Owning an aircraft is dream for most pilots. In time, however, that dream can become reality if your purchase is well thought out, planned and executed.

One of the biggest challenges facing a prospective aircraft buyer is getting an honest and complete evaluation of the overall condition of the aircraft before closing the sale. An overlooked mechanical or legal problem can create needless headaches and cost you money in the short and long term.

Before making the final decision to purchase, a prudent buyer arranges for a pre-buy inspection to assess the condition of the aircraft. The question is: What type of inspection is necessary, who should do it, and what documentation should the inspection generate? In addition, the buyer and seller should agree in advance about who pays for the prepurchase inspection and any repair work, if needed.

You can choose between two basic approaches to a pre-buy inspection. The first is to have someone in whom you have absolute confidence perform the inspection. Because there is no “official” pre-buy inspection checklist, the inspection covers those items the inspector and prospective buyer agree should be checked.

Put these items on paper so no questions will arise about what should and should not be checked. In addition, each listed item should include some form of pass/fail criteria and a place to record notes. If you and your inspector do not create and agree on this list and standards, the inspection will be vague and open ended, with the results being difficult to decipher.

Because of liability, many Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanics with an Inspection Authorization (IA) won’t perform pre-buy inspections without a detailed inspection list. If no written list is available, the inspector takes responsibility for those areas him or herself. If either the buyer or seller is unhappy with the inspection results, the inspector may bear the liability for the items he or she checked and the standards used.

The second approach to a pre-buy inspection is a better alternative for everyone involved. An IA or an FAA-approved repair station performs and signs-off on an annual inspection on the aircraft. An annual inspection is an established procedure conducted according to a manufacturer’s checklist, and the inspection standards are already established.

No regulatory requirement exists that an aircraft be in an airworthy condition at the time of sale. The owner may sell an aircraft in an “as is – where is” condition. It is the buyer’s responsibility to determine the aircraft’s status and decide whether to purchase it based on the work required to make the aircraft airworthy.

If an annual inspection says an aircraft is not airworthy, the owner gets a discrepancy list which details the items that are not airworthy. With this list in hand, the owner and the prospective buyer can negotiate the deal (if the buyer decides to proceed, of course) with a firm, written understanding of what work the aircraft needs and the expense involved.

If the buyer and seller agree not to take the annual inspection route, the pre-buy inspection should examine the same items as an annual and conform to annual inspection standards. Ideally, the inspector should use the manufacturer’s annual inspection checklist. If this checklist isn’t available, the inspector should refer to FAR Part 43, Appendix D, “Scope and Detail of Items (As Applicable to the Particular Aircraft) To Be Included in Annual and 100-Hour Inspections.”

The closer a pre-buy inspection is to an annual in content and standards, the less chance of any surprises when the buyer has the first annual performed as required by regulations.

You benefit from several significant advantages by using the annual inspection approach. It removes all vagueness and uncertainty that can be part of an informal pre-buy inspection. Having the annual completed and signed off means you won’t have to repeat the inspection for 12 months (if you buy the airplane). An informal pre-buy inspection doesn’t count as an annual, so you may have to annual the airplane just a few months after the initial inspection.

During an annual inspection, the IA checks everything concerning the aircraft’s airworthiness – including the paperwork, such as researching the status of all applicable Airworthiness Directives (AD’s). The owner should get a written list of the status of all the AD’s on his or her aircraft (required by FAR Part 91.417(a)(1)(v)).

An annual inspection also checks the status of other required inspections such as altimeter, static system, transponder, electronic locator transmitter (ELT) battery, etc. It also includes routine servicing such as an oil change, oil filter, oil screen, cleaning spark plugs, etc. When the annual is finished, the owner will either have an airworthy aircraft or a detailed discrepancy list of work that must be done to make the airplane airworthy. Either way, the prospective buyer will know exactly what shape the aircraft is in. Who pays for the work needed to make the aircraft airworthy is, again, negotiated by the buyer and seller.

“Airworthy” is sometimes not completely understood, but you’ll find the official definition of the term on the aircraft’s Airworthiness Certificate (FAA Form 8100-2). It states, “This airworthiness certificate is issued pursuant to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and certifies that as of the date of issuance, the aircraft to which it is issued has been inspected and found to conform to the type certificate, and to be in condition for safe operation … .”

The definition says two important things. First, the aircraft must meet and must continue to meet its original type design data, unless that data has been altered or amended by an approved method, such as a supplemental type certificate (STC). Second, the aircraft must be in proper mechanical condition for safe operation.

An annual inspection ensures airworthiness – in writing. An informal inspection does not. Granted, performing an annual as a pre-buy inspection costs more, which is a point to negotiate between the owner and prospective buyer. But the annual gives both parties an official, definitive assessment of the aircraft’s condition.

Having an aircraft inspected prior to purchase is an important task. If the inspection is properly done, the joy of owning and aircraft will not be hampered by problems that could have been detected and dealt with prior to the purchase.