Buying a used homebuilt

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Lancair ES

Buying a used homebuilt
In this economy there is no question it’s a buyers market. This is the same for the used homebuilt market, there are plenty of good deals out there.

But do you really know what you’re buying? Lets examine some key questions and provide some answers from my point of view.


Glassair SportsmanThis article will assume you have already decided on the mission and narrowed your search to applicable aircraft. It also assumes you are buying a flying airplane. We’ll discuss buying partially completed or project aircraft at a later date.

Are you planning to maintain the aircraft yourself and if so, do you have an inspector that will annual your experimental? This shouldn’t be a problem, but you don’t want to find out after the fact that you have to ferry 500 miles to get it annualed. The current FAA interpretation allows you to do your own maintenance, but not the yearly inspection.

If you are NOT going to do any of your own maintenance, the same question applies, but you’ll want someone local if at all possible.

Questions that should be asked. Note: not all of these are show-stoppers.

Is the seller the builder? If not, can the builder be located?
The reason is you might have questions that only the builder can answer so there is value in having access to them even long after you have purchased the aircraft.

aircraft autoconversionDoes it have an automotive power plant?
If so and if it’s over 100hp, I highly recommend you look else where. This is likely the reason it’s for sale (probably cheap too). There is a great deal of engineering and R&D required to make a high performance auto conversion work. Even if it seems to work now, maintenance and reliability will be an issue as well as future resale value.

How’s the paperwork?
Be sure the go over the logbooks and other relevant paperwork for the aircraft. If the records are sketchy you might need to be more critical of the airplane overall. Remember, someday you’ll want to sell this airplane and you don’t want the headache of trying to explain ‘anomalies’ to the next buyer. It must have the operating limits as issued by the FAA – this is very important for an experimental category airplane.

Overall appearance/Workmanship?
aircraft inspectionThey say not to judge a book by its cover, but you can glean an awful lot about an airplane just from its ramp presence. Conversely a spiffy paint job can hide a multitude of  sins, but by and large if it looks good you can make some early judgements. Those should obviously be verified by careful inspection. If an airplane is clean and in good outward condition, it is likely the owner was a good steward and things on the inside are equally in order.

Construction types

  • Wood
  • Fabric
  • Steel tube
  • Aluminum
  • Composite

Your prospective airplane may use some or all if these construction techniques.

Wood is a great medium, but age can be an issue as well as how exposed to the elements it has been. It will take careful inspection to be sure the airplane is sound. Also, many wood airplanes are covered with fabric so you have both things to consider. Not bad, just information. Lots of great airplanes in this category. I owed and restored one.

Modern fabric covering can easily last 20 years if applied properly and maintained.  Specific tests can be done to determine airworthiness and there are some good deals on airplanes that need recovering. This can be pricey if hired out, but if you do it yourself it’s not too bad, although it is time-consuming.

Steel tubing
Steel tubing is usually covered in fabric and is very durable. Corrosion on the inside if the tubing is the only real concern and if assembled and treated properly it can last for a very long time.

Aluminum aircraft construction is very straight forward, generally what you see is what you get. Look out for smoking (loose) rivets and also corrosion – easily detectable.

Composite construction is durable and strong. But it is hard to detect flaws or damage so use caution when inspecting.

Considering we are limiting our discussion to Lycoming, Continental or Rotax, there are a few points I’d like to make.
Engine models: Do your research.

  • Is it an odd ball model that might be hard to maintain?
  • Is it high time? Not a show-stopper, but certainly a price driver.
  • Be sure to do all of the pertinent inspections (compression tests and boroscope)

In all circumstances you should get a mechanic and/or a builder (not the one that built the airplane) that’s familiar with the type to conduct a pre-buy inspection. This is cheap insurance that could easily pay for itself. The art of inspecting any airplane is best left to an expert and someone not emotionally attached to the purchase.

If it looks exotic, it probably is – use caution. Experimentals with retractable gear, turbo chargers, alternative powerplants and the like are often a lot of work even for the builder to maintain so choose wisely.

Experimental airplanes are a great value, as most only bring what they cost the builder in materials and parts (no labor).

There are many available that are well-built and very proven that I would own and fly in a heartbeat. In fact, I am much more likely to buy a flying homebuilt over a production airplane for recreational flying.

Happy hunting!

by Brent

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