Whether to buy or to build-that is the question. Whether it is better to build your own airplane or buy one that has been built by someone else. Buying an amateur-built airplane can take the form of a flying airplane or a partially completed project started by another builder. In either case, there are certain items to consider prior to making the purchase. You may not have the time or desire to build an airplane. Maybe you don't have the workshop space. Nevertheless, the airplane of your dreams is an experimental airplane and not a production model. With all of this in mind, let's take a look at how to buy and sell an amateur-built airplane.
First of all, you need to answer a few questions for yourself. Do you really want an amateur-built airplane? Will it meet your needs and desires? If the answer is yes, then the next step is to decide whether you want to build it yourself or whether you want to begin the search for a flying airplane. Of course, after deciding that you want an amateur-built airplane you must choose the design and model. Let's assume that you have made the decision that you prefer to purchase an airplane rather than build one from the beginning. At that time I would highly recommend that you contact an EAA Flight Advisor who will assist you in evaluating which airplane is best suited for you prior to making the final decision. The advisor can help you decide which model airplane is appropriate to your level of flying experience and skills. (EAA Flight Advisors are pilots with flight test experience who volunteer their time to assist other EAA members.)
The next step is to decide if you want to purchase a completed, flying airplane or should you consider a partially completed project. Maybe you have not thought about taking over another person's project. You may ask "Can I legally purchase a partially completed project and finish it myself? Lets explore this option further.
Purchasing a Partially Completed Airplane
Unfortunately, there are a number of partially completed airplane projects available for purchase. Take a look at the latest edition of Trade-A-Plane under the Experimental section and see for yourself. As discussed many times, a large percentage of amateur-built airplane projects are started and never completed by the first owner. Often it is possible to find one of these projects and purchase it at a good price. The person is probably either tired of working on the airplane or has exhausted their budget for the project. By purchasing one of these projects you may be a step ahead from both a financial perspective and a time perspective. In other words, you possibly can purchase the project at less cost than if you had started it yourself and you can certainly complete the project in a lot less time than if you had started it. There are precautions you must take, however. You must ensure that the work completed on the airplane has been done properly and that the condition of the airplane as it exists is of the quality you desire.
Can you legally complete another person's project? The short answer is yes, given a few conditions. FAA Advisory Circular 20-27G addresses this issue by stating that you must have all of the documents from the previous builder including the builder's log, assembly records, etc. This means that the builder of the project you are considering purchasing should have kept good records. They should have kept a builder's log, all receipts for materials, airframe and Powerplant logbooks, etc. If these records are not complete and thorough do not purchase the project. Ascertain whether or not an EAA Technical Counselor has regularly inspected the project. If not, who has inspected it for quality and safety?
The bottom line is that a number of quality kits are for sale that are partially completed. You should decide if you have the time, skills, commitment, etc. to finish the airplane. If so, inspect the airplane thoroughly. Take someone knowledgeable with you to do the inspection (an EAA Technical Counselor or an A & P mechanic). Ensure that the work completed is satisfactory. Then inspect the builder's log that has been maintained for the airplane. Spend time going through the records that exist to be sure that everything is properly documented. If you have any doubts consult your local FAA Inspector or Designee (DAR). Let them decide whether or not you will have problems getting the airplane certificated as an amateur-built. An apparent good deal on a partially completed project could turn sour if the paperwork is not in order.
Purchasing a Completed Airplane
Okay, you don't have time to build an airplane or finish one that has been started. You simply want to purchase an amateur-built airplane from another builder. What are the legalities involved with this decision? Can someone who has built an airplane for their own recreation and education turn around and legally sell it? Absolutely! There exists no regulation precluding the builder of an amateur-built airplane from selling it. Of course, you cannot build an amateur-built airplane for the sole purpose of selling it for a profit. You should understand that professional building of amateur-built airplanes is not legal.
Having said all of that, what other legal issues exist? Many aircraft builders are unwilling to sell their airplanes due to product liability issues. The person who built the airplane assumes the responsibilities of a manufacturer. If you build an amateur-built airplane, then the primary builder is listed on the nameplate as the manufacturer. Your name goes there just as Piper, Cessna, or Beechcraft places their name on their respective airplanes. You also assume the same product liability problems. If the airplane crashes and injures or kills the pilot and/or passengers, you may find yourself on the defensive in a courtroom. The extent of your liabilities can be debated extensively. Rather than participate in that debate I would like to refer you to an excellent series of articles written by people familiar with these issues. Beginning in November, 1999, a six part series of articles appeared in Sport Aviation addressing the legal issues of buying and selling homebuilt airplanes. These articles may be viewed on EAA’s website by going into the member’s only section and then clicking on the homebuilder’s headquarters button. Several good articles appear on this subject including a checklist for the prospective buyer of a homebuilt.
Where to Find Airplanes & Projects
There are a number of sources available to help you find the airplane of your dreams. First of all, Trade-A-Plane has an experimental section divided into different types of aircraft. Barnstormers.com also has an experimental section. Either is an excellent source of information on what is available to purchase. All of the major aviation magazines have classified ads for experimental airplanes that are for sale. You may want to contact the kit manufacturer or designer to see what publications they have that might list available aircraft. They may also have links on their website or knowledge of airplanes that are for sale. Other local EAA members and builders may be able to direct you to a good buy.
A Checklist for Purchasing
Now that you have decided to purchase that homebuilt lets develop a checklist of items you should address.
Review the builder’s log, logbooks, documents, etc.
A complete review of the aircraft builder’s log is a must. If you are unsure as to what to look for then take someone along who has the knowledge. It is very important to carefully review these documents. You can find out a lot about the quality of the construction, value of the airplane, etc. through these documents.
Inspect the aircraft
This should be done by a licensed mechanic, EAA Technical Counselor, or someone with building experience. This is obviously one of the most important steps. Knowing what to look for, where to inspect, etc. is critical in making the decision as to whether or not the airplane you are considering is safe and of the quality you desire. As an example, if the airplane is constructed of tubing and fabric, what is the quality of the welds? Were they done professionally or by the builder? Is there any corrosion? Has the fabric work been done according to the manufacturer’s instructions? You should inspect inside the wings to be sure enough aluminum pigment has been placed over the fabric to adequately protect it from the UV rays of the sun. The fabric should be properly attached to the ribs of the wings using a mechanical means of attachment such as rib-lacing, screws, etc. If it is a composite airplane you will have more difficulty determining the quality of layups, etc. You can observe obvious problems such as delamination, cracking, etc. but fiberglass layups that were not done properly will be difficult to find. Sheet metal airplanes will be easier to inspect because you can generally see inside the fuselage and often inside the wings. You can tell the quality of riveting, priming, etc.
It is obvious that inspection of the airplane is of the utmost importance. If you see anything that does not look right focus on it. Try to get the builder to explain the defective or suspect item to your satisfaction. Get as many qualified people as possible to inspect the airplane prior to laying down your money.
Inspect the engine and propeller
What is the status of the engine? Was it placed on the airplane new, overhauled, used, etc.? If overhauled, who did it and to what specifications? A complete review of the engine logbook should be done to ensure regular maintenance has been performed, total time on the engine, time since overhaul, etc. I recommend doing a compression check on the engine.
The propeller should be carefully inspected for damage, nicks, or any evidence of corrosion.
What is remaining to be completed?
If the airplane is not complete then what is remaining to be done? How extensive is the work required? Do you have the time, resources, skills, etc. to complete it?
Verify all records
Be sure that the airworthiness certificate is there and that it is correct. It should have the correct information about the airplane on it and it should state that it is to operate as an amateur-built airplane. It could possibly be an Experimental airplane used for exhibition purposes. That status would have a major impact on the operation of the airplane. The registration should be correct. The owner should have a copy of the operating limitations and you should review them for any unusual items or restrictions.
Review the logbooks
The airframe, Powerplant, and propeller logbooks should be reviewed. You should ensure that the proper entries have been made including the entry stating that the airplane has been test flown. That entry will typically be as follows: “ I certify that the prescribed flight test hours have been completed and this aircraft is controllable throughout its normal range of speeds and throughout all maneuvers to be executed, has no hazardous operating characteristics or design features, and is safe for operation. The following aircraft operating data has been demonstrated during the flight testing: speeds Vso___, Vx____, Vy____, and the weight______and CG location_____ at which they were obtained.”
The Powerplant logbook should document all condition inspections, maintenance items that have been performed, etc. The airplane should also have a propeller logbook that documents all maintenance, inspections, etc.
Weight and balance data
You will want to be sure that the weight and balance data has been completed and is accurate. Obviously, you may not know if it is accurate other than looking for obvious mistakes. If it is on handwritten notes then the chances are pretty good that not much time was taken in determining the data. Conversely, if the data has a good appearance and all items are there then the builder probably took time to ensure the correctness of the data.
This is important. First of all, will your experience level qualify you to be insured in this particular airplane? You certainly do not want to sign a purchase agreement only to find out later that you cannot be insured. What about the airplane itself? Perhaps the model you are considering is uninsurable or very expensive to insure. All of this should be investigated prior to purchase.
Have a title search done to be sure that the person you are dealing with actually owns the airplane and that there are no existing liens on the airplane. There should be an unbroken chain of ownership for the airplane. There are several companies who will perform this title search. You can find a listing on the EAA website in the homebuilder’s headquarters section.
You will need to complete FAA Form 8050-1 (Aircraft Registration Application). After submitting this form, you should leave the pink copy in the airplane for proof of registration. The FAA will send the permanent registration form within 60 days. In addition, FAA Form 8050-2 (Bill of Sale) signed by the owner or owners is required for the FAA to register the airplane. These two forms should be sent to the FAA at Oklahoma City (the address is on the form). These forms are available at your local FAA office. Many FBO’s will also have these forms.
Maintaining Your Newly Purchased Homebuilt
Everything is complete. You have accomplished all items mentioned. You are now enjoying your airplane. However, that annual inspection called a "condition inspection"¯ is looming around the corner. Can you do it? Can you even maintain this airplane you did not build?
First of all, you can legally maintain the airplane even though you did not build it. It is perfectly legal for you to do the maintenance on the aircraft. The FAA places no restrictions on who can maintain an amateur-built airplane. However, when it comes time for the annual condition inspection only an A & P mechanic or the holder of the repairman’s certificate for that particular airplane can sign off this inspection. In other words, if you purchased the airplane from the original builder and he/she had the repairman’s certificate, then that individual may continue to perform the condition inspection. You will not be able to obtain the repairman’s certificate for that particular airplane. So, you may be able to have the builder/seller continue to sign off the condition inspection or you may have to hire a licensed A & P mechanic to perform the inspection.
Again, if you purchase a partially completed kit and finish it yourself, you may or may not be able to obtain the repairman’s certificate. That will depend upon how much of the airplane you constructed and the opinion of the local FAA Office.
To wrap up, many quality amateur-built airplanes are available for purchase. This may be your best option if you do not want to go through the building process. Do your homework before buying. Follow our checklist and be sure you are getting what you are paying for as best you can determine.