When building an Experimental airplane, there are lots of opportunities to make purchases online. New and used equipment, tools, avionics, supplies, kit parts, and custom modifications are available from auction sites, web sites, small manufacturers, big manufacturers, listservs, and discussion groups. Of course there are risks in buying online such as it might not be as advertised, broken equipment, obsolete, unserviceable, or it may never show up at all.
The key to buying online is to mitigate risk. This is no different from sitting in the cockpit. Life is all about understanding risk and handling it.
Here are my 10 tips for mitigating risk when buying online:
1. Use a credit card. Almost anyone can take PayPal, Apple Pay or some form of credit card. The seller will have to pay a credit card fee (called a discount) and may not want to take the cost hit. You may have to negotiate the fee (usually around 3 percent). Even if you have to pay the entire fee, this is good insurance with big-ticket items.
2. Get photographs from the seller of what you are actually getting. In this day and age, getting good photos is pretty easy. Sometimes the seller’s idea of “like new” is nothing like my idea of “like new.” They can email or send the photo to your smartphone. Get several from all angles. If you cannot receive photos, have a friend receive them. If you have no friends, you should not be building an Experimental aircraft.
3. Never send cash in the mail.
4. Test/check the purchase as soon as possible. As soon as you receive your purchase, you should check to see that it is as advertised. Often if you have a problem, the seller will handle it right away, but if you try to send it back six months later, your request may fall on deaf ears.
5. For big-ticket items, insist on shipping insurance. If the seller does not want to pay insurance, negotiate the fee or just pay the cost. Insurance is a good idea to reduce risk, especially on fragile items. Remember, the insurance will also guarantee a good packing job. The carrier will not insure a crummy packing job.
6. For avionics, be sure to get the version number. Items can look exactly the same on the outside, but be very different on the inside. In some cases, avionics can be very different on the outside, too!
7. Also for avionics, get the modification information. Some mods are mandatory to be legal. Get a picture of the mod tag.
8. Discussion groups or web boards can be a more reliable choice when buying specialized aviation equipment than online auctions or generic classified ads. Aviation classified web sites are better than generic classified sites. On discussion group sites, be careful of sellers who just joined and have only a few posts.
9. A common scam is a seller that appears to not know what they are selling, and offers an outstanding price. Unserviceable items may be sold by pretending ignorance. If the price is too good to be true, they might know exactly what they are selling.
10. Big ticket items have a history. Ask for logs, receipts, shop work or yellow tags.
Much of the stuff you need in the Experimental aircraft world is available online and could make up a considerable percentage of your investment. Know what you are buying, and be prepared to add a little cost for risk insurance.
David Boeshaar is a systems analyst for corporate Disney. A former mechanic, teacher, and computer help desk guru at a major university, he is now building a Van’s RV-9A for fun with his brother-in-law. As the new guy in aviation, Dave has learned lots, both good and expensive, and hopes to pass along a little help to the builders coming up behind him.