You've found the aircraft of your dreams and are ready to buy if it survives the prepurchase inspection. But how extensive does that inspection really need to be —a quick once-over by the A&P, a full annual inspection, or something in between? Who should do the inspection? How much should it cost? If squawks are uncovered, who will pay to fix them? AVweb's Brian Jacobson answers these and other questions that buyers often ask.
July 26, 1999
|About the Author ...
Brian Jacobson has over 12,000 hours
in all types of general aviation aircraft from trainers to jets. He has been
flying since 1970, and earned most of his certificates and ratings on the East
Coast in the early 1970s.
His first aviation employment was as sales manager at Air Worcester, Inc.,
an FBO in Massachusetts. Through the years, he worked for several FBOs selling
airplanes and flying charters. For nine years, he was chief pilot for a division
of ITT based in Providence, Rhode Island, and later was a bizjet captain for
Textron, Inc., out of Providence, Augusta, Georgia., and Pontiac, Michigan.
During those years, he flew real-world IFR in all sorts of weather and some of
the most congested airspace in the world.
Since 1988, Jacobson has been a member of
the National Aircraft Appraisers Association, and owns and operates a firm
called Great Lakes Aircraft Appraisal, appraising airplanes for buyers, sellers
and financial institutions. He also helps individuals and businesses buy
aircraft by evaluating their needs, recommending the type of aircraft they
should purchase, and helping them locate and procure those aircraft.
Jacobson is also a professional aviation writer. He is a contributing
editor for AVweb, Aviation Safety, and IFR
Refresher; a contributor to Plane &
Pilot; and can be heard on Belvoir Publications' Pilot Audio
In October 1996, he published his first book,
Flying on the
Gages, in which he discusses his experiences flying IFR. In May, 1997, his
second book was published:
Purchasing & Evaluating Airplanes. His books are available from Odyssey Aviation Publications.
There are many ways
to do a prepurchase inspection on used aircraft, and whether the method you choose is
right for you depends on the outcome. There are those who say that nothing short of a
full-blown annual inspection is the way to go, while others do little more than a cursory
Cursory exam or full-blown annual?
Which way should you go when it comes time to purchase your bird? It depends on the
circumstances surrounding the individual aircraft. For example, an aircraft that just came
out of annual should be in good condition ... theoretically. But we know that all
annual inspections are not created equally. Is it necessary to redo the complete
inspection? Generally, the answer to that question is "no." The exception is if
there is reason to believe that the annual inspection was not done properly — which is
the case sometimes when an airplane is for sale — and that can be determined quickly by a
If it has been six months or more since the last annual inspection was done, then you
should seriously consider doing a complete annual. Unless there is some reason not to do
the annual inspection in the seller’s locale — e.g., there is no shop in the area
that has the experience level on the particular type of aircraft that you are buying — go
ahead and do the annual at the seller's locale. Not only will you be saving yourself some
money, but you will get a better look at the airplane in general.
What's wrong with this aircraft?
Before committing to a complete annual inspection it is advisable to have your mechanic
check the known problem areas on the particular aircraft that you are looking to buy. If
many problems are revealed you may forego the annual inspection. That will depend on the
structure of the deal that you have set up with the seller.
Some sellers know exactly what is wrong with their airplanes, and they tell the buyer
that the price is absolutely firm. To them the results of the prepurchase inspection are
meaningless — they are not to the purchaser, however.
If the purchaser’s mechanic finds too many problems that are going to cost a fair
amount of money to repair early in the inspection there is probably no reason to go ahead
with a complete annual, unless you have reason to believe that the seller is going to pay
for some or all of the repairs that are necessary. So, in effect you are doing a
prepurchase inspection prior to the annual inspection. But since the airplane is open
already it is easier and cheaper to do the annual at this time.
Why pays for what?
The buyer must understand that he or she is not buying a new airplane. That means that
it is unlikely that the seller will pay for every little thing that the mechanic writes
up. The reason for doing a prepurchase inspection is to determine that there is nothing
seriously wrong with the aircraft that will cost the buyer a large amount of money
immediately after the purchase. Or, that there is nothing major that will need repair in
the immediate future.
Anything that affects the airworthiness of the airplane should be the seller's
responsibility. Other items on the squawk list should be negotiated between the buyer and
Most sellers have an absolute bottom line that they will accept for the aircraft and
once they reach that they will negotiate no further. The art of negotiating the payment
for items that do not affect the airworthiness of the aircraft is a fine one. If the buyer
goes into the prepurchase with the intention of not paying for any of the items the
mechanic finds he is likely not to buy the aircraft unless it was presented to him as a
You have to understand that mechanics write up every little discrepancy no matter what
it is or how much it will cost to repair. As a purchaser that is exactly what you want,
but there are different ways to resolve minor problems, and one mechanic's repair may not
be the same as another's.
Get it appraised first
Before the prepurchase inspection you should have any aircraft that you intend to buy
professionally appraised so you'll know exactly where you are positioned relative to the
selling price. If the airplane is appraised for a value that is higher than the selling
price then you have some room to maneuver in your negotiations with the seller. However,
if the aircraft is appraised for a value that is lower than the selling price you have to
be very careful about how you proceed.
Naturally, you do not want to be into any airplane for more then the appraised value,
and if the seller refuses to give you enough money to make the important repairs that are
required by your prepurchase mechanic then you probably will be searching for another
Unfortunately, there are some very good airplanes on the market that have been somewhat
neglected and require some minor or major work to bring them up to the airworthiness
standard. The amount of major work required, and who is going pay the bill, will be the
determining factor in whether you purchase the aircraft or not. Sometimes, for personal
reasons, a buyer will agree to pay for repairs that an aircraft needs if the seller
refuses. Generally, that only occurs when the price of the airplane is attractive enough
to warrant that. After all, it does cost the buyer more money to go back out into the
market, locate another airplane, and prepurchase it.
Choose your mechanic wisely
I have heard complaints from people who have had prepurchase inspections done and still
had major problems with the airplane shortly after purchase. Most of the time that occurs
it is because the mechanic the buyer chose did not have the necessary expertise for the
particular type of aircraft. If the mechanic is not familiar with known problem areas on
the type of aircraft you are purchasing he or she cannot do a good prepurchase inspection
Before you engage a mechanic to do a prepurchase inspection for you be certain he has
the tools and manuals necessary for the job. Ask him how many of that aircraft type he
maintains. If his shop is an authorized service facility for the manufacturer whose
aircraft you are about to purchase he should be capable of doing a thorough prepurchase
If the mechanic tells you during your first conversation with him that he does not do
prepurchase inspections, that may be true in a technical sense but most mechanics do them
albeit in a different form. There is no official prepurchase inspection in the sense that
there is an annual inspection or 100-hour inspection. Some mechanics, because they do not
have any guidelines regarding what should be done during a prepurchase inspection, will
tell you to provide them with a list of items that you would like to have checked on the
airplane, and that they will look at each one. This method is a protection against
liability for anything they might not see during an unspecified prepurchase inspection.
What do you do when an overzealous mechanic tells a buyer there are problems with an
airplane that do not exist? Recently, a client of mine specified a well-known national
shop for his prepurchase inspection on an F33A Bonanza. This airplane was a very
well-maintained example that had been cared for by a Beech shop until two years prior to
our looking at it. The prepurchase mechanic told my client that the aircraft needed over
$15,000 worth of work.
Almost all the work that was specified was what it would take to comply with all Beech
recommended maintenance procedures and policies. None of it had an effect on the
airworthiness of the aircraft. In fact, I have seen very few Bonanzas that have been
maintained to that standard (one reason why Beech airplanes have a reputation for being
expensive to maintain).
Naturally, the seller was not in a mood to hear that kind of talk. He was ready to pull
the plug on the deal and take his airplane home. In the end, we resolved the differences
and bought the airplane. But the prepurchase mechanic was of very little help in this
There are some bad airplanes out there so don't become confused between what you think
may be an overzealous mechanic and an airplane that is truly in bad condition. The
prepurchase mechanic should be able to show the buyer and seller any defects that exist.
Then, he should create a list of the defects plus a cost for parts and labor to correct
them. 99.9 percent of the time the buyer has to go with what his prepurchase mechanic
says. If the list is too long and the cost of the repairs beyond what the seller is
willing to negotiate then the buyer will be looking for another airplane.
The purpose for doing a prepurchase inspection is to alert the buyer as to the
condition of the aircraft. What you spend on this inspection will return every penny to
you in the form of confidence in the new airplane that you bought or in the relief that
you will experience because you didn't buy the airplane.