Looking to buy your first semi truck and can’t afford to buy new? Hoping to expand your fleet on a budget? Although buying a used heavy-duty truck can be an attractive option, it is also a gamble if you’re not sure what to look for. If hidden problems cause a catastrophic failure, you could be taken off the road and even out of business. Here’s our road map of the steps to take to end up with a good buy, the specs you want, and a reliable, mechanically sound heavy-duty truck that will serve you for years to come.
Research Truck Manufacturers
The used heavy-duty truck market is vast and a bit overwhelming. You might start your research from your laptop and look online for used commercial trucks. Consider getting started on the website Commercial Truck Trader to see what’s on the market and get average prices for the makes and models of truck that interest you.
With research, you’ll soon learn which brands perform well over time and which brands offer lower overall reliability. The latter, often called throwaway trucks, are cheaply made, not built to last, and seem to make it to the scrap yards all too soon.
How to spot a lemon truck. Do you see tons of listings for the same make and model at too-good-to-be true prices? Run. This tends to be the pattern for lemons. Don’t buy someone else’s problems.
Visit online trucking forums. Forums can be an excellent source of unbiased information and anecdotal research from those who’ve driven and possibly even worked on the heavy-duty trucks that interest you. Some forums even include used truck listings.
Consider overall cost of ownership, not just sticker price, when you buy a used heavy-duty truck
Downtime and repairs are costly. If you want a reliable, functional, mechanically sound heavy-duty truck, you don’t necessarily need to opt for the top-of-the-line brands, which will cost more to maintain (the assumption being deep pockets). You will pay more for parts made exclusively for certain brands simply because of their name being stamped on them.
Avoid limited-run truck brands
When choosing your brand of truck, plan for what you’ll do if you break down in the middle of nowhere. The last thing you want is to get stranded because you can’t get a small, but vital, part for it. This is sometimes the case with more obscure brands of truck. Make sure that you can easily get parts for the truck–and from at least two separate suppliers to avoid being left in the lurch.
Determine your needs and spec your used truck
Make sure you can live with the specs on the used heavy-duty truck you buy. A few guidelines:
Engine. This major component alone justifies the importance of getting maintenance records (more on that below). An unexpected engine failure could put you out of business if you’re operating with little in reserves.
Learn about the specific engine of the truck you’re considering. Research the types of problems this engine has had and at what age the problems occurred. How often was the oil changed? What kind of oil was used? Who changed the oil?
Transmission. Another big-ticket component: research for transmission problems among the trucks you may buy.
Consider, too, whether you want a manual versus automatic transmission. Depending on what you’re used to, you might want the convenience of automatic. A veteran truck driver might insist on driving a manual.
Driveline. Check the truck’s axle configuration and transportation regulations for your area. Be sure to buy the right axle configuration (4×2, 4×4, 6×4, etc.) for what you’ll be carrying.
If you’re towing equipment, you won’t need as much power as if you haul 40-ton trailers long distance regularly. RitchieSpecs is a good source for this type of information.
Fuel economy. Many specs can improve fuel economy, from engine size to cab size, fixed fifth wheels that minimize trailer gap, horizontal exhaust, fuel-efficient tires, and idle reduction technology, just to name a few.
Mileage. The total number of miles on a truck’s odometer is one of several indicators of wear and tear and, although not a guarantee, looking at total miles driven can help you rate the condition of the engine, transmission, and drivetrain.
Unlike passenger cars, a big rig can run for hundreds of thousands of miles when properly maintained. This is where service records come in. If you’re buying a truck that you learn was used for OTR applications, mileage may not factor in as much as the overall condition of the truck, which may be mint, a late model year, with a verifiable history of impeccable preventative maintenance.
Sleeper size. If you do mostly long-distance hauls, you’ll actually do your fair share of living in the truck. Like other long-term relationships in life, you can’t afford to get this one wrong, so be sure you can live with the sleeper size.
Type of freight and geography of hauls. What types of trips will you make? Will you do long-distance hauls of heavy goods over rough or hilly terrain? Deliver goods within a mostly urban area? You’ll need a truck with the right amount of horsepower and correct axle configuration. An under-powered truck can be costly, so know before you begin to shop
Review service records for the truck
What major parts were replaced? Does it have a new transmission? Were the oil and fluids changed regularly? Who did the maintenance? Although not a guarantee when you buy a used heavy-duty truck, maintenance records will tell you about quite a lot about a truck’s history and how it was (or wasn’t) looked after. If you know that the truck has certain original parts, you can budget for their repair or replacement in the future (e.g., transmissions and rear ends).
The truck with zero service records:
Run a vehicle history report
Not every truck buyer has the good fortune to personally know the original owner but, if you do, you’ll reduce your risk since you’ll get the full history of the rig and maintenance records and learn about any accidents or any major work that was done.
If you have no maintenance records whatever on the truck, run a vehicle history check. Make sure the records are legitimate, with the VIN matching the vehicle. Check the history of repair work to make sure there are no recurring patterns of breakdowns that could signal a more expensive problem. RigDig.com gives you ownership history, insurance claims, accidents, mileage history, and more.
Don’t sign anything or put any money down until you call your agent and get a quote. You don’t want any surprises with quotes that are less affordable than you thought.
Buy from a reputable truck dealer
Although you’ll probably pay more for a heavy-duty truck buying from a local dealer than you would when dealing with a private owner, you tend to have more recourse buying from a dealer with a reputation to protect.
Other pros about buying from a dealer:
You can probably finance the truck. Note that some finance companies can be particular about what trucks they will finance. Depending on your jurisdiction, most will not finance a truck that has not passed a DOT inspection.
You may get a short warranty if something breaks soon after you buy. Some dealers offer a 50/50 warranty, which is better than none at all. Just know you’d still be on the hook for half the cost of a repair (an engine overhaul would still cost a bundle, but would be less of a hit).
Some dealers offer an extended warranty. Beware: these can be prohibitively expensive. Read the fine print–some warranties may not offer enough coverage on major parts to be worth their cost.
Buy a fleet truck
When you buy directly from a fleet company which is upgrading to more current models, you may be able to speak directly to the person who drove the truck. Now you have access to the history of the truck from an unbiased third party.
Is the fleet updating with the same make and spec of truck that they’re selling with just newer models? If so, that is generally good news for you, since the vehicles they’re selling have probably been reliable.
However, some company drivers don’t treat their trucks with the care that an owner operator would, just as not all owner operators maintain a truck with the diligence you might expect from them, either.
Get a preliminary inspection done by a qualified mechanic
Get a trustworthy, qualified mechanic who specializes in heavy-duty trucks to inspect yours before you make the deal. A bumper to mud flap inspection should only be done by a trustworthy third party garage, not the selling dealer. The truck mechanic can write down any problems found during inspection of the major systems of the truck, which you can take back to the seller and negotiate a deal.