At what price? — Looking to buy a plane? Be sure you can afford more than just the sticker price.

I suspect many of the aviators who will venture to Lakeland for this year’s Sun ’n Fun might have “airplane hunting” on their agenda. Hey, everybody wants to own an airplane, but many pilots are still in the dreaming stages. There are those, however, who have reached a point where they can afford to buy their own.

Last month we talked of the out-of-the-traditional-box thinking some owners use to decide how much a particular plane is really worth. This time we’ll look at what a particular plane might be worth in terms of flying time and maintenance. What do I mean? Well, answer this: Which of the following airplanes will cost you the most in purchase price, assuming mid-time on the engine, 5,000 hours or less on the airframe, and similar working but not extravagant avionics? The planes are: (1) a 1977 Cessna 172, (2) a 1964 Cessna 182, (3) a 1960 Cessna 210, or a (4) a 1960 twin-engine Cessna 310.

As you probably figured, they are all priced in the same $50,000 range. For the relatively inexperienced owner, this situation can present a serious trap. Discounting the 310, which I threw in there just for fun, many people would say the 210 would be the ticket. It will out-carry and out-climb the 172, and out-cruise it by 35 knots or so. It also will out-run the ’64 182 by roughly 15 knots. It’s hard to give up additional performance, especially when the purchase price is the same. But that’s where the rub is. It’s not the price of admission that will sink you, it’s the price to stay in and play in the game.

I see so many inexperienced buyers purchase planes far above their financial heads because they are duped by the attractive sale price. Most people don’t realize, however, that when they buy a 210 at 172 prices, it still requires the money to cover what a 210 costs to own, run, maintain, and insure.

The direct operating costs like gas, oil, unscheduled maintenance, engine and avionics reserves for a Cessna 172 should run you in the neighborhood of $25 per hour. That ’60 210 will commonly hit the $90 per hour range for the same things. True, you can go 35 more miles in that hour, and probably carry one more full-size adult.

The question you have to ask yourself is, “Can I afford that significantly higher per-hour cost to fly that bigger plane?” The naked, truthful answer, when you also consider the higher insurance and annual inspection costs, often rears its ugly head too late and totally ruins the ownership experience.

Maintenance shops don’t care whether your plane is new or 40 years old. Their shop rate is the same. When you order a part for a ’68 182, it’s going to cost the same (or sometimes more, based on availability) as if you owned a ’98 182.

Just because you got a good price on the plane doesn’t mean the discount carries forward to the shop. Add in factors like age, corrosion and wear, and older models of a particular type of plane, like the 182, will usually cost MORE to annually overhaul than their current year counterpart.

This is why it is so very important to do your homework on operational expenses for the models and production years of the planes you have in mind.

Many of today’s buyers are educated about equipment and avionics, but do no research on the stuff that is really important: “What’s it actually going to cost to run this thing once I get it?” If you plan to do the extra research, consider looking into basic annual inspections, repetitive AD’s, avionics maintenance on older radios, landing gear systems, the complexity of the engine and prop systems and any type-specific weak spots.

Pilots with specific yearly or hourly budgets must dig deeply into the cost to run each choice of plane within your purchase price, then make a decision from the final facts. But remember, if you buy the old 210 instead of the newer 172 (for roughly the same price) because you think you are getting more for your money, you’re headed for trouble. This is especially true if you can’t handle high-dollar surprises.

Sure enough, in the end you will get more for your money: more bills, more headaches, more disappointments and more stress.

The REAL reason to buy the old 210 is because it fits your mission profile 80% of the time, you have determined that you CAN afford the hourly operating expense of around $100, but you can’t afford the purchase price of the later model years. This approach is one of an informed buyer, and ultimately a happier owner.

Guy R. Maher is a business owner and aircraft appraiser with more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters. He is an independent buyer’s agent and flight instructor for type specific initial and recurrent training. He can be contacted through the above email address or by calling 704-287-3475.

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