Truck News


Buyer beware (June 01, 2004)

TORONTO, Ont. - It's easy to see why cash conscious owner/operators gravitate to used truck lots. While financing companies can require down payments of 15 to 20 per cent on used equipment, compared to the 10 per cent required to buy a new rig, ad...

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s easy to see why cash conscious owner/operators gravitate to used truck lots. While financing companies can require down payments of 15 to 20 per cent on used equipment, compared to the 10 per cent required to buy a new rig, additional equity can be a good thing. Lower monthly payments mean additional cash to cover monthly operating expenses, and if you’re comfortable turning a wrench to deal with the occasional age-related repair, the equipment can serve you for years to come.

Still, you need to shop wisely. An uninformed used truck purchase can lead you down the road to business ruin, filling days with breakdowns and downtime.

Seek specific spec’s

It’s important to remember that, whether they’re new or used, trucks are spec’d for specific applications.

“And if it’s coming out of a similar application, you normally don’t have to worry that it’s been spec’d incorrectly,” says Paul Spokas, president of Heavy Duty Marketing Associates and a board member of the Used Truck Association. Most recent equipment was designed with software that matches such things as rpms to transmission ratios, ensuring the right startability and gradeability to handle specific trips.

It’s simply a matter of being honest about the loads you plan to haul, and the routes you plan to travel.

You’ll also want to check the contract you signed with your carrier. An O/O who plans to haul containers on local roads may be willing to look past a rough cosmetic appearance. Over-the-road fleets might be a little pickier about the equipment with their name on the door.

Check the fluids

An oil analysis can spot traces of wear metals shaved from internal engine components, but it can only offer a snapshot of a particular moment in time. It won’t tell you anything if the truck was given a lube, oil and filter when being prepared for sale.

But you can learn a lot from several other fluid checks.

Take a look at the back of the oil filler cap on the highest position on the engine. “If it looks like it’s oily and it’s dark, you’re OK … If it’s white or milky, there’s a very good chance you have water in the oil,” he says, referring to the sign of a damaged head gasket.

Similar problems can be spotted by looking for any oil floating on top of the coolant in the surge tank, and your sense of smell offers one of the best ways to identify traces of diesel in the mixture.

Meanwhile, a simple test strip can ensure that the previous owner looked after the coolant’s chemistry. Checks don’t get much cheaper than that.

Look for the stains

How do you locate signs of leaks when a dealership has pressure washed an engine? Take a test drive. But be sure to take the truck on a run over the highway and through stop-and-go traffic to raise the operating temperature. Active leaks will likely manifest themselves after that, Spokas says.

And some leaks won’t wash away.

“If there were ever any coolant leaks along the side of the block, nine times out of 10, the dealer isn’t going to paint the engine,” he says, referring to the telling brown stains.

Check the frame

Look down the truck’s frame to determine if everything is in alignment, but also take the time to search for cracks or other signs of stress on the frame rail. Chronically overloaded trucks will tend to develop these problems about three feet past the rear of the cab, Spokas notes.

What’s the tire wear like?

Evenly worn steer tires may need to be replaced, but those showing signs of uneven wear or cupping may indicate a front end problem that could require the replacement of anything from tie rod ends to wheel components.

Don’t prejudge the miles

Some repairs are required with age. At 400,000 miles (about 650,000 km), for example, a truck will probably require a valve adjustment or need a new thermostat and air compressor, Kenworth noted in a recent white paper on used truck purchases. But newer engines are still more rugged than their predecessor, Spokas says, noting that engines with less than one million km on them don’t tend to need a new bottom end.

“Every engine manufacturer today, their philosophy is, if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it,” he says. “You’re running more risk of a premature failure (after rolling the bearings) than you are if there is no indication of excessive bearing wear.”

The test drive

When starting the vehicle for your test drive, put it in a high gear and slowly let out the clutch. “If it doesn’t jump and grab and try to stall out, you know you have a clutch that’s slipping,” Spokas says.

And once on the road, be sure to roll down the window to listen for any unexpected squeaks or rattles, or a roaring engine.

Every gauge should be also checked for acceptable operating parameters such as temperature and oil pressure. (You might also spot a gauge that simply doesn’t work.)

But if you’re looking to test the engine brake, be careful not to apply it in heavy traffic or wet weather when you’re bobtailing, Spokas warns. You could end up going for a literal spin.

Let the engine tell its story

Most dealerships will have an Electronic Control Module (ECM) reader in the sales department, so take the time to read the truck’s mind. If it provides an engine serial number that’s different than the one shown on the data plate attached to a valve cover, the truck may have had a valve job during its life. An OEM will also be able to match the truck’s VIN to the engine that was in place when the equipment first rolled out the factory door.

“If it’s a recent re-man, that’s really kind of a plus,” Spokas adds.

Research the dealer

It’s important to research a truck dealership as much as the truck – and the best recommendations are often through word of mouth. Track down past customers who work at your fleet, or simply canvass the counter at your local truck stop.

You’ll want to know how the dealership handles any problems that come up. But be careful not to discount a dealer because of one horror story. You may only be hearing one side of a particular tale.

Not surprisingly, Spokas suggests looking for the Used Truck Association’s code of ethics in the dealership lobby, although a link to any sort of association shows a willingness to invest in their industry and improve their practices, he adds.

Get it in writing

As clich as it may sound, a verbal deal isn’t worth the paper on which it’s printed. “If you don’t put it in writing, there’s always opportunity for misunderstanding,” Spokas says.

And don’t forget to inquire about any remaining time on major component warranties. Just keep in mind that, while these were once transferred at no cost, there is often a related documentation fee that can vary from city to city.

It would also be a wise investment to pay a mechanic to check out the vehicle for defects that you may have overlooked.

In the end, you may have to pay for an inspection on a truck you don’t buy, but it’s a lot cheaper than being stuck with a lemon.

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