The either/or nature of what airplane to fly could at first seem to make the renting or buying decision relatively simple, but it is certainly not. It's not that pilots are filled with indecision when this subject appears, but they are often too emotionally tied to the outcome, as they might be when searching for an automobile. Here's why.
One of the strong motivating factors in learning to fly is that pilots imagine being in the left seat of some airplane — any airplane — with loved ones filling up the other seats in total awe of being a pilot and having the ability to maneuver the bird around the sky. They also envision themselves spending Saturday afternoon out shining up the airplane at the hangar. Unfortunately, some pilots base purchase decision too much on passion and too little on common sense and good budgeting. There are pilots, then, who would be better off renting because they don't fly enough, and pilots who could own but never did the math to find out.
When you are faced with the decision about whether to purchase an aircraft or rent one, make a checklist. Here's what to consider.
The decision to purchase or rent should begin with needs first and foremost. What kind of missions do you need to fly versus what kind of missions do you want to fly? "Need" can be viewed in a few different ways. What does the business or personal use dictate, and what will the budget allow? How many passengers are usually carried? What distances are normally expected? How many hours per year? A private pilot who can only fly a Cessna 150 might have trouble using the aircraft for business unless satisfied with only basic VFR travel over short distances, but if this works, why rent anything larger? If more comfort is important, as well as more speed, a Piper Warrior might be the answer at a higher hourly rate. If flight at night or over water or mountainous terrain is needed, a twin-engine aircraft might be worth the extra cost, not because a single-engine aircraft isn't safe, but because the second engine is an insurance policy you're willing to pay the premium on. Peace of mind should always be a factor in the decision process.
Another aspect of determining whether renting or purchasing includes remaining current in more than one aircraft at a time — a high-speed IFR aircraft for the business and personal vacation use and a slower single-engine machine to just fly around the local area to keep current. All of this is fairly easy when renting from an FBO or club that offers a variety of aircraft to fly, but purchasing provides only one airplane.
Do the arithmetic (and make the allowances for the emotional part of aircraft operation). Whether you can afford to buy or should continue renting should be apparent.
Begin the process by looking through the logbook. Total up the hours you've flown in the previous 36 months, and multiply that figure by the hourly cost to rent each of those aircraft. The sum is the total amount spent flying during the period, except for all the pilot goodies like sunglasses, flight bags, and charts.
Next, consider the aircraft you'd like to be flying. Look at all of the costs associated with owning it and divide by the number of flight hours. Try the same calculations based on increased flight hours each year versus the rental costs for the same amount of flight time.
There will be a point at which the cost of ownership becomes more cost effective than renting, but this is simply the dollars and cents of the decision. You must also factor in that darned ego again, and ask how important it is to own an aircraft as opposed to using someone else's. If that is important, the break-even factor could be a bit lower. Do you want to own an aircraft badly enough that you might be willing to share it with a partner? If the answer is yes, many of the costs will drop, yet again.
The decision to buy or rent is complex. Talk to other pilots, some who rent and some who own. Talk to the local FBO. AOPA has many publications available online that relate to ownership, partnerships, insurance, and other piloting topics.