Don’t get squeezed when buying a used truck

by James Menzies

Buying a used truck always involves some risk. But with the exchange rate pricing new trucks right out of the budget of many small fleets and owner/operators, the used truck market is heating up. The low price of the loonie is even drawing buyers from the northern states into Canada, where they’re snapping up low-mileage used Class 8 tractors at a healthy discount compared to buying at home in US dollars.

Manjinder Singh Bajwa, assistant branch manager with Arrow Truck Sales in Toronto says there’s been a noticeable increase in US buyers shopping for used trucks in Canada and he’s anticipating tightness in supply by the second half of this year. This is exacerbated by the fact many fleets are holding onto their trucks longer before trading them in due to the premium they paid for their new iron as the Canadian dollar has plummeted.

This increased competition for quality used trucks means buyers may not have the luxury of being as selective as in the past when supply was plentiful. But they shouldn’t fall into the trap of taking whatever they can get, because a truck that isn’t properly spec’d for the application will not generate the revenue required in today’s market.

We asked some respected used truck dealers how buyers can protect themselves in this market and ensure they don’t end up buying a lemon.

Choose the right truck for the job

Just because you’re buying a pre-owned truck doesn’t mean you should settle for any spec’s. Be sure to shop around until you find the right truck for your application.

“I’ve always said not to under-buy and never to over-buy,” said Vik Gupta, vice-president of sales and operations at Pride Group Enterprises. “Buy what you can afford an drive what you really like to drive. That’s the key.”

A heavy-haul spec’ that’s deployed into a linehaul application hauling auto parts will burn more fuel than necessary, pointed out Singh Bajwa.

Scott Taylor, owner of Tayson Truck & Equipment in Regina, Sask. concurs.

“Be sure you are getting the right spec’ for your application,” he urged. “There are people in this industry who will sell you something they have on the lot or something they own – not what you may need to do your job properly. I have seen many times where a customer buys a truck and ends up considering the truck they bought a lemon, yet quite often it is not the truck itself, it is the way the truck is spec’d. The wrong gear ratio, not enough power, the wrong transmission or a combination of these will not give you the performance that you require.”

Used truck buyers may also want to avoid trucks that were among the first to come equipped with the newest emissions systems such as diesel particulate filters (DPFs), as many of these early systems experienced reliability issues that have since been worked through.

Gupta suggested looking for used trucks that are 2013 or 2014 model year vehicles as they give the best combination of reliability and efficiency. They should have about 300,000-400,000 miles on them by now.

Singh Bajwa steers customers towards anything of a 2009 model year or newer. He said dealers can connect the ECM to a diagnostic tool and determine the soot level in the particulate filter. A high soot level could imply other problems with the engine or emissions system. This is a service private sellers may not be able to provide, he pointed out.

Reconsider your traditional spec’s

It used to be the secondary market wanted big power and manual transmissions. However, dealers say interest in 13-litre engines and automated transmissions has increased drastically. Gupta said fleets that traditionally spec’d manual transmissions are now seeking out used trucks with automated gearboxes so they can be efficiently driven by every driver in the fleet.

“With the huge driver shortage it makes much more sense to have a transmission or technology in your fleet which everybody can drive,” Gupta said.

Demand for automated transmissions has increased to the point where they now command more money than a 10-speed manual. Initially, fleets were reticent to buy automated transmissions because they feared the resale value would be less.

Do a background check

Once you’ve found a truck that meets your needs, do a background check on both the seller and the vehicle itself. Make sure the dealer is reputable and that the truck has a clean history. Gupta suggests getting a Carfax report or checking government records to see if it’s been involved in a wreck that could cause structural issues.

Taylor suggested asking the seller for the paperwork associated with any major work done on the truck.

“All too often trucks are sold with a rebuilt engine, transmission, clutch or differentials,” he said. “Without paperwork, it is a null and void point. Unfortunately there are dealerships and people out there that will sell you a truck they claim to have had major work done and it turns out it never was, or may it had some minor work done and was sold as a complete rebuild. If major work was done, it more than likely was done at a reputable shop and with a little digging you can generally find some paperwork.”

Also look into the reputation of the seller. Customers are more likely to complain than to praise a dealer so if you find a dealer has more positive feedback than negative, they should be safe to deal with, Taylor said.

Get the truck inspected

Even if the truck checks out initially and appears to have had no issues in the past, it’s still a good idea to have it inspected by a third-party shop. They should inspect the powertrain components and also verify the odometer mileage.

Singh Bajwa said there are still unscrupulous sellers out there rolling back odometers. He said to verify the odometer reading against the ECM mileage and take note that the ECM readout will be in miles on a Canadian truck while the odometer will read in kilometres.

“A thorough inspection of the truck is the primary thing any customer should do always,” Gupta said.

“A thorough inspection is the first measure they should take. Then obviously they should take it out for a test drive.”

Taylor said to be skeptical of a seller that won’t allow you to take the truck for an independent inspection.

Be wary of shiny

Many owner/operators are attracted to bling, a fresh paint job and a well-polished exterior. However, Taylor said a truck that looks too good may be concealing flaws.

“All of us know a shiny truck always gets lots of looks,” Taylor said. “Beware. Shiny does not always mean great condition. Most reputable dealers work very hard to have our trucks look like they’re in showroom condition, but that is only one aspect of the reconditioning of a unit. A dealer should be able to tell you exactly what they have done to each unit to get them ready for sale and then back it up with invoices and work orders. All this gives the customer a clear idea of how the truck has been prepared for sale and allows them to make an educated decision.”

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