Maintenance Does Matter

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With the average GA airplane now in its thirties, it's hardly surprising that more and more sales of used aircraft are being roadblocked by disputes over maintenance discrepancies that show up during the pre-purchase inspection. Professional aircraft appraiser Brian Jacobson warns sellers to stay on top of the maintenance of their aircraft, and not to let the repair of seemingly inconsequential or cosmetic squawks slip, lest they create an obstacle to sale of the aircraft. As for buyers, Jacobson advises demanding an appropriate price reduction to compensate for squawks that show up during the pre-purchase and, if the seller doesn't agree, just walking away from the deal.

Given our aging general aviation fleet — average age now over 30 years — there are bound to be some problems regarding the condition of an airplane at the time of sale. That’s because some owners are not willing to put the necessary money into the proper maintenance of the aircraft, while others don’t fly enough to ensure that their aircraft’s systems are kept in good operating condition.

Poor maintenance catches up with the aircraft owner at sale time. When the pre-purchase or annual inspection is completed and the list of discrepancies is long, the seller has three options: to take less money for the airplane, make the repairs himself, or face the loss of the sale. Many sellers would rather lose the sale and look for another buyer rather than take a reduction in the sale price. Often, sellers believe they can make the repairs and increase the cost of the airplane to the next buyer to cover them. But that is neither smart, reasonable, nor a legitimate way to sell an airplane.

Get real!

For one thing, many airplanes that are on the market these days are overpriced as it is. Adding a $3,000 maintenance bill to an already-overpriced light airplane only means a delay in getting it sold and a reduction in the price when the seller finally decides he can't wait any longer.

Not long ago, I located a Piper Archer for a buyer-client of mine that looked good and had a great avionics package. But the airplane had been stored outdoors in California for a while and the windows were not sealed properly. During the pre-purchase inspection, the mechanics came up with two major problems: The wing aft attach fittings were corroded and needed to be replaced, and there was a low cylinder that had to be addressed. Those two items represented approximately $4,000 in repairs! The dealer that owned the aircraft refused to pay for them. He said he’d make the repairs himself, raise the price, and sell the airplane to someone else.

The airplane had been purchased by the dealer from its California owner without a pre-purchase inspection. It had a very good look to it, and it was easy to get the impression from the logbooks that it had been well-maintained. But it must have been stored outdoors for quite a while, judging from the corrosion.

Pay attention!

Some people have no idea how well (or poorly) their airplane is maintained, because they take no interest in the maintenance. Upon purchasing it, they hand the logbooks over to the mechanic whom they've chosen to maintain it. Then, whenever it comes time for maintenance, they take the airplane to the mechanic and tell him to call when it’s finished. They have no interest in the details of what the inspections revealed, or how the maintenance was performed.

That’s an attitude that can come back to bite you at sale time (if not before). If you think the mechanic is maintaining your aircraft well but he really isn’t, the list of squawks during a pre-purchase inspection or pre-sale annual could be long and devastatingly expensive. The owner should, at the very least, spend some time with his mechanic during (or just after) an annual inspection, going over what was repaired, why it was done, and what to look for in the future that might indicate that problems were or were not resolved. Also, the owner should be familiar enough with the type of airplane being flown to know what to expect out of an annual inspection. Don’t ever let a mechanic tell you there is nothing wrong with your airplane during an annual. It doesn’t work that way, especially if it is the first time a particular mechanic has looked at the plane.

Recently, while doing a pre-purchase/annual inspection on a Commander 114 for a client of mine, the mechanic found one cylinder where the compression was 62 while the others were all in the 70s. That kind of difference between the cylinders means there is a problem. There was some exhaust valve slop and during the test air was being bypassed by the exhaust valve and the rings. After pulling the cylinder it was found that there was a lot of carbon in the upper end of the cylinder, the Cermicrome coating on the barrel was completely worn away, and a valve guide was worn.

Some mechanics might have let that cylinder go on the basis of the compression reading, although Lycoming requires that a cylinder that is venting through the valves during a compression test be pulled. That cylinder would have done nothing but get worse, and would have caused problems later on. Catching it during an annual inspection may have saved my client from being stranded later on while waiting for it to be fixed on the road, or perhaps, a fate worse than that.

Don't let little things go

Very often aircraft owners let "little" things go that they feel have no bearing on the airworthiness of the aircraft. These are often cosmetic in nature, but when you start adding up the costs of repairing them, it can be a tidy sum. Now, a buyer comes along interested in purchasing the airplane, and the buyer's pre-purchase mechanic lists those items and how much it costs to get them fixed. The seller balks — why should he pay to fix "little" things that the buyer is going to benefit from?

To such sellers, the items we are discussing are things they have lived with and thought little about, but at the prices airplanes are being sold at today, they certainly should be considered in the equation. No, we are not buying new airplanes, but when a seller promotes his or her airplane as "9 on a scale of 10," then that’s what a potential buyer expects to see.

One seller told me his interior was "an absolute 10." When I got to see it, I didn’t agree. The seats were wearing along the insert seams, and the seams were starting to let go. The plastic was discoloring and cracked in several places. The carpet was worn in front of the pilot’s seat. Otherwise it wasn’t too bad. But it wasn’t close to a 10.

I pointed all that out, and the seller replied that they were all "small" things that didn’t mean much. He had lived with them for the time he owned the airplane, and he felt the prospective buyer (my client) could also. I told him that if he wanted to project his airplane as being a perfect 10, that if he was going to price it based on that, then it had to be that way. He disagreed, and the deal fell through.

Paint and interior on a light aircraft can cost $15,000 or more. Those who promote an airplane as having "great P&I" when both need to be refurbished are not going to find it easy to sell that airplane. I looked at another Archer recently that had surface corrosion that someone had not bothered to clean before painting over it. The airplane needed to be stripped, prepped, and repainted — but the seller did not want to recognize that fact. Naturally, he wanted top dollar for his airplane and would not consider the bad paint job. I walked away from that deal, too.

What's a buyer to do?

So, how do you buy an airplane that has maintenance problems of one sort or another? If the seller is not willing to make some concession for the necessary work and the price does not reflect the true condition of the airplane following a pre-purchase inspection, you might want to pass on that airplane and look for another.

Obviously, it depends on how much money it will take to put the airplane in the condition you want it in. If the amount of the repairs is relatively small, you might decide to bite the bullet and forge ahead anyway, rather then spend more time and money searching for another airplane. But if the costs are too high, you'd be well-advised to pass on the deal and go back into search mode.

One thing you must be careful of during the purchase process is sinking more money into an airplane than it is worth. That's especially true if you plan to sell and upgrade in the next few years. Taking a loss on your present airplane when you decide to move up will only eat into the available funds for the new airplane. The same is true if you skimp on maintenance while you own your airplane and it catches up with you during a pre-sale inspection. You are always better off to take an interest in your airplane while you own it and see to it that the maintenance is done properly.

If you don’t fly your airplane enough to keep the systems working properly, you could also face a heavy-duty bill at sale time. For example, if your cylinder walls rust because the engine has only been run two or three times over the course of a year or two, you probably will face a top overhaul — or a big reduction in the price of the airplane to cover one. That’s a heavy-duty loss that usually can be avoided by flying the airplane for an hour or so once or twice a month.

Most buyers are willing to pay the going price for a good, well-maintained airplane. But when the pre-purchase inspection is completed and all the defects are considered, will your airplane still fit that category? Generally speaking, it is a lot of little things that add up to a major repair bill that usually kill a sale. The seller can avoid the loss of the sale by taking care of all known discrepancies before advertising the airplane. With the known problems out of the way, it makes dealing with the unknown ones much more palatable.