There are thousands of used airplanes on the market, and no two are exactly alike. The range of choices available to a buyer is both a blessing and a curse. Defining your mission, purchase goals and a budget can help methodically pare down the list of potential candidates. A systematic approach also offers the side effect of decreasing pre-purchase anxiety as you zero in on The Right Airplane For You.
If you comb through hundreds of classified ads, looking at as many different airplanes as possible, you’re increasing your odds of finding a great deal on The Right Airplane For You, yes?
Not so fast.
As you view more and more choices, each with their pluses and minuses, choosing between all the available options can become more challenging. They may all just seem to blend together, differentiated by a few hours here and a little damage history there.
The process of choosing becomes more difficult, and that difficulty produces anxiety. Airplane buying just went from a fun and exciting adventure to an anxiety-producing marathon.
Anxiety about choices and their respective consequences can discourage us from prompt, decisive action. We may avoid making the tough choice and instead run away (i.e., give up entirely) or opt to find a different, easier choice to make.
This behavior is the basic premise behind Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice.” It’s a fascinating read about modern consumer behavior in an era of multitudes of poorly-differentiated products. I highly recommend it.
Here’s a real-world example. When I was growing up, we received four TV channels over the air. Three were national networks, and one was public broadcasting. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to flip the dial to see what was on. A typical choice on a weekday evening would be between a sitcom, the world news, a baseball game and a documentary about rabbits. That was tough enough. I usually gave up and put on “Top Gun” (yes, on VHS tape).
Contrast that to today, when—if I subscribe to cable or a satellite service—I can have hundreds of channels at my fingertips. There’s also on-demand video from Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. YouTube alone gives me the option to choose one of 5 billion (yes, billion) videos.
Don’t ask me to choose. I give up. I’m going to go read a back issue of Piper Flyer.
The same expansion of choice has occurred in the used airplane market in the Internet Age. Though the number of airplanes changing hands hasn’t varied substantially over the years, the visibility of the choices available to buyers has changed dramatically.
Once upon a time, airplane transactions were guided by word-of-mouth and flyers on airport bulletin boards. There would be a few options available, and you might dig up a half-dozen more if you started asking around the airport. A broker might be able to do some of the legwork for you by calling his or her friends.
Though you certainly can still find a solid bird on the bulletin board, now we have Barnstormers, Trade-A-Plane, Controller, online broker inventory, Craigslist, Facebook groups and myriad type-specific forums (each with their own classified section). A quick search can pull up thousands of airplanes for sale.
The sheer number of choices is intimidating, especially for first-time buyers.
So, how do you start weeding through these thousands of candidate airplanes to find The Right Airplane For You?
It’s simple (sort of)
Just answer this single question and we’ll have you on your way to finding the best new-to-you airplane: What do you want?
Well, I personally want a Northrop F-5E Tiger II with a Soviet Air Force paint scheme. I watched that “Top Gun” VHS tape…a lot. And I speak Russian (poorly), so I’m sure I’d make a great “enemy” pilot.
But, by asking myself a few more basic questions, I can tell that acquiring and maintaining that F-5 isn’t practical.
The mission: who, what, when, where, why and how?
Who is going to be in the airplane with you? What do you want to be able to do with your airplane? When/how often/how far will you fly? Where will you go? Why do you want to be an owner? How much can you afford to spend on this endeavor?
If you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to defining your mission. The F-5 obviously doesn’t work for me. It fails on “who”—you can’t safely fit two people and two dogs into a fighter jet.
Additionally, as much as I’d love to scream around at 400 knots while listening to “Danger Zone” through my fancy Bluetooth headset, I can’t find a way to make the “how” work without robbing a bank or three.
For a more realistic example, let’s check out a recent post on the Piper Flyer forum. The author, Eric, explains his plans:
My story is that I’m 40, in information technology, and have decided to change careers to pursue my dream of flying professionally. I successfully got my private pilot certificate in April in a Cessna 172. Now I want to work through all of my ratings up to CFI.
Congratulations, Eric, on your new certificate!
Eric has a solid idea of what his new airplane will need to do, and he also understands that this isn’t a short-term purchase. He says he’s a “firm believer in [the philosophy of] buy your last plane first.”
That’s a good start.
He goes on to answer the who, what, when, where, why and how. In his words, he’s looking for:
1. Stable IFR platform I can complete my instrument rating and commercial certificate in.
2. Capable cross-country cruiser that can take two people (myself and a passenger) and some luggage comfortably. I am anticipating at least one cross-country trip a month of over 300 miles, with some even longer. So, decent performance would also be a plus.
3. If possible, I’d like to get something that is auto fuel STC capable. This is not a hard requirement, but a nice-to-have.
4. I am anticipating flying 200 to 300 hours a year.
5. Budget would be up to $60,000, but I would like to stay below that as much as possible.
Most readers are probably starting to come up with a few ideas for Eric. It’s easy to help spend someone else’s money! But let’s not get too far ahead. This is a good time to do a sanity check, especially for first-time buyers and those who must stick tightly to a budget.
It’ll often be tough to find a perfect airplane for all your possible missions without breaking the bank. Set a realistic goal of fitting 80 to 90 percent of your mission profile. You can always rent or borrow an airplane, drive or fly commercial for the remainder of the missions.
Rather than immediately going down the rabbit hole of online listings, talk to a trusted and experienced aviation friend, mechanic or airplane broker—or better yet, several of each.
Your guiding question is basic: “Do airplanes that can do 90 percent of what I want exist for around the price I want to pay?” In case you haven’t noticed, aviation people like to talk. You’ll get plenty of opinions. Keep this discussion simple—you just want to find out if ownership is a good option for you.
If the consensus answer is “Yup, you can find that,” continue.
With a mission in mind, it’s time to start thinking about what The Right Airplane For You looks like. Don’t worry about specific airplanes just yet—we’re looking to outline the makes and models that fulfill the mission criteria.
We’ll call these criteria our purchase goals. For Eric, it plays out something like this:
Goal No. 1: Budget of $60,000 for initial acquisition.
• Eric’s budget is clear: $60,000 or very near.
• Other expenses may decrease the amount available at closing. State and local taxes, pre-buy expenses and other acquisition costs can quickly add up.
• It’s also smart to have a significant amount in reserve for deferred maintenance items that may become apparent in the few months after purchase. I’ve heard recommendations of anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of the purchase price. Also, make sure you’re accounting for any upgrades that will be done soon after purchase.
• Like with real estate or cars, the asking price for an airplane isn’t always the sales price. It typically won’t hurt to make offers, but it’s a seller’s market for piston singles right now, and most sellers won’t move tens of thousands of dollars on price. It would make sense for Eric to limit his search to airplanes with asking prices of less than approximately $70,000.
Goal No. 2: Decent performance.
• Eric says he wants to do 300 nm cross-countries. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume he’ll be best served by an airplane that cruises at 120 knots or better.
• To get this sort of speed, he will want to look at high-performance (200-plus hp) and/or retractable-gear airplanes. Some fixed-gear 180 hp and 200 hp airplanes can deliver this speed as well.
• Ensure that the make and model airplane can get into and out of the airports you want to use without undue worry. A pilot who will be flying into backcountry strips in the Rockies will need a different airplane than someone whose home base has 8,000 feet of pavement at sea level. Eric states that he may be flying in New Mexico a bit and would welcome additional high-and-hot performance.
• Given the need for some speed and high-and-hot performance, a 200-plus hp airplane makes good sense for him. A sleek 180 hp airplane would also work.
Goal No. 3: Predictable and reasonable operating and maintenance expenses.
• Since Eric plans to fly frequently and build hours in a short time, he wants an airplane that won’t always be in the shop.
• Simple, proven systems will help limit ongoing maintenance expenses. There’s a reason that most shops charge more for an annual inspection on a complex (retractable-gear), high-performance airplane than, say, a 180 hp fixed-gear single. These complex airplanes are just as they sound—more complex! Similarly, an engine with more cylinders has more cylinders that can have problems, not to mention that it will usually burn more fuel.
• Generally, the rarer a make and model, the more difficult it is to find replacement parts.
• It would be wise for Eric to choose a make and model with simple systems, and one which is widely supported, with good parts availability to limit maintenance expenses and downtime.
Goal No. 4: Must have a range of 300 nm minimum, with IFR reserves.
• Assuming a 120-knot cruise speed and legal minimum IFR reserves, Eric’s airplane will need a range of 390 nm (3.25 hours).
• Let’s look at a few Piper piston singles to get an idea of what is considered standard range. A Piper PA-28-161 Warrior II carries 48 gallons and burns around 7.5 gph at cruise for a maximum endurance of about six hours and a range of 525 nm. A Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 carries more fuel; 84 gallons. It burns about 13 gph, has an endurance of about six hours and a range of 710 nm.
• Eric needs a range just shy of 400 nm. This should be well within the range of most four-seat piston singles with full tanks.
Goal No. 5: Cross-country comfortable for two people, with sufficient baggage capacity.
• Few two-seaters offer enough useful load to allow for long cross-countries with two people, three-plus hours of fuel and baggage.
• A two-seat Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, for example, probably won’t be able to complete Eric’s mission. The useful load of the PA-38 is around 500 pounds. With two 200-pound adults and 40 pounds of baggage, you only have 60 pounds left over for fuel. You won’t get far on 10 gallons of Avgas. The math is, of course, better with smaller passengers.
• In addition, comfort is often lacking in many two-seaters.
• Thus, a four-seater is going to provide the most flexibility for Eric’s intended use.
Goal No. 6: IFR-equipped.
• Though technically a single nav radio with glideslope will suffice for “IFR equipment,” if Eric plans to become a professional pilot and wants to learn how to fly real-world IFR, a WAAS GPS is practically mandatory.
• A modern, coupled autopilot would also be a nice-to-have.
• Acquiring an airplane with avionics already installed is much cheaper than retrofitting them after purchase.
• Eric’s budget will have him looking at older airplanes, where the avionics may have been replaced several times. Though choosing an airplane with appropriate avionics is important, avionics tend to be specific to an individual airplane (rather than make and model). Installed avionics are not an important criterion for filtering by make and model, but are incredibly important when looking at individual airplanes.
Goal No. 7: Auto fuel STC capable.
• Though many Piper singles are eligible for auto fuel STCs, the complexity of the STC varies. Some airplanes can use auto fuel after a paperwork-only STC, while others require expensive modifications to the fuel system.
• If this is an important factor in keeping operating costs down, Eric will want to consider a model with paperwork-only auto fuel compatibility.
Goal No. 8: An airplane I can fly (and be insurable in).
• Eric recently earned his private pilot certificate and just under 70 hours, primarily in Cessna 172s.He does not have a multi-engine rating, so he’ll be limited to singles.
• The transition from a Cessna 172 to, say, a Cherokee 180 is not a difficult one. Conversely, the jump from a 172 to a twin-engine Piper Navajo would be quite challenging.
• Additionally, a low-time private pilot might find it difficult or impossible to obtain insurance in an airplane which requires more pilot skill. In addition to high premiums, the insurer may also require a significant amount of dual instruction for the owner prior to solo operation.
• Should you (or Eric) consider a taildragger? First, can you fly one? Next, can you be insured in one? I received a quote on a high-performance taildragger a few years back. Though the hull wasn’t expensive, my relative lack of tailwheel time combined with a high-risk model pushed the premium to over $3,300/year (and 25 hours of dual required before solo!). That’s a lot of Avgas.
• Eric received a quote on a Cherokee 235 and found that the premiums and training requirements were quite reasonable: $1,100/year and a two-hour CFI checkout.
• Eric must consider insurability and insurance premiums to limit his ongoing costs.
Goal No. 9: An airplane that I’d like to own.
• Do you prefer a specific make and model based on looks, reputation or personal experience?
• Do you have opinions on what constitutes “too old” or “too new,” either in terms of calendar age or airframe/engine times?
• How much work do you want to do on a new-to-you airplane? Some people love reclamation projects; others just want to fly.
• What degree of importance do you place on cosmetics (paint, interior, etc.)?
• What are your opinions on standard aluminum construction versus tube-and-fabric versus composite?
• Eric doesn’t say much about this, but these are an important consideration for many buyers.
Prioritize purchase goals
In Eric’s purchase, budget is a major factor, whereas an auto fuel STC is a nice-to-have.
You’ll want to make a list (actually, three) with your nonnegotiable items, nice-to-haves and lastly, unlikely luxuries. This outline will serve you well when you start evaluating makes and models, as well as specific candidate airplanes.
When I purchased my most recent airplane, I wasn’t initially looking for a Piper. I’d set my sights on a Cessna 177B Cardinal. I thought the Cardinals were sexy, modern-looking airplanes. I loved the big doors and spacious interior.
As I got more serious with defining my mission and assessing various makes and models, I realized that a nicely-equipped Cardinal was going to cost tens of thousands more than a comparable Piper—yet the Piper would deliver the same performance.
Passing on the Cardinals meant I wouldn’t be flying as sleek of a bird, but if I went Piper, I could get a low-time four-seater with decent avionics… and would still have a bit of money to spend on upgrades after the purchase.
I found a nice Cherokee 180, and the rest is history. As it turns out, in addition to checking all my must-have boxes and most of my nice-to-haves, I even ended up with a few unlikely luxuries.
Still, if cost had been less of a consideration for me, I might’ve gone ahead and bought a Cardinal (or a Comanche!). It’s hard to put a price on the toys we desire.
Shortlisting makes and models
Publications like Trade-A-Plane and Controller are great tools for coming up with a shortlist. Online versions work too, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about applying a highlighter to a paper magazine.
For a shopper like Eric, his search starts at the beginning of the single-engine piston airplane section. He might pare down the list by first looking at only common makes and models (a nod to parts availability and ease of maintenance). Next, he might note all the four-seaters, then, of those, just airplanes with 180 hp or more. From there, eliminating the aircraft outside his budget will trim down the results even further.
The first-time buyer, especially one who is new to General Aviation, will need to do some research at this stage. It’s likely that there will be models you’re not familiar with—there might be a lot of Piper PA-22/20s on the market in your price range, but do they match the goals you’ve defined?
With any luck, you’ll quickly winnow down the list to a handful of makes and models which fit most, if not all, of your purchase goals.
You’ll want to do some follow-up on the makes and models you’ve identified to ensure there will be no nasty surprises after your purchase. There may be a reason a specific make and model is so cheap.
What are common complaints and maintenance issues? What do owners love about their airplanes? How many ADs apply? How many of these are recurring? How expensive is insurance?
Yes, it’s again time to talk to people—and not just the pilots who gather at the airport on Saturday morning for the free doughnuts and coffee. You want to talk directly to people who have owned, operated and maintained the makes and models you’re considering. You might also get some tips on other makes/models which would fit your mission from these aviation sages. Heck, they may even know of a good airplane or two for sale.
It could be the woman who owns the flight school which operates a fleet of Piper Arrows. It could be the guy who maintains that fleet. Or perhaps it’s the experts who frequent the Piper Flyer forum.
It’s also wise to get hands-on time with each make and model you’re considering. Flying them is best, of course, but even sitting in the cockpit will give you an idea of whether the airplane is a good physical fit for you.
From here, your job is to find the specific airplanes that have all (or most) of your must-have features. Don’t restrict yourself to print publications—now that you have a search image in mind, it’s time to revisit Barnstormers, Facebook groups, type-specific forums and so on. Except now, rather than digging through thousands of airplanes for sale, you can quickly home in on the few that fit your needs.
Here’s another suggestion: post a wanted ad—either at your airport or online. Some owners may be considering selling their airplanes, but don’t want to deal with the tire-kickers that come with posting an airplane for sale publicly.
I recently sold my airplane to someone who had posted a “looking for…” ad. It was quick and easy for both me and the buyer. I got a painless sale; he got a great airplane for a few bucks less than market value.
Speaking of market value, as you look through advertisements, you should keep a keen eye on pricing. For example, what is an average late 1960s Cherokee 235 listed for? How does that change with airframe and engine times? What sort of adjustments are being made for installed avionics? Is there a regional adjustment in price for that make/model? Though you won’t have access to final sales data, you can get an idea of what a fair deal is—and then be ready to pounce when you see one.
Geography becomes important at this stage, too. It’s much easier to look at candidate airplanes which are within a few hours’ drive or flight. For the most common makes and models, there’s likely to be several for sale nearby. For more rare airplanes, you may need to be willing to travel.
Eric identified a few prospective airplanes in his forum post: a 1958 Piper PA-24-180 Comanche 180 and a 1964 PA-28-235 Cherokee 235. Both were priced near his budget. Both airplanes had an IFR GPS installed. The 235 also had ADS-B Out and an autopilot.
Neither airplane fit all of his stated goals. Eric had questions about the cost of ownership on the Comanche; the 235 had an asking price slightly above budget. But both appeared to be very good candidates which would do 90 percent or more of the missions he’d outlined.
Since Eric had done his homework, the choice was now about which would be the best airplane—not whether these candidates would minimally suffice.
A compelling argument could be made for either airplane, though they are fundamentally different craft. Piper Flyer contributing editor Steve Ells said it well on the Piper Flyer forum: “You might consider the Comanche as a well-mannered and good-looking sedan while the Cherokee 235 is a small SUV.”
The Comanche is more economical in terms of fuel burn (8.5 gph versus 13 gph) for 130-ish knots. It has a Lycoming O-360—about as bulletproof a four-cylinder engine as there is.
On the other side, the Cherokee 235 can lift practically anything you can fit inside it, has broad parts availability, and nearly any mechanic can wrench on one. It’s not as pretty on the ramp as the Comanche (in my opinion), but it performs well and has a reputable six-cylinder engine.
A 200 hp PA-28R Piper Arrow (or Turbo Arrow) comes to mind as another good Piper option. In fact, there was a slick little PA-28R-201T on my home airport’s ramp last week with a For Sale sign in the window for around Eric’s budget.
A PA-28-236 Dakota would’ve been a nice match for the mission, but a Dakota equipped for modern IFR would be cost-prohibitive. Some of the 180 hp models like the Cherokee 180, Archer or Arrow could have worked too, though they won’t ever be confused for speed demons.
Out of the two airplanes he’d identified as candidates, Eric decided to opt for the Cherokee 235 as it had a few more “nice-to-haves,” in addition to fitting much of his mission profile.
Good airplanes which are priced right are selling fast in today’s market, so don’t be surprised if you miss out on a few. I’ve been watching for-sale postings closely over the past few months and have seen several pristine high-performance Piper singles go under contract within hours; sometimes even minutes. Still, by knowing exactly what you want and how much it should cost (and having your financial house in order), you can be that buyer who jumps on a good deal when it comes up.
“All used airplanes have fleas”
Remember, used airplanes have been in service for some years and hours and not everything will be as factory-new. To quote my mechanic, “All used airplanes have fleas—you just want to find one where the fleas won’t eat you, too.”
Your next step is to figure out if your chosen candidate has the kind of parasites that will feed heavily on your pocketbook. This is another spot where you’ll want to enlist expert help.
Piper Flyer has published several articles in the recent past about conducting effective pre-buys. (See Resources for a list of titles and where to find them. —Ed.) I’ll say this: read up on pre-buys and be sure to have a thorough one done. It’s money well spent.
On my last purchase, I walked away from a couple of airplanes after conducting (rather expensive) pre-buys. One of these airplanes experienced a left main landing gear failure about four months after the pre-buy. The accident resulted in significant injuries to a passenger and a total loss of the airframe.
My mechanic had advised me not to buy the airplane because of a problem he observed at the left main gear attach point. The seller (and seller’s mechanic) didn’t think it was an airworthiness issue. He said he’d just sell it to the next buyer in line (which he did). Sure enough, that attach point is where the failure occurred.
A pre-buy inspection from a trusted A&P with experience with the make and model is essential. Don’t hesitate to walk away if you find that the fleas keep multiplying as you dig deeper into the aircraft records or mechanicals. Paperwork issues (missing logs, 337s or STCs) may not cause safety problems, but they can be a huge headache when it comes time for resale.
The receipt of a satisfactory pre-buy inspection from your expert of choice should be exciting and confidence-inspiring. You’ve done your research. You’ve identified the right make and model. You’ve found an airplane that fits your budget and your purchase goals. After a good pre-buy, you’ve got the option to purchase a beautiful, thoroughly-inspected example of The Right Airplane For You.
Now, all you have to do is write the check and fly it home. Enjoy!
Scott Kinney is a self-described aviation geek (#avgeek), private pilot and instructor (CFI-Sport, AGI). He is associate editor for Piper Flyer. Scott and his partner Julia are based in Eugene, Oregon. They are often found buzzing around the West in vintage airplanes. Send questions or comments to .
ADDITIONAL PRE-BUY ARTICLES PUBLISHED BY PIPER FLYER
“Start with the Right Airplane” by Dennis Wolter, August 2018
“Deciphering Logbooks: Pre-Purchase Maintenance Record Review” by Kristin Winter, December 2017
“Hazardous Attitudes in Aircraft Purchasing” by Kristin Winter, November 2017
“Buying Power: Take Control of Your Next Plane Purchase” by Steve Ells, August 2017
“Pre-Purchase Particulars: What You Should Know” by Kristin Winter, December 2016
“The Do’s and Don’ts of Buying and Selling a Plane” by Michael Leighton, April 2015
“Pre-Buy Prop Inspection” by Tim Kern, August 2012
These articles and many others can be found on PiperFlyer.org under the Magazine tab. Select the issue you’re seeking under “Online Magazines,” click on the cover image and open or save the PDF file to your device. Note: you must be logged in to view online magazines.
PFA MEMBERS-ONLY AIRCRAFT (AND PARTS) BUYING AND SELLING
“The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz.
Harper Perennial, 2004.