My second mistake was that I didn't hire an independent, Cardinal-knowledgeable mechanic to perform a pre-buy inspection. Instead, I simply spoke with the mechanic who had maintained the airplane for the seller and believed him when he told me everything was fine.
My third mistake was not having had any experience at the time in a Cardinal or even in an airplane with retractable gear or a controllable pitch propeller. I did fly the airplane with the seller's instructor and made enough landings to learn how important it was to fly it by the numbers, but I wasn't proficient or competent.
My final mistake was being under pressure to make my decision by the end of the vacation so we could fly the airplane back across the country from California to New York.
In the end, we bought the airplane and did fly it home, but the gear warning horn bleated the whole way, and at the first annual inspection a month after we got home, the mechanic told me I needed a new windshield since the outside air temperature gauge had caused a crack to begin to propagate.
Nevertheless, I was much luckier than I deserved to be. Over the next 24 years the Cardinal proved to have been a very good buy. But I had let my feelings overrule my intellect. "They say that falling in love is wonderful," but not when it prevents you from doing due diligence and you're about to fork over substantial funds.
This past spring, when the tables were turned and I was selling the Cardinal, the buyer did it correctly. She got recommendations for an independent mechanic and selected one who owned a Cardinal RG himself so he knew the airplane and what to look for. The inspection he performed took most of a day and was very thorough. Just as it should have been. And then, when she test-flew the airplane, she found what she considered a serious concern and successfully got me to adjust my asking price.
Cosby Stone, publisher of Trade-A-Plane, suggested the biggest mistake buyers make is bypassing a thorough pre-buy inspection. "The other mistake they make," he said, "is failing to really evaluate what they want and what they need. We're all a little bit unrealistic. Buying an airplane is the stuff of dreams, and we don't always make the most practical or optimum choices when we're in pursuit of a dream. Of course, I wouldn't want people not to pursue their dream, but it should line up more with their ability, their budget and how they are really going to utilize an airplane." Summing up the biggest mistakes buyers make, Stone said, "is being impatient, impulsive and unrealistic."
A pre-purchase inspection helps to satisfy the caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) requirement in any purchase. The Cardinal Flyers Online website (cardinalflyers.com) has a very detailed pre-purchase inspection checklist that includes more than 70 items to review on the ground and another 13 to assess during the first flight. The pre-purchase checklist is available on the website to nonmembers of CFO and includes some good information for people buying other types of airplanes.
The pre-buy inspection, in addition to examining the physical airplane, should also include a careful review of the airframe, engine and propeller logbooks. The review should include searching for reports of repairs or alterations, compliance with airworthiness directives (ADs) and service bulletins and a record of all supplemental type certificates (STCs).
If there is a type club for the airplane you're considering, it'll pay to join even before you own the airplane, since it's a great way to learn about the potential problems you might encounter with any used airplane, such as parts availability and mechanical as well as operational idiosyncrasies.
As a buyer you need to have an idea of what a reasonable price is for an airplane you're considering. There are several sources of information for buyers about what to offer for an airplane. Trade-A-Plane (both print and online editions at trade-a-plane.com) is a good source of airplanes available for sale and information on what the sellers are asking. Vref (vrefpub.com) and the Aircraft Blue Book (aircraftbluebook.com) provide formulas for determining what airplanes should be selling for.
Trade-A-Plane's website, in addition to carrying classified ads of aircraft for sale, hosts data from the National Aircraft Appraisers Association in a section available to subscribers. The site includes aircraft value trends compiled by the NAAA as well as the e-Valu-ator, a calculator said to let users develop an accurate estimate of a particular aircraft's value.
The aircraft evaluator sites arrive at the relative price of a particular airplane by adding or subtracting from a basic value depending on the time on the airframe, the time on the engine (how close to TBO, time between overhauls), the types of avionics, the condition of the interior furnishings, other equipment (deicing, air conditioning, oxygen, etc.) and the condition of the exterior paint.
The current market for used aircraft means buyers with a set budget will be able to afford more airplane than they would have in a healthier seller's market. With the depressed prices, you might be able to get an airplane with a glass cockpit that in a "normal" market would have been a budget buster. A higher horsepower version of the type you're considering may also now be within your range.
It's true that when you buy an airplane for less than you might have had to pay in the past it puts more money in your pocket that you can then use to do more flying or to upgrade a less-than-modern panel. On the other hand, if you're tempted by the market morass to buy a bigger airplane than you would normally be able to afford, you need to remember that more airplane will likely mean higher fuel consumption, higher insurance premiums and increased maintenance costs.
A recent Vref newsletter points out that there is some real value in an older airplane, such as "a Neanderthal cockpit in an unbelievably well-engineered, well-made airframe, which describes the typical 20-plus-year-old piston single." It continues: "Thank you, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and William Piper for designing and building airplanes that outlived you all and will probably outlive most of us. True, many are in need of a digital makeover — to say the least. However, these old airplanes (which, if they were cars, could easily get a historical plate) represent some of the best values in the industry. For the price of a dolled up SUV, you can buy a nice Beech Sierra, a Cessna 182, an older 210 or Mooney Ranger, a Piper Archer, an Arrow or half a new LSA. Any of these will easily travel twice as fast as a Cadillac Escalade, and you might be able to avoid that center seat on Continental or United Airlines a little more often."
However, buyers have to discriminate. Economic difficulties, which may have been the reason for putting an airplane on the market, may have curtailed the owner's use of the airplane and encouraged the postponement of some maintenance items.
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. Today the silver lining of the cloud of the economic environment that is depressing the used-airplane market for sellers is an improved market for buyers looking for good deals. Winter is a good time to buy because sellers aren't using their airplanes as much and are looking to get out from under the expense of hangars and other costs. But remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
I'm sorry if you're a seller, but it might help to remember that historically the general aviation market has been cyclical and it will come back. But for now, it's a great time to be a buyer!