Prepurchase Inspections Revisited

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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.

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 exam.

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 good mechanic.

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 seller.

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 squawk-free airplane.

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 airplane.

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 for you.

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 inspection.

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.

Be reasonable

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 case.

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.