the amount of money can be substantial to say the least. If you’re on a budget, you might be looking for a plane that costs around $15,000 to $20,000. But if you’re looking to spend a lot of money on an airplane, the price can go about as high as you want. You could spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to buy an airplane.
How Much Does It Cost To Maintain and Upkeep An Airplane?
Although the initial cost of the plane is of course the most important cost to keep in mind, as we’ve mentioned throughout this article, it’s not the only one. There are plenty of other aspects of airplane ownership to keep in mind that will cost some money over time, including:
- Storage — As mentioned earlier in the article, storing an airplane is more cumbersome than storing a car. You’ll likely need to rent space at the airport near you that you’ll be using and you’ll also need to pay for tie-down service. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $300 per month depending on the type of storage and your location.
- Financing — If you decide to finance your airplane purchase, your monthly cost of ownership will of course go way up. You’ll have to make monthly payments to the lender to cover the principal (cost of the plane) and the interest, which will add up over time.
- Maintenance — Airplanes are mainly mechanical systems like a car, meaning things need to be maintained and parts will eventually wear out and need to be replaced. Oil changes alone will add up over time. You should budget for at least $50 to $100 per month on average for maintenance costs.
- Insurance — Just like with your car, you’ll want to get insurance on your airplane to cover any potential issues. Coverage and policies vary widely in terms of what they offer and cost, but you can expect to pay around $1,000 to $2,000 per year for aviation insurance.
- Fuel — Airplanes typically go through about five to gallons of fuel per hour, depending on the type of plane and how it's flown. With aviation fuel typically being around $4 to $6 per gallon, that adds up to about $20 to $60 per hour of flight just in fuel costs.
And more. It comes down to quite a bit of money to own and fly your own aircraft outside of just the actual cost of the plane. To put a number on it, you can expect to pay, on average, around $100 to $200 per hour of flight time with all the additional costs added in. It all adds up, and it adds up quickly! If you can do your own maintenance and repairs, that will help keep the cost of ownership down significantly, so keep that in mind.
Determining How Much You Can Afford To Spend
The only way to truly determine how much you can afford to spend is to have a legitimate budget of your monthly expenses and compare it to your income. Just like with any other purchase, it simply comes down to how much money you have (or you bring in) and how much money you spend.
That’s why it’s so important to have everything else in mind other than just the upfront cost of the airplane while you’re making your budget. Because owning a plane is a constant cost from everything listed above, you need to make sure you can afford to keep up with the cost of owning and flying it. After all, you don’t want to buy an airplane but not be able to afford to actually fly it!
If you’ve got the money saved up and you’ll be paying cash for the airplane, then the additional monthly expenses will of course be significantly less than if you financed it. Without having to make monthly payments on the plane itself, you’ll really just need to budget that $100 - $200 per hour of flight time cost from above.
But if you’re financing the airplane, then the budgeting will take a bit more time and effort to make sure it’s something you can really afford. You’ll have to (likely) come up with some sort of down payment, then you’ll have the monthly payment for the principal, you’ll have to pay interest on the loan, and then you’ll have the same costs of flying and ownership that we’ve mentioned.
So sit down and take the time to really determine how much cash you’re willing to spend upfront and how much you’ll need to shell out monthly for the plane. If you just plan on flying it ten hours per year, it won’t cost too much. But if you plan on flying it 100 hours a year, you’re talking an additional $10,000 to $20,000 per year just in average costs.
Plane Buying Checklist To Keep In Mind
We know that was a lot of information that you just read through. So to make it easy, we’ve created this quick checklist for you to keep in mind when you’re looking at buying an airplane. These are the major things that you want to keep in mind during your search. Feel free to print this checklist off and run through the list one by one to make sure you’ve covered all your bases.
So without further ado, here’s your plane buying checklist:
Come up with a budget for what you want to spend in total:
- Upfront cost of the airplane
- Storage fees
- Maintenance costs
- Monthly payments (if financed)
- Fuel costs
Ensure you have an understanding of the following aspects of the plane:
- Age and condition
- Engine hours
- Included equipment
- Damage history
- Maintenance records
- Storage location
What to do while buying an airplane:
- Determine if you’re going to pay cash or finance
- Figure out your needs vs your wants for the perfect airplane
- Always take the plane on a test flight before buying it
- Look the plane over in detail with the above things in mind
- Have all your paperwork in hand
Most importantly, enjoy your new airplane!
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood