In our series on the growing world of aircraft refurbishing, we’ve
looked at every phase of a total refurb from avionics to interiors and
from engine replacement to paint. In this article we’ll deal with what
is either the start or finish of a refurbishment—buying an airplane you
intend to refurb or one that has just come out of refurbishment.
While refurbs are becoming an increasingly popular way to become the
owner of an airplane that has most of the attributes of a new one at
less cost, the rules regarding protecting yourself when buying a
pre-owned airplane are the same whether you’re buying it for a refurb or
because it was refurbed. And those rules boil down to one inviolable
law—have a pre-buy examination of the airplane conducted by a mechanic
you select who has had no connection with the airplane or the seller in
As a lawyer, some of the most frustrating matters I’ve dealt with
have involved airplane owners who bought without having a pre-buy
conducted—or had one done by the seller’s mechanic—and then discovered
that they’d bought junk and wanted their money back. One buyer thought
he’d gotten a tremendous deal on a light twin—when he took it in for the
first annual it was discovered to have extensive corrosion. It took
three years and cost him half of what he’d paid to buy the airplane to
fix the corrosion—and it was only one of the many things wrong with the
airplane. The buyer of a Cessna 150 with a “fresh annual” took it in for
its next annual the next year and found out the wrong engine was
installed—and had to be replaced. A 172 had had a wing replaced (no
logbook entry) and the “little bit out of rig” problem became so bad
that it had to be replaced again. One buyer didn’t have a pre-buy done
because the seller was an A & P mechanic so “the aircraft had to be
in good shape.” The list of illegal parts installed and improper repairs
that had been done that was provided to the buyer by the shop doing the
next annual ran two pages. Almost invariably, the seller was in another
state and trying to prove the seller knew the airplane was in rotten
shape would be so difficult, not to mention expensive—or the seller had
disappeared or was bankrupt. Too often the buyer was stuck with his or
her money pit.
The idea behind a refurb is to wind up with an airplane that has the
equipment and is in the condition you desire because you want an
airplane made for why you fly. That means answering the question: How
much am I willing to pay to get an airplane that has that equipment and
in that condition? That’s where the pre-buy examination comes in—you are
hiring a mechanic knowledgeable about that type of airplane to examine
it and give you an educated estimate as to how much more it’s going to
cost you to get that particular airplane to where you want it. If you
are buying the airplane for a refurb, chances are you’ll have the shop
that’s going to do it do the pre-buy, so you’ll get a solid handle on
the cost of the refurb or you find out that the airplane needs so much
extra work that you should walk away from the deal. If the airplane’s
just come out of refurb, your independent technician does the quality
control check and, if anything isn’t up to snuff, gives you leverage to
have the work redone at no cost to you.
Although this article is primarily about the pre-buy examination,
there are caveats to keep in mind during your search for the right
airplane to refurb: Accept that there are no undiscovered, fabulous
deals just waiting for you to uncover—an airplane half-way across the
country priced well below others you’ve considered has something badly
wrong with it. If it were in good shape for that price, a local would
have snapped it up. Also, “fresh annual” and “fresh overhaul” are red
flags—consider them traps for suckers. If you were going to sell, how
much would you spend on maintenance?
Among the more common AVweb reader letters that get forwarded to me
are from pilots who have bought an airplane with a fresh annual as part
of the deal and either something expensive failed within months, when it
went into the shop for a refurb all sorts of horrible things were
discovered or it wouldn’t pass its next annual because it had illegal
parts installed or there are extensive, and expensive, repairs needed.
They thought they’d gotten a good deal on an airworthy airplane, only to
discover, in some cases, that they were just lucky it kept flying long
enough to make it to its first visit to the shop. If you do pursue such
an airplane, it would be wise to assume the annual is worthless and that
the overhaul won’t come close to making TBO—and make a purchase offer
The good news is that honest sellers don’t object to a pre-buy
examination. Most expect it and will cooperate in coordinating it. You,
the buyer, will bear all of the costs, including ferrying the airplane,
if needed. Realistic sellers recognize that a pre-buy helps protect them
if the buyer later suffers buyer’s remorse and tries to take some
action against the seller for misrepresentation of the airplane.
If a seller resists a pre-buy it’s usually a sufficient reason to
walk away from the airplane. The times I’ve seen a seller resist for
good reason involved logistics, notably where the buyer demanded that
the seller fly the airplane a long ways without agreeing to pay the cost
of getting it there and back if it didn’t pass the exam.
Once you’ve found an airplane that looks good enough to consider
buying for a refurb, a number of things happen—although the sequence may
vary: Getting photos of the exterior and interior (in the world of cell
phone cameras you should get pictures of everything—assume that any
area not photographed is in bad shape), getting copies of the last few
years of logbook entries and oil analysis results, as well as printouts
from the engine analyzer, getting the aircraft file from the FAA,
negotiation on the price, flying the airplane and a pre-buy examination.
A rule of rule of thumb is to agree on a price that is subject to a
pre-buy examination. You and the seller may then want to agree on what
will happen as a result of the pre-buy. Under what conditions can you
walk away? If there are squawks and an estimate for repairs, who pays
for the repairs if you go ahead with the deal? If you haven’t flown the
airplane, you’ll want to do so at some point prior to the exam (or
arrange to have someone you trust do the test flight). Don’t pass on a
test flight—a ground inspection, no matter how careful, can’t uncover
some potential faults, such as the airplane being badly out of rig.
In anticipation of the pre-buy examination you should order a copy of all of the aircraft’s records
on file with the FAA—that means everything that has been recorded with
the FAA regarding the airplane—all ownership and loan paperwork and all
Form 337s (Major Repairs and Alterations). It will come on a CD. While
you’ll get a title search done to confirm that the airplane is free of
liens, the paperwork package gives you a head start on the subject and
it lets you start doing your due diligence to find out if there is a
damage history that has not been disclosed. Generally, big fixes
required after an accident or incident require filing a Form 337.
However, a certain percentage of owners and their mechanics don’t bother
doing so in hopes of not losing resale value on the airplane. The
absence of a 337 for a big repair is not proof of the absence of damage
If the airplane has a lien or liens on it, do not close any sale
until you have positive evidence that all liens have been released.
Every once in a while I’ll get a call from an aircraft owner who is
being pursued for payment on a lien that’s 20 or 30 years old. Usually
it was from a loan made by a bank or savings and loan that went under
and its assets were bought by another bank. Some young new hire in the
loan department of the current bank had been assigned to go through old
records and find out if there are any uncollected loans and came upon an
unpaid (or unreleased) loan from years back and traced down the current
owner for payment. It’s a huge—and often expensive—pain in the what is
for the current owner. The records say the airplane was collateral for
an unpaid loan and the bank wants its money or the airplane.
Any unreleased lien on an airplane you are buying is a deal killer. Walk away.
The Examination Itself
A pre-buy is not an inspection. Let’s make it clear. Around
airplanes, the word “inspection” has specific meanings, especially when
the FARs are involved. The FAA does not recognize the term “pre-buy
inspection.” Examination is more descriptive of what's being done.
Further, the results of a pre-buy exam should never be recorded in an
aircraft or engine logbook. It is an examination of the aircraft and its
logs to get information about its condition so you can make a decision
as to whether you want to buy it. That’s it. It is not a prediction or
guarantee of future airworthiness. It’s a snapshot of the condition of
the items on the airplane examined then and there. It is a tool for you
and your mechanic to use in making the decision whether to buy the
The exam should be conducted by a mechanic you chose—and who knows
the type of aircraft well. Knowledge and experience in type does
matter—a mechanic who primarily works on Cessna, Cirrus and Piper is not
likely to know the inner secrets of Mooneys. A good way to locate a
mechanic is through the type club for the model. Having joined the type
club and learned all you can about the marque early in your search
benefits you in several ways—learning what to look for and look out for
as ammunition for your search and negotiation, getting to know people
who are knowledgeable that may be able to help you during the purchase
process and as an owner and the chance that a club member may be selling
a good airplane.
Discuss the nature and extent of the exam with your mechanic when you
retain him or her. How deep do you want to dig? What needs to be looked
at to find evidence of undisclosed damage that may not have been
repaired correctly? Set it up so that if your mechanic finds what may be
a show stopper that he or she comes to a halt right then and tells you
so you can make a decision. If you aren’t going to buy, there’s no
reason to continue.
Set aside a full day for a pre-buy for non-pressurized piston singles
and twins—it may take less—the idea is not to be hurried. Anyhow,
you’ve got to allow a few days to get the oil sample you’ll take
Once the day comes, the first step is to go through all of the
originals of the logbooks (this is one time originals matter—if you buy,
you’ll make electronic copies and keep the originals locked up because
their loss knocks 10 to 20 percent off the resale value of the
airplane). If the seller has told you that all the logs exist and then
there proves to be any kind of hassle regarding production of any of the
logbooks at the beginning of the inspection, be spring-loaded to walk
away. If the logs aren’t all there, ready to go, it’s a major issue. It
doesn’t happen often, but I’ve seen situations where sellers, knowing
some of the logs are missing, will produce a few right away and then
start making excuses and finding one here and one there, hoping the
buyer will let it go without realizing the set is not complete. Don’t
fall into the trap. The logs are either all there or they are not. If
they aren’t, it should have been disclosed up front and the purchase
price should have reflected that logs were missing.
There are numerous, good checklists for pre-buy exams, especially
those compiled by type clubs. One size does not fit all. Once the logs
pass muster, your mechanic should follow the checklist you’ve agreed
upon. In my opinion, that includes a borescope exam of the engine, not
just a compression check. You’ll also overnight the oil sample for
analysis. The good companies will call or email you with the results the
Your mechanic should make a running list of squawks. Assuming no big
deal-breaker is found, he or she should then give you an estimate to fix
each one. You and your mechanic then have time to discuss how things
look overall and in detail.
If something is on the equipment list for an airplane you are
considering, it must be in the airplane. At a very basic level, that
includes the tow bar and baggage net. If there is an empty or plugged
instrument hole—for instance, the equipment list says the airplane has a
carb temperature gauge and there is no 337 for its removal—the gauge
has to be there or a 337 has to be filled out. Some sellers don't seem
to understand that if the prop on the airplane isn't of the sort
approved on the Type Certificate Data Sheet, the airplane is not
airworthy. Don't agree to buy an airplane that isn't airworthy because
it has unapproved parts on it. You may be the one who comes up against
buyers who weren't as foolish as you were, and discover that it's
unmarketable unless you can find another sucker. And, in doing so, your
sucker may turn around and sue you for fraud because you knew the
airplane was illegal and didn't disclose it.
If things look good, contingent on the oil sample (and the seller may
have given you the oil sample history), you and the seller go over the
squawk list based on your agreement as to how the cost of repairs is to
be handled and close the deal. You’re now the owner of a nicely refurbished
airplane or ready to create one.
The Internet has helped buyers rapidly find airplanes as well as
unscrupulous sellers come up with more ways to try to unload lemons
disguised as trophy pieces. P.T. Barnum may be long dead, but he
continues to be proven right on a daily basis in the used airplane sales
world. Despite improvements in information technology, the rules of
buying a used airplane for a refurb haven't changed:
Join the owner's association and get all the information you can before searching.
Don't ever buy sight-unseen.
Get the chain of title and 337s before you commit to anything.
Be suspicious of anything that smacks of a seller who is the least bit hesitant to disclose everything about the airplane.
Have your mechanic do a pre-purchase examination and make any sales agreement subject to a pre-purchase examination.
Don't get so emotionally involved with one airplane that you can't walk away.
Rick Durden is an aviation attorney and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.