Build or Buy and Why the RV-7

Oofta, what a process it’s been already. So I’ve defined the mission and got some criteria and now have a few possible airplanes picked out. The next step is starting to look at these aircraft and comparing them. One of the big differences in aircraft cost is the panel instruments. So I’ve done some research and tried to normalized these estimates to the standard of a nice VFR panel. [Prices were figured in early 2020, obviously after COVID they’re quite different.]

Manufactured Aircraft

Cessna 150/172

  • Good common airplane.
  • High wing, good for sight-seeing.
  • Slower, 100kts cruise.
  • Lot’s of aircraft available for sale.
  • Cost: $90,000 for late 1970’s model N.

Piper Cherokee/Warrior

  • Good common airplane.
  • Low wing, good for cross-country.
  • Slower, 100kts cruise.
  • Lot’s of older aircraft for sale.
  • Cost: $60,000 for mid 1960’s.

Grumman/American General AA5

  • Company went bankrupt in 07.
  • Nice low wing aircraft, nice style.
  • 130kts cruise.
  • Occasionally aircraft come up for sale, most are pretty old and well used.
  • Cost: $50,000-80,000

Mooney M20

  • Great airplanes, fancy, luxurious.
  • Retractable gear (expensive!)
  • Quite a few for sale, all pretty well maintained.
  • Fast with 140-150kts cruise.
  • Cost: $90,000 for 80’s J model.

Kit/Experimental Aircraft

Vans RV-7

  • Van’s Aircraft is well recognized and respected. Resale value is good.
  • Aerobatic! Woot!
  • All-around good performance. Not great at anything, but good at everything.
  • Taildragger.
  • Fast! 160kts cruise.
  • Cost to buy: $90,000
  • Cost to build: $80,000

Vans RV-9A

  • Van’s Aircraft is well recognized and respected. Resale value isn’t as good as RV-7.
  • Great cross-country airplane.
  • 140 kts cruise.
  • Cost to buy: $70,000
  • Cost to build: $60,000

Zenith CH650

  • Zenith is a smaller company, but still doing well. The CH750 is their main aircraft.
  • Small cockpit! I demo’d on at the factory, and it was way too cramped for me.
  • Wing lockers for extra storage.
  • Value is good, resale value is unknown because so few are for sale.
  • 130 kts cruise.
  • Cost to buy: $???
  • Cost to build: $50,000

Kitfox IV Speedster

  • Kitfox recently (2019) has had a big pickup in sales. Their series 4 has 3 build options.
  • Folding wings for storage.
  • Tube and fabric.
  • Definitely more of a STOL aircraft.
  • 120 kts cruise.
  • Cost to buy: ???
  • Cost to build: $70,000

Another thing to note is that all the manufactured aircraft, except the Cessna 150, hold four people while all the kit aircraft hold two. There is a definite advantage to having a second row of seating. Not only to carry two more passengers but that space can also be used for more luggage or longer items like golf clubs. The downside is that the extra space comes at the cost of drag (speed) and weight (fuel economy).

Now that I have some numbers I can start looking at value and narrowing down the choices. You get what you pay for here. More money, more airplane. First airplane I’m going to eliminate is the Cessna 150 and Cessna 172. I’m currently flying a 172 as a member of a flying club, and knowing the owning and operating cost of this plane really makes me shy away. The performance is not spectacular, it’s cruise speed is a little slow at 100kts, and even though the 172 has 4 seats I can realistically only take 3 average weight people. This airplane would be much better for someone with kids. On that topic the Piper Cherokee/Warrior is in the same boat. That Warrior II is what I got my license in. While I love that tank of an airplane, it’s also similar to Cessna with 4 seats, slower cruise speeds, and similar operating cost.

Operating Cost

While I’m on the subject of operating cost, let’s have a look at realistic numbers. This is the part that I really dread knowing, but flying is a hobby and I do it because I love it. There’s two main costs: fixed costs and hourly costs. Fixed costs are things like insurance, hanger rental, and yearly maintenance. These costs are not affected by how much or often you fly. Hourly costs are things like oil changes, gas, 100-hour inspection and even engine overhaul. Now for the math.
Hourly costs:
Gas: $4 / gallon @ 10 gallons / hour = $ 40 / hour
Oil: $150 oil change / 50 hours = $3 / hour
Engine: $20,000 / 1500 hours (average) = $13 / hour
Fixed costs:
Insurance: $2000 per year
Hanger at KCID: $170 per month or $2040 per year
Annual inspection: $800 per year
Total per year: $4840
So adding all this up, if I fly 50 hours in the year my yearly cost would total $7640, meaning each hour costs $153. Ouch! That’s an expensive hobby!
My goal is to fly 100 hours per year. That means a yearly cost of $10,440, and hourly cost of $104. Ok, that’s more reasonable but dang spending $10k per year flying?!?! Increasing the flying hours per year is why shared ownership and flying clubs are a great way to get in on an aircraft.

Costs compared to driving

So I’ve proven flying is expensive and persuaded myself to invest my money elsewhere, how can I prove flying is worth it? I want to compare driving vs flying to my home town of Brainerd, MN (KBRD). I don’t like driving the 6 hours one-way for a weekend trip. By air it’s 290 miles, meaning at 145mph it takes 2 hours. With our 100 hour operating cost that means flying to KBRD costs $208. If I were to drive the 400 miles in the Subaru at 28mpg with gas $4/gal, $57. Ok maybe that isn’t a fair comparison since the aircraft included oil changes and insurance. I really don’t know what these costs break down to, so lets use the IRS Standard Mileage Rate of 57.5 cents per mile. The new total is $230. Wow that means it’s actually cheaper to fly! Well not quite, because the IRS rate also includes depreciation. If we estimate an airplane lasts 2000 hours for a $100,000 investment, the new cost to fly to Brainerd is now $308 versus the $230 to drive. Except there’s one last thing to compare, the time. What is my time worth? How do I even quantify this? Do I go off my salary or do I base it on what someone would have to pay me to do something else? Hmm… Let’s go with $20 per hour. Ok if I add my time investment also, flying is now $348 and driving is $350. Wow, I don’t know if I’m surprised more by how expensive it is for me to drive or that flying is almost the same as driving.
One last thing I want to add. There is a definite convenience to having a car and and all of its the carrying capacity. When flying to other towns for vacation or visiting, a rental car adds cost and complexity, assuming the airport even has rental cars.

Aircraft Value and Minimizing Costs

In a utopian world the aircraft would depreciate or degrade, the value of the plane would be the same when you sold it as when you bought it. Unfortunately reality is expensive. Just like buying a car, airplanes depreciate fastest right after purchase the stabilize. Unlike cars which have an expected life of around 300k miles, aircraft are expected to just last. Part of annual maintenance is looking at almost every inch of the aircraft for potential problems. Cars have routine maintenance, but we don’t go looking for problems like we do in aircraft. That’s part of the reason an airplane from the 60’s or 70’s can still be $60k-$80k thousand. Definitely something to consider is that I can spend $100k on a brand new kit aircraft or build one myself for $70k-$80k.
Another advantage of building your own aircraft is it allows you to get a Repairman Certificate. This Certificate from the FAA allows you to perform the maintenance on your aircraft. They’re thought is if you built it, you probably know enough to take care of it. This would save about $800 per year, plus if any work was required I wouldn’t have to pay a mechanic saving me any more money! I’m pretty handy and have done a lot of reading, and after doing of Vans practice kits I feel comfortable building.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of building and buying, and see if that can push me one direction or the other.

Building Pros + Cons

  • I can build it the way I want it.
  • I don’t have to spend all the money right away.
  • Cheaper to own, fly, and operate.
  • More expensive initial investment, but better final product.
  • It could take 5-7 years to build.
  • I need a place to store and build the aircraft, and maybe have to pay for it.
  • I can add and remove parts and/or electronics at will.

Buying Pros + Cons

  • I can look for a good deal on an aircraft to get the best value.
  • I would have to take out a loan to pay for it.
  • More expensive to own but could potentially have lower initial investment.
  • Would be an older aircraft, nothing fancy.
  • I can start flying it once I’ve bought it.
  • Mechanic costs…

Final Decisions

Alright so I definitely want to build for many reasons. I love using my hands, working on projects, and this is right up my alley. I’ll have to learn some skills and have a lot of patience, but if I commit this is something that I can really get behind working on. I like that building enables me to do my own maintenance which not only saves money, but also gives me some flying related thing I can do without actually spending the money to be in the air. I like that I can make changes as I see fit, like maybe add in my own electronics?!?! I can also start small with minimal instruments and a smaller engine, and eventually upgrade to larger, better stuff.

Eliminating Aircraft

One I will eliminate right away is the Zenith CH650. At first I really liked this aircraft. I actually went and test flew this aircraft in Mexico, MO at the factory. Great people, answered all my questions, and I loved the way the plane flew. One problem, the cabin was too small. I’m not a big guy at 5’11” and 200lbs, but I do have 22″ shoulder width. This aircraft was tight and made me claustrophobic. I could probably get used to it, but I doubt the occasional passengers could.
Next the Kitfox 7. This is a very comfortable roomy aircraft with a lot of carrying capacity. It’s a little slow to cruise, but the thing I really don’t like; it’s tube and fabric. This means the structure is built mainly out of metal tubes that then get covered with heat shrink fabric. When you buy this kit all the welding is done and the main components are built. The builders job is mainly assembly, engine work, electrical, and covering. There’s nothing wrong with tube and fabric airplanes, it just isn’t for me. I want to feel more involved in the build of the airplane.
So we’re back to the RV-7 and -9. Really the only difference is the wing. The -7 is aerobatic while the -9 has a thicker asymmetrical wing and for cross-country. The -7 uses larger engines, meaning more expensive. Since resale value on both is good, a more expensive engine is not necessarily a downside other than the initial cost. So which airplane, oofta! I’ve gone back and forth MANY times, so I’ve got to go back to my mission. Fast, affordable, good at many things, and good for the long term. The RV-7 fits that perfectly. It does everything the -9 can, plus it’s aerobatic. It’s also one of the most popular kits Van’s sells. So that’s it, the RV-7 it is!