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The Purchase Process
How to get the right Cardinal

My inspections often start with a little discussion of the right approach toward purchasing an airplane, with a focus on the Cessna Cardinal. This page offers a little advice to buyers as to how to approach this process.

First, buying an airplane can be a lot of fun! You'll learn a lot and meet a lot of people, fly some airplanes and probably see a few different airports. Then you'll have a project for a while until you make the airplane your own. Relax and enjoy the ride, you will remember it for a long time.

Know what you want

RG or FG? Early model or later? Tricked out or basic? Fully restored or original? Time? Engine? Radios? If you can answer these questions ahead of time you'll save time in shopping. The CFO site has plenty of research data to help you through this process.

Check your insurance story

It is critical to know how you'll become insured should you become the owner of an aircraft, and establishing that plan ahead of time makes good sense. Joe Ruck of the CFO Insurance program will help you understand what to expect and how to be ready when that moment comes.


There are a lot of places to look for airplanes. The CFO classifieds are the best place to find a great Cardinal, but Trade-a-plane, Controller and even local bulletin boards are worth checking as well. Some folks send letters to current owners (based on the FAA database) and this sometimes works, but sometimes brings up airplanes which are less prepped for purchase, and often represent a project.

First Contact

Only so much data fits into an aircraft ad, and you should have a lot of questions for a seller in the first call. Make a list so you'll remember. Maintenance history, flying habits and the history of their ownership is just a start. Who does their maintenance? Where is it parked? What trips are usually taken? The more you learn about the airplane's current home the more you know about it's care and feeding.

You may also want to start asking about the condition of the less visible parts of the airplane. Any engine problems? Oil leaks? Hoses and cables replaced? ADs complied with? You're not only get data, you're getting the seller on record as to the condition of the airplane, an important part of making a good deal.

Getting in line

It takes some time to purchase an airplane and you should be able to ask for reasonable accommodation while you pull the pieces together. But you need to ask. A reasonable seller will hold the airplane for the first caller for a reasonable time, as long as progress toward purchase is seen. Within a day or two the key questions should be answered, interest expressed and discussions of a visit to the airplane with a followup inspection to be scheduled.

It is an unfortunate reality that many buyers are just kicking the tires, and may speak of their strong interest but then lose interest. Be understanding of the sellers who field multiple calls with no follow up, and be prompt if you're really interested. And if you are not, either let them know quickly or don't be surprised to learn that someone who seems more interested has jumped to the front. Play this card carefully.


There are several places where you can research a specific Cardinal. Sometimes a search by name or N number in the CFO virtual digest can tell you a lot. A scan of the FAA database can be very informative. And Google can sometimes tell you stories about where this airplane has been and has been up to.

Remember that registration numbers can be changed. Sometimes you can find out the original registration number in our serial number lookup list. Take care to make sure you have the right airplane before jumping to conclusions.

First Look

If the airplane is near enough for it to make sense, I recommend that you go take a look early. You'll learn a lot and may discover that nice paint or a nice interior is more important to you than you thought. You're looking for an airplane which you would be happy to own as long as it is good mechanically upon inspection.

When the airplane is far away this is more difficult, but you can do a lot with good pictures. Look closely and you can see a lot.

Deposit or no deposit?

By the time you schedule an inspection, you should know pretty well that this is an airplane which fits your needs, price range and preferences. The price should be agreeable, as long as everything is in good condition. It should be down to the final understanding of the mechanical status of the airplane.

Some sellers will require a deposit, for others the relationship you have built will be enough. The more honest and straightforward you are, the more likely that the hassles and mechanics of a deposit can be avoided, but also remember that the past experiences of the seller may also factor in, in spite of your impressive integrity. You may also wish to consider whether the seller will really hold the airplane for you without some financial transaction and contract.

Without giving legal advice, the best pre-inspection deals I've seen are specific that the buyer will indeed purchase the airplane if it is airworthy and as advertised and represented. The many questions you have already asked then become part of your purchase contract, setting your expectations for the condition of the airplane. This sets the stage for a clean purchase and well defined expectations.

The most difficult purchase agreements to deal with only say the aircraft must be airworthy. Since it was probably signed off for annual, there is room for a disagreement over just what airworthy would be. If the seller can find an A&P willing to sign off on a bad tire or worn out control cables, is that OK with the buyer? Its best to use a different standard - the standard of 'as advertised and represented' - to avoid this discussion.

The Inspection

It is very important to have a pre-purchase inspection before the final deal. In most cases when serious issues are found the current owner is unaware of the issue. So the inspection is not about keeping the seller honest, it's about helping both buyer and seller understand the actual status of the aircraft.

It can often be beneficial for both parties to agree to a 'friendly' inspection, where it is freely acknowledged that the aircraft is 40+ years old and will show some wear and age. If the buyer agrees to limit any future 'askes' to only substantial issues they can negotiate a lower price going into the process.

Another page on this system speaks to the details of what happens in the inspection process. Once complete, you'll have a list of issues which you can discuss with the seller for resolution. There are several possible outcomes:

  • The issues may all be routine maintenance items, minor in nature with no surprises. Its a 30 year old airplane and will have some nits. You're a lucky buyer! Buy it quick!

  • There may be small issues which should have been handled but which are no more than could be dealt with in a good annual. Sometimes part are near a non-airworthy condition, or something routine was simply missed. A motivated seller and reasonable buyer should be able to come to agreement on an adjusted price which will cover items such as these.

  • There may be serious or airworthiness issues that the seller didn't know about but which are fixable. Buyer and seller may then discuss whether to have them fixed before sale or adjust the price to cover the costs. Which is better? Your inspector may have advice for you depending on the item, and preferences may vary.

  • Some airplanes turn out to be a project: something very significant may be found. Should there be a large number of items, or items of substantial cost, the seller may have a difficult decision: lower the price substantially or wait for another buyer. Then there is the ethical question: how much will the seller tell future buyers about what was found by the earlier inspection? Hopefully most sellers will be ethical, but watch for the exceptions. A good pre-purchase agreement will let the buyer step away if the seller is hiding very serious issues.

  • It may not be an airplane you're willing to own. Undocumented damage, unaccounted for major repairs or simply too many serious issues may make it more than the buyer can take on. I've seen airplanes twisted by undocumented off-airport excursions, built from two different aircraft and sporting an issues list north of $25K to repair. Be prepared to walk away if it just isn't right for you.

Once the deal is struck, make a written agreement on what will be done, in what timeline, and by whom. Set a date for transfer of the airplane and cash... also the moment when your insurance kicks in.

Our purpose here is not to detail your options for transfer of ownership. You'll want to understand the FAA bill of sale and consider escrow depending on your situation. AOPA has some useful buying services which may be of interest, and there are other options depending in your situation.

Flying it home

One challenge is often finding an insurable Cardinal rated instructor who can help you get the airplane home, hopefully while gaining some time in the airplane yourself. Know how many hours are required for you to be insured, and see what you can do to build up a little Cardinal time ahead of your purchase. Many times we can recommend a good person to help you get it home and possibly provide a few hours of instruction in the process.


At this point you own a Cardinal. Welcome to the Cardinal Flyers family! Let us know of your purchase in the CFO digest, tell us of your improvement projects and make plans to attend an upcoming event. Getting to know your fellow Cardinal friends and sharing the process is part of what makes it fun.

We're glad to be part of your purchase process, and appreciate your trust in this important step. Let us know if we can be of assistance in any way.

Keith Peterson
Cardinal Inspections