Should I buy or rent?

One of the first questions that occurs to new pilots is this: buy or rent? A lot of people write about this question online and in print, and they mostly try to help you make the decision by opening a spreadsheet to figure out the cost of owning and operating a plane, dividing the cost by the number of hours you’re likely to fly, and then comparing that with rental rates. I took that approach before buying my Warrior.

That approach is completely useless.

When renting doesn’t work

I spent a few months as a renter after my plane was hit by lightning, and the experience reminded me why I don’t rent. Unless you’re willing to book weeks or (more likely) months in advance, you’re not going to be allowed to take a rental airplane away for a whole weekend, much less a whole week. If you are allowed to take a rental plane for that long, and the weather cooperates (remember that you cannot leave a day earlier or come back a day later), you’re usually going to have to pay a minimum fee — say, 3 hours/day — whether the plane flies or not.

That money adds up fast. If I rented a Cessna 172 for CAD 120/hour dry to fly from Ottawa to PEI for a week in the summer (about eight hours’ flying round-trip), my cost before fuel and taxes would be not CAD 960 for eight hours, but CAD 2,520 for 21 hours, even though the plane was tied down for most of that. Add about $300 for fuel, and you’re well over CAD 3,000 total for the trip. Of course, the odds of getting a 172 for a full week in the summer are so small that this is mostly hypothetical.

When renting does work

On the other hand, rental planes are almost always available for two or three hours, even on the weekend. If you want to just fly around the area to take friends up for sightseeing, or work on a rating, or fly with a buddy for a quick lunch at a nearby airport, renting works great, and you’ll save a lot of money over owning.

If one rental plane is down for maintenance, you can just take another one. If the plane makes a funny noise during runup, you can just taxi it back to the hangar and hand the problem over to someone else. If all you want to do is fly a plane the way your friends use their boats, a few hours at a time on nice weekends, then renting is a very low-stress solution.

Making the decision

So, if you’re a new pilot trying to decide whether to buy or rent, ask yourself this: do you want to do nothing but fly around the area on Saturday afternoons, or do you want to go places on overnight trips? If you want to do any non-trivial amount of travelling, even just a couple of family or business trips every year, you can put away your spreadsheet, because owning — either alone, in a partnership, or as part of a fractional ownership program — is really your only choice.

Owning is often expensive, but it does not have to be, especially if (unlike me) you’re willing to share a simple, slow plane with a few partners: 25% of a Cherokee 140 in a 4-way partnership will cost you as little as CAD 10,000 up front (which you’ll get back — less sales tax — when you sell), maybe CAD 2-3,000/year in fixed costs, plus fuel and engine reserve for each hour you fly. It will also, of course, cost you the headaches of ownership, including arranging maintenance, paying unexpected costs, changing oil, cleaning bugs, waxing wings, shovelling snow, finding alternatives when the plane is down for a few months for painting or engine overhaul, taking time off work to go to the shop, etc.

Airplanes aren’t like cars

It’s too bad that renting planes cannot be more like renting cars. Our family gets by with only one vehicle — we live near downtown, and when there’s a conflict and one of us cannot walk or take transit, we use VRTUcar (an extremely inexpensive shared car program — there are two parked a couple of blocks from my house) for in-town travelling, or we rent a car for out-of-town trips. The money we save from not owning a second car covers a huge part of the cost of owning our plane. Go figure.

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10 Responses to Should I buy or rent?

  1. Paul says:

    I think it depends where you live. Out here in the CA desert the local flying school has 1 172 and 2 152s, the latter renting at around US$90 an hour, US$120 for the 172. Your argument definitely applies here.

    However, if I drive to San Diego I am a member of a flying club with probably 15-20 172’s, not to mention another 20 or so other types. I can rent a 182RG for not much more than the local 172. Because of the number of planes I can almost always get a cross-country trip with one to two week’s notice. In this case the cost and availabilty probably isn’t too far off the benefit of owning.

    Having said that, I’d still love to own!

  2. Paul Tomblin says:

    Another option is a flying club. In many instances, it gives you all the advantages of fractional ownership, and all of the advantages of renting.

    The club that I’m involved with has an annual dues approximately equal to what renter’s insurance would cost you. For that money, you get access to 5 different aircraft, which the club members treat like one of their own. Unlike a rental, club members don’t fly fully rich all the time, leave garbage in the planes, or land with the parking brakes on (well, hardly ever) because of the sense of ownership. The club allows you to take the planes for extended trips, and the only time they enforce the minimal hours per day is if you’re being a dick-head. Club members frequently take two or three of the planes to Oshkosh and let them sit on the ground for four or five days, and only pay the 8 hours it takes to fly there and back.

  3. david says:

    Thanks to both Pauls for the comments. Here in Canada, a flying club is normally a not-for-profit FBO: some of them started in the 1920s or 1930s, then participated with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during World War II. I am not aware of any clubs like the ones you both mention, and I’m not sure how insurance and regulations would work up here.

    If you live somewhere that has a lot of rental planes normally sitting idle on the tarmac, that’s fantastic — go for it. The places I’ve been try to keep all their planes in the air as often as possible, and sell planes off if they sit idle too long, especially with the high cost of insurance now.

  4. Jim Howard says:

    I think a partnership or equity club is the best way to go. That way you are an owner, but you are not all alone when paying the bills or facing one of the many small challenges of ownership.

    And as the other poster said, people won’t be tearing the airplanes up. You’ll pretty much know the state of your plane before you leave for the airport.

    I could go on and on, but if you plan on flying more than just an hour or so a month then you need to get equity in an airplane.

  5. Niss Feiner says:

    I am looking to buy a share in an aircraft. Right now at my local airport (CNA3) there is a 1966 Piper Cherokee 140 on the ramp. The owner is looking for $32500 and I am told that he might be interested in selling off 25% Shares. TTSN: 5693 HRs
    SMOH: 1917 HRs, cylinders were redone 400 hours ago. The broker that is selling it is my old boss and mentor at the airport, so I know the salesman and the owner are reputable. Also I am a student, am looking to go on to bigger and better things including my CPL and other rateings. What do you guys think this animal would cost in maintenace fees, etc? Would you say this is a wise decision for a student?


  6. Pingback: Land and Hold Short » Buying a first plane

  7. david says:

    Niss: I’ve responded in a new posting, Buying a first plane.

  8. Brian Fitchett says:

    I am trying to find a flying club to join and am having problems doing so… can you advise? I live in Palm Springs, California. Thank you

  9. david says:

    Flying clubs in the U.S. are very different from clubs in Canada — from what I understand, they’re often informal groups of a few people who have joined together to buy a plane (or two). I suggest that you start by asking around at local airports and other places where pilots gather (FAA seminars, EAA meetings, etc.).

  10. rvbuilder says:

    Nice blog. I enjoyed reading your posts. Its very rare to find blogs dedicated to flying.

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