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Looking for a deal?

There are lots of reasons to consider buying a used truck rather than a new one. You might be just starting out in the business and this will be your entry level machine; you’re moving up to something better but still shy about committing...


There are lots of reasons to consider buying a used truck rather than a new one. You might be just starting out in the business and this will be your entry level machine; you’re moving up to something better but still shy about committing to new iron; you don’t like the imposed emissions standards and you’re hoping to find something pre-DPF; you’re a savvy owner/operator on the verge of retiring and you still want one more ride, and don’t want to spend $130,000 on a new vehicle.

No doubt, some good deals (and lemons) are available through private sales, but Jason Queenen, general sales manager for Expressway Volvo in Cambridge, Ont., suggests that it’s important to go through a reputable dealer when buying a used truck, preferably a member of a used truck sales association. “That’s the biggest thing, someone who will support them two months down the road when something goes wrong.”

The used truck market follows a few years behind new truck sales and currently there’s a shortage of low-mileage, owner/operator spec’d highway tractors.

“There’s a depleted inventory of late model trucks with low mileage, and those models that are available are getting bought up very quickly,” according to Queenen. “One of our biggest battles is trying to convince Canadian buyers that one million kilometres is not the same as one million miles. A million miles is equivalent to 1.6 million kilometres, and a well-maintained truck with 800,000 kms still has lots of life left in it.”

Prospective buyers are often wary of trucks with the latest emission controls. As a result, owners and fleets have been holding on to their vehicles longer, and this partly explains why new truck sales have been slow from 2008-2010.

“Even those pre-DPF trucks from 2006-2007 are coming onto the market with lots of kilometres. The OEMs have faced some challenges with the new emission systems, but the upgrades and updates have been done by the manufacturers and those DPF products work fine now,” adds Queenen.

Vikas Gupta, sales manager for Arrow Truck Sales in Mississauga, Ont. agrees. “Most carriers want trucks that are three to five years old. The metric used to be that trucks were traded in at 500,000 to 700,000 kilometres. Now we’re seeing trucks coming back with 500,000 to 700,000 miles! This is a case of educating the customer that they cannot do without DPF trucks. And more changes are on the way.”

For one, Matt Cottrill, owner of Cottrill Heavy Equipment in Kincardine, Ont., is not afraid of higher mileage trucks. “In some cases you might find a truck with 800,000 kilometres that needs a rebuild, while another truck might have 1.3 million kilometres but has just been rebuilt.”

Cottrill is a licensed mechanic and admits that his test drives are more like full MTO inspections without pulling the wheels off.

“The tires, brakes, lights are all important, but these are bolt-on parts that can be replaced. The real money is in the engine, transmission and rear ends. You don’t want to get the truck home and find out you need a new head gasket.”

Moreover, he takes a visceral approach: listening, looking and smelling, inspecting the antifreeze to see if there are any contaminants. “I like to start it up cold and watch it go through the changes as it comes up to operating temperature. Remove the dip stick or the oil filler cap and see if there is any blow-by. Pressurized blow-by is a red flag that usually indicates engine problems.”

Listen to the turbo, he says, and he also suggests the prospective buyer load up on the engine by applying the brakes lightly while the truck is in motion and see if there is any black smoke. The clutch is another important component that can be expensive to repair.

“If it’s an older truck and there’s no play at the top of the pedal, it probably means that it’s been adjusted as far as it will go and might need to be replaced.”

Cottrill’s company is heavily into conversions, often attaching booms, grain or a dump box on the back of a long wheelbase tractor for his customers.

One of his specialties is transforming a sleeper cab into a day cab by cutting off the bunk, no matter if the bunk is an add-on or integral to the body.

Day cabs are hard to find, and the result is a luxury-class city truck with the potential for a long life in the city.

Cottrill’s primary interest is in heavy-spec’d trucks with minimum 16,000-lb front ends and 40,000-lb rears.

He also sources trucks a little differently than other dealers, buying from fleets like Manitoulin and Penske, and late model fuel tanker tractors that have to be replaced every few years.

“Don’t be afraid of fleets,” he says. “A carrier like Manitoulin does an excellent maintenance job and I’ve gotten a lot of good stuff from them.”

Joe Tavares has nine trucks and is meticulous when looking for an addition to his fleet. He’s a big proponent of engine oil analysis and ECM printouts.

“You might have to pay the dealer to get the ECM readout but will tell you everything the truck has done including the fuel consumption. I want a truck that gets at least 6 miles per US gallon, 6.5 preferably. The better the mileage, the better your fuel surcharge rebate.”

Tavares thinks the $150 spent on the oil analysis costs is a worthy investment. He also suggests taking the vehicle to your preferred mechanic and having him go over the truck very thoroughly.

“I’d rather pay $500 or $600 than end up having it cost me thousands of dollars down the road.”

But he’s not so keen on extended warranties. “After I’ve done all that research I’m pretty confident about the truck I’m buying,” says Tavares. “You’ll probably never get that $5,000-$6,000 per year back.”

Financing is another matter that truck buyers should approach with caution. Some dealers will offer “in-house” financing but, according to Scott Taylor, vice-president of operations for Transport Financial Services in Waterloo, Ont., this may not always be the best deal.

“Just because you’re buying a used truck doesn’t mean you’re a bad risk,” he says. Taylor cites a case where a client had arranged in-house financing but hadn’t read the fine print. “He was shocked when I told him the real interest rate. He went back to his bank and through his home equity line-of-credit he was able to negotiate a much lower rate.”

Taylor adds the same is true when buying life and disability insurance. Dealers might offer insurance packages but so do other agents. “It pays to shop around,” he says.

Used truck buyers might have a job waiting for them, but they often overestimate their start-up income, adds Taylor. “It might be a month or more before he sees a full paycheque.”

Finding the truck that’s right for you can be an odyssey, but getting the right fit is the most important thing.

“Never overbuy and don’t underbuy,” says Arrow’s Gupta. “Buy only what you need for your work and forget about the chrome extras. If you’re running regional you might want a mid-sized condo. But if you’re running California you need bigger power and a more spacious bunk.”


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