How to Buy a Used Semi Truck

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Buying a used Class 8 truck or other commercial rig is a smart way for owner-operators to save money in the early days of their business. While newer models are great for mileage and compliance, they often carry the unfortunate downside of a six-figure price tag. Your truck is the most important investment you’ll make in your business, so it’s wise to approach a used truck dealer with key considerations in mind. Here’s how to buy a good used semi truck that doesn’t break your wallet, or break down on the job.

Where and How to Shop

Owner operators can debate all day on which companies produce the best semi trucks. While the brand is up to you, here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Choosing one of the more popular brands like Peterbilt, Mack, Kenworth, Volvo, International, or Freightliner will make it easier to find parts when (inevitably) certain parts need replacing.
  • Talk to your local repair shop, if you have an existing relationship with one, to determine the best brand to shop for — and the brands they specialize in working with.
  • Ask owner operators who have been successful in business for at least two years for their input. You’ll get the best advice from other truckers who have established themselves as industry professionals, and who do work similar to yours.
  • Buy with resale in mind. It’s common for savvy owner operators to purchase a good used truck and trade up later. If this is you, opt for a versatile truck with a common or neutral body color.
  • Read online reviews for dealerships or online sellers first. The internet is your best friend when it comes to getting honest reviews from real customers.

The Nuts and Bolts

It may be tempting to throw in your money for the most powerful and best looking rig you can find, but weigh the cost of the individual components against one another first. With a used truck, there’s a slim chance everything will be in excellent working condition, so be prepared to pick your battles. For example, a truck with worn-out brakes or balding tires is a far better investment than a rig with a run-down engine. The latter may look nice upfront, but engine repair is going to be way more expensive than brake pad replacement once the title is in your name.

 In addition, your truck is going to be with you a long time, so it’s important to not only find a truck that you want, but one that you need. The type of semi you select can hinge on a number of personal decisions, from the availability of parts in your area, to the distance you’ll be traveling, to the degree of comfort you require in your cab.

Transmission

Most operators learned to drive on a truck with a manual transmission. A manual transmission is more convenient for the driver, but there are automatic transmission semi trucks available. If you’re in the small category of people who have learned on an automatic, you will want to stick with that kind of transmission.

If you opt for a manual transmission, there are more variables to consider. Find out how many speeds the transmission offers. The higher the speed, the more versatility you’ll have when driving. If you’re new to driving a semi truck, you may not want to choose a higher number of gears. The options afforded by the higher speed count is nice, but it can be difficult to operate if you’re not used to a lower-speed transmission already. Also, unless you’re hauling very heavy loads through the mountains, you probably won’t need the higher speeds.

Cab Type

If you’re doing long hauls, you’ll want a truck with a sleeper cab. The money you’ll save in hotels as well as the added comfort of a sleeping space will be well worth the extra expenditure. If you’re doing primarily short hauls, consider a day cab. The potential savings of a day cab, combined with the improved gas mileage, is enough to give it merit.

Axles

A single axle configuration may be all that you need, especially if you’re hauling lighter loads over shorter distances. But for long hauls and heavy loads, expect a smoother ride with tandem axle. A tandem axle configuration will ensure that you are meeting safety standards as well as saving your back from strain.

A style that’s becoming increasingly popular is the “6×2” configuration, or the “dead axle tandem.” There are three axles, tandem style, each with single wheels. Only one of the rear axles is driven, with the other being “dead.” It’s becoming widely accepted that the 6×2 configuration can improve fuel economy, but additionally, many drivers report reductions in weight and maintenance costs, and increased stability. However, tire traction may be lower, so think again about what you’ll be hauling and over what terrain.

Engine

When scoping out the engine, use a critical eye, and remember the devil’s in the details — little things can often signify larger problems. First, consider the mileage, because the longevity of your engine depends upon this. If the odometer reads 800,000, know that you could still get 500,000 miles out of it. If it’s tipping toward seven figures, the purchase may only be worthwhile if you’re looking to use the rig for the short term.

During your test drive, step out of the cab and listen to the engine. Ask about anything you hear that seems out of the ordinary. Eye the exhaust for smoke after the engine has had time to heat up — blue or white smoke could mean that the engine is burning oil.

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Inspecting a Used Truck

Buying a used semi without checking it out is like buying a house without stepping inside. When you’ve found a truck that catches your eye, you’ll want to engage all of your senses during a test drive to make sure it’s in solid condition — and meets your needs for space and comfort.

Check the odometer to make sure the mileage makes sense for the age of the vehicle. Observe how the semi handles on various terrain. Check the lights, wiring, any corrosion and loss of brake fluid on the brakes. Check the oil, as well. In addition to listening and feeling for anything odd when you’re behind the wheel, ask your representative about:

The truck’s history. Ask the representative or owner what it was used for, and how they acquired it or why they’re selling it (if it’s an independent owner). If a particular semi was used to haul short distances but you’re looking to travel cross-country, it may be a risk to expect it to hold up for your purposes.

The most recent DOT inspection. The representative should be willing and able to provide the most recent inspection papers, so you can review any hidden issues, and possibly use them as a negotiation point later if practical.

Accident records and maintenance records. These, like the DOT inspection, will help you anticipate future problems and parts that may need replacing.

Ask about warranties. Even if there’s no factory warranty for your used truck, a dealer may offer a separate warranty for a certain time period or mileage limit. A stellar warranty pays for itself, since a used vehicle purchase always involves some degree or risk.

Finally, trust your instincts. A truck that doesn’t feel right or a seller who seems unwilling or unable to answer your questions may signify you need to do more shopping around.

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Price and Financing

Expect a used Class 8 truck to range from $20,000 to $90,000, with the average cost of a class 8 truck in 2015 hovering in the mid $50,000s. When compared to most new rigs that run six figures and above (not to mention the unfortunate truth about how quickly a brand new vehicle depreciates) you’ll be saving a boatload of money upfront if you’re able to purchase a high-quality used truck.

If this is your first time purchasing a used truck, it’s tempting to jump on the most truck you can afford — but think again. As a business owner, the longevity of your trucking business and your career depends on your ability to make choices that benefit the business first. It may be tempting to get the “nicest” or showiest truck your credit will buy, but this would be like a teenager withdrawing their entire Roth IRA to purchase a BMW.

Evaluate your budget first, and purchase a truck based on that. How much can you afford to spend each month and still turn enough of a profit to pay yourself adequately, and keep growing business? If you haven’t already evaluated your fixed and variable expenses, use the OOIDA’s financial worksheet to make estimates, or see an example laid out at The Trucker’s Place. Before you begin meeting with sellers, check with a commercial truck financing company for an idea of how much you can borrow based on how much money you have saved for a down payment and your credit history.

Two of the biggest challenges in financing a used truck are the age of the truck, and the driver’s creditworthiness. According to Rob Misheloff on the Smarter Finance USA blog, lenders are less likely to finance a truck that’s ten years old or more. Furthermore, if a truck is 15 years old, the number of underwriters willing to finance drops by about sixty percent. When you’re looking to finance, search for trucks that fall under the ten year-old mark.

You’ve found the perfect truck, secured financing, signed the papers, and the keys are in your hand. Congratulations! Now, the real work begins: running your business and maintaining your rig. After you’ve purchased your used truck, if all goes smoothly, you’ll want to establish a rapport with your repair shop to keep your vehicle in excellent working condition, and build up your emergency funds.

Something to keep in mind is the possibility of “trading up” once you’ve started turning a profit. Trading a five year-old model up to a two year-old model, for example, can save you significant money on both repairs and fuel — not to mention, it’ll be even easier to trade your commercial truck up in the first place if you don’t wait until it’s bordering on dinosaur status.

Purchasing a used truck is a fantastic exercise in research and discipline. With a discerning eye and commitment to finding a perfect fit, you’re further empowering yourself as an owner-operator, ensuring business success for years to come.