Buying a used semi truck can be a lot like the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal” You can either be the hero and walk away with heck of a good deal or end up with a lemon from a slick guy masquerading around like Monty Hall. Be aware though that this is a game of the highest stakes. If you don’t know what to look for it could end up costing thousands of dollars.
This article will discuss the entire process of purchasing a used semi including the preliminary research process, engine and truck manufacturers, how to inspect the truck from top to bottom, local and state regulations as well as some helpful negotiation tactics. Overall, the aim of this piece is to arm you with the necessary information to make the best deal on a used semi truck. There are a lot of shady folks in the used tractor trailer and engine market and we hope to educate those with some helpful information to avoid getting ripped off.
1. Know What You Want Before You Walk In – So you are in the business of purchasing a used semi truck but don’t know where to start? Whether you are an owner operator or an experienced operations manager looking to add a truck to your fleet, you want to do your homework before ever meeting with a salesperson.
Preliminary questions to ask yourself are:
A) What size and weight classification are you needing?
B) What application and loads are you needing this truck for?
i. Dry Van Trailers
ii. Flatbed Trailers
iii. Lowboy Trailers
iv. Gooseneck Trailers
v. Reefer Trucks
vi. Box Trucks
vii. Step Vans
viii. Garbage Trucks
ix. Mobile Cranes
x. Cement Mixers
xi. Tanker Trucks
xii. Log Carriers
xiii. Heavy Haulers (Oversized Loads)
xiv. Ballast Tractor
xv. Standard Dump Trucks
xvi. Side Dump Trucks
xvii. Gravel Trucks
xviii. Water Trucks
xix. Commercial Buses and Shuttles
xx. Firefighting Equipment
xxi. Heavy Duty Construction Trucks
C) What terrain and conditions will this used semi truck be driving in?
D) Does the truck you are looking at meet local, state and federal emissions standards?
E) What is your initial budget and do you intend to lease or buy?
F) What is your long-term maintenance budget?
G) What truck manufacturer do you prefer?
H) What engine manufacturer do you prefer?
I) Are you prepared to walk away from anything less than what you need?
2. Buy Only From Reputable Truck Manufactures – There are the Big 3 Semi Truck Manufactures in the used market: Kenworth, Peterbuilt and Freightliner with a special nod to Mack Trucks for Heavy Duty Applications. The best years to buy a truck are right around the 2000 – 2002 era. Peterbuilt Trucks are the most expensive and they tend to hold their value simply because they are built better. However, they only account for 3% of the used semi truck market. Kenworth trucks has around 8% of the used truck market and are the second most expensive commercial truck. Volvo/Mack account for 6% of the used truck market and mostly make durable long-lasting engines. The used semi truck market is dominated by International (41% of the market) and Freightliner (40% of the market) respectively. However, these trucks do not hold their value, are more cheaply made and are typically high mile/beat up rigs. Most heavy haul companies use Freightliner Trucks simply because they can wear them out and are cheaper to maintain from a fleet management perspective. International Trucks are the bottom of the barrel and their DT-466, Maxxforce 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 13 engines are not highly rated overall.
3. Know What Engine You Are Getting – The heart and soul of a semi-truck is the engine. It is our opinion that you only purchase a truck with a CAT, Cummins, Detroit Diesel or Mack Engine. We don’t recommend PACCAR, Mercedes, Volvo, Isuzu, Man, Daimler, Renault or Navistar’s Maxxiforce engines. The reason we do not recommend these engines is that they offer virtually no aftermarket or independent dealership support. If there is anything wrong with your engine you are going to have to go to the dealer every time. This could be problematic if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere and there is no PACCAR Dealer Support. PACCAR now owns Peterbuilt and Kenworth however finding support for one of their MX Engines is limited as they were only just released in North America in 2010. Overall, going with smaller and unproven engine models is going to add up to lost downtime and big bucks. We wrote a great article about the top 10 older diesel engines ever produced. We recommend the Detroit Series 60, Cummins 855, Cummins N14, CAT C7, CAT 3126, CAT 3306, CAT 3406 or the Mack E-7.
4. Go With an Older Engine or Glider Kit Truck – The pre-emissions engines built roughly in 2005 and older are the best engines to put in your truck. The EPA Tier Ratings System went into place in 1994 and was designed to gradually increase emissions requirements for manufacturers over 20+ years. The CAT 13 and C15 were a disaster for Caterpillar due to the failed ACERT Technology. Caterpillar settled a $60 million class action lawsuit for the C13 and C15 models that were manufactured from 2006-2009. In fact Caterpillar stopped producing over-the-road truck engines in 2010 and now only focuses on off-road applications. The Cummins ISX has many turbo regeneration issues due to clogged DPF filters but is still a decent engine.
Overall, you are going to save yourself a lot of headache if get an older Tier II or Tier III emissions compliant engine. Ideally, if you can get a pre-emissions engine that would be ideal. The engines produced in the last few years are much better than the older generation of emissions compliant models however there are still 7 big negatives to buying a brand new engine for your used semi truck:
A) Any problem with the engine will result in having to go to a dealer
B) Increased downtime at the dealership vs. independent shop
C) Small issues are more complicated as mechanics will have to “dig” into the complicated DPF, DEF and SCR systems to find out what’s wrong.
D) Dealers are “computer smart” and simply go by the ECM Code Readout. Independent and street wise mechanics will follow the chain of reaction to quickly diagnose the root cause.
E) Dealers are so large they simply don’t care about your downtime, accurately fixing the root problem and will charge 5x-6x than an independent dealer.
F) Dealers will not warranty any engine mods.
G) New diesel engines from the dealer will be double or triple the cost of an older remanufactured or used engine
Many truckers will do a “DPF Delete” via software from 3rd party manufactures to remove emissions equipment. Note that is technically illegal and you could get into some big fines if your rig is not found in compliance with the law. We will discuss more about emissions testing and regulations later in the article.
The newer diesel engines are not built to last like the older engines. Much like newer automotive engines, the engine blocks and cylinder heads are not meant to withstand the daily wear and tear over the long-term. Older diesel engines typically have heavier more durable castings which were designed to go 1,000,000 miles before a major overhaul. Most likely you will end up with an electronic engine versus a straight mechanical engine. If you do go with an electronic engine the Detroit Series 60 is best electronic engine ever produced and was the first in the diesel industry to introduce an ECM into an engine. If you do swap a remanufactured or used engine in your truck make sure the ECM of the engine will be compatible with the ECM of the truck and is rated for the current transmission.
A glider kit is a newer truck with an older remanufactured engine swapped into it. Fitzgerald’s Glider Kits are the Kings of this industry and overall make very good trucks mostly with Detroit Series 60 engines. Engines we recommend are Caterpillar 3126, C7, C11, C12, Cummins 855, N14, Detroit Series 60 and Mack E6 or E7, ASET, E-Tech engines.
5. Transmission Brand Doesn’t Matter – The transmission brand really doesn’t matter much. Popular brands include Allison, Eaton or Fuller transmissions. Make sure to ask about the gear ratio. The gear ratio is important in terms of fuel millage. Each driver has a preference but for 13 speed and 18 speed we recommend either 3.36 or 3.55 as the preferred rear end gear ratios. These ratios refer to the number of times the driveshaft will have to rotate to get your wheels to revolve one more time. The higher the gear ratio, the higher the RPMs, which is perfect for going up hills. For example, the 3.55 gear will not accelerate very quickly but your top speed will be much higher. Compare that to a 3.73 gear which will accelerate more quickly but will have a much lower top speed. We recommend 3.36 for most normal driving situations and 3.55 for inclines.
6. Know How The Marketing Process Works – If you are in the market for a used semi truck you are probably looking at vehicles online or in a magazine like Truck and Trailer. Know that the picture you are seeing is most likely staged to catch your eye. Many used semi truck dealers will only use best pictures of the truck which will often include the side that doesn’t show the rust or grime. Be wary of close-up shots and trucks that seem abnormally clean. A lot of these guys will power wash the truck and wax it down just for the photos. Many times there is no picture of the frame as it is all rusted out. Know that the salesperson is there to get the best deal out of you. Many dealers will lie, trick you or let you assume things. Do not assume anything and approach buying a truck much like an investigator would inspect a crime scene. Every detail must be accounted for.
Used Semi Truck Inspection Checklist
7. Check the Paint – Inspect the used truck all around to see if it has been recently painted. Many used semi truck retailers will power wash off rust and repaint a truck. If a truck looks like it has been painted it means they are looking to cover up some corrosion. Ask the salesperson if the truck has been painted and look for their reaction. Do they hesitate or beat around the bush? A fresh coat of paint isn’t necessarily a bad thing but be weary of those who try to cover up imperfections or body damage with new paint.
8. Check for Dirt – Check the tire rims for spider webs, dust, leafs and debris. Even though the truck might look great on the ad you can tell how long it has been sitting there based upon the buildup of dust in areas that normally go unseen. If the truck has dust build up you know it has been sitting there awhile and can aid in negotiation. You can offer much less if they are looking to unload an old truck that’s been sitting on the lot for awhile.
9. Check Under The Truck – Check under the truck for any oil leaks. Check underneath the engine, the rear end and the transmission. Pop open the hood and inspect the engine. Is the engine a factory engine or a replacement? Typically, if something is replaced it isn’t the same color as the original factory specs. See what needs to be replaced. Check to see if the water pump, oil pump, hoses and aftercooler matches the same color as the engine. If they don’t then you can use that in negotiation.
10. Check the Wiring – There shouldn’t be any loose or hanging wires anywhere in the truck cab or trailer. Inspect all wire covers for cracking or damage. Take note if any wiring is dirty or loose. Loose wiring usually goes hand in hand with loose plug receptacles. The wiring in the cab must also be compatible with the wiring of the trailer which is sometimes overlooked in the buying process. Not asking those questions upfront could be costly down the road.
11. Check Hoses and Belts – Look for cracking in the belts and any seepage from clamps attached to the hoses. Look for any weak spots or minute holes on the hoses. Do a pressure test on the engine with a mechanic if you are serious about the truck. Used semi truck engines are prone to normal wear and tear and easy to replace belts are often overlooked.
12. Check For Corrosion – Check the rear end and bolts around the truck for corrosion. Corrosion equals moisture which means the truck is breathing. Inspect the gaskets around the truck for tight seals.
13. Inspect the Hubs and Brakes – The brakes will tell the true story of the truck. Make sure the brakes are really clean. Check for wear and determine if they need to be replaced. Check to see if the brakes didn’t blow an oil seal on the hub. You can tell if a seal is leaking if there is oil on all of the brake liners. If the area isn’t clean you will have to replace the brake lines as well as the drums. Roughly 85% of used trucks will have some form of drum brake corrosion. You want to know what percentage of wearable surface the pad has left. Lastly, you don’t want overlook the brake lines, because loss of fluid could be a very dangerous issue.
14. Check the Driveshaft – When under the truck take a look at the driveline or driveshaft. Is it rusted at all around the U-Joints? Grab the driveline and move it around. If the driveline is pretty loose it will reveal that there are issues with the bell housing on the transmission. Check to see if there is any play on the yokes on the rear end as well. If you test drive the truck and there is an abnormal vibration in the cab it is most likely coming from the driveline.
15. Transmission Feel – When driving the truck how does the transmission feel when shifting gears? Inspect the linkage. If it feels loose or broken there might be a broken collet. The transmission should always been smooth. If shifting is sloppy don’t mess with the truck. Simply walk away.
16. Check the Oil – A truck that is ready to sell will be properly maintained. The oil will tell you a lot of about the history of the truck and the folks who are selling it. Look to see if the truck had a fresh oil change or not. Does it seem like old oil has been sitting in the truck for a long time? Smell the oil; does it smell like oil or does it smell burnt? If there is a burnt smell it means that engine got hot. Look at the dipstick and wipe off the oil. Is the dipstick shiny or is it corroded? If the dipstick is corroded it means the oil has been burnt and stained the dipstick. Burnt oil means the previous owner drove the truck too hard or the engine was prone to overheating. Ask to see an ECM readout and check to see if there is an “Engine Abuse Report”. This information will help you determine the engine history and whether or not the salesperson is lying to you about the truck history.
17. Get an Oil Sample – Going one step further than simply inspecting the oil, you are going to want an engine oil sample report. An oil sample will analyze the chemical composition of the oil in the engine. If you find metal shavings in the oil that means the engine has probably spun a bearing or somewhere metal on metal is rubbing. The oil pressure test should also be done. Is the engine pulling at least 50 psi? If the oil pressure is low that means the engine will be less powerful and might not be lubricating all of the internal components properly.
18. Check the Clutch Fan – Is the clutch fan tight or does it have just a little bit of play in it? If the clutch fan is loose you are going to need a new one.
19. Check the Tires – The tires can reveal a lot about the truck as well. The tires can tell you if the truck was overloaded at any time due to the disproportionate amount of tread depth on each tire. Check to see if the tires are under-inflated. This usually isn’t a big deal but can tell you if the truck has been sitting for awhile or whether the last owner took care of the truck. Check for moisture in the wheel wells and around the tires. This can tell you if you should be concerned about corrosion and if the truck was often parked in a wet environment. Check to see if the tires were all changed at the same time and that all tires are from the same manufacturer. Ideally, you want to see a truck that has taken care of. Do the current tires have any patches on the side walls and is there any visible cracking?
20. Check the Suspension – Take a look at the axles and the suspension. Look for any cracking and corrosion. Inspect the axle spring seats, the trunnion shafts and the torque arms/shafts. Also look to see if the suspension is bent or there are any stress points. Stress in the suspension looks like a lighter color discoloration in the metal.
21. Check the Shocks – Inspect the shocks on the truck. Look to see if there is any oil or dirt on the shocks. Also check to see if there is any moisture in the shocks. If there is moisture present there could be underlying corrosion in or around the shocks.
22. Inspect the Air Compressor, Lines and Fifth Wheel – Inspect the air compressor and lines for any moisture or grime buildup. Grime build up could indicate an oil problem in the air compressor. Also test the fifth wheel slide and release levers near the air lines. The trailer hitch should lock and release smoothly.
23. Inspect the Steering Box – Once again, check to see if there is any movement and moisture build up.
24. Check the Front End Alignment – Ask the salesperson to jack up the front end of the truck. Take a crowbar and move the wheel well and the tire. If you get side-to-side end play then the kingpins are shot and need to be replaced. The kingpin is the main pivot mechanism for steering the truck. Lateral side movement can also indicate worn or broken shackle bushings.
25. Inspect the Safety Bars, Headlights, Doors and Windows – This might seem like something that is obvious but make sure the doors and windows close perfectly. Are the door panels factory spec or have they been worked on or modified? You want to make sure the door panels are properly fixed on the joints. Consequently, make sure all of the forward and rear lights are in working order. Are they fogged, have any cracks or are dim? You want to make sure the truck meets all local and federal safety regulations. Also make sure the truck has the proper safety reflectors along the side of the cab, upfront and along the Mansfield Bar at the back end of the trailer.
26. Inspect the Truck Cab – The cab in many ways is the most important feature when looking at the truck. You will be spending all of your time in the cab of the truck so you better like it. Is the interior modern and comfortable? Is the dashboard easy to interface with and in working condition? Are there wires hanging out anywhere in the cab or around the trailer? Does the heat and A/C work? Sit in the driver’s seat. Is the seat worn and sagging or are the springs in good working order? Truck seat fatigue is too important to not overlook. Inspect the truck bed. Is the bed large enough to suit your needs and is relaxing? Getting a good night sleep on the road is vital to your overall health and energy.
27. Inspect the Engine – Ideally you are going to want to take the truck to a reputable mechanic before making any final decisions however you can make some visual inspections of the engines during the initial walk-through. Check to see if there is oil leaking around any parts of the engine. Also check to see if there is any scoring which would indicate if the engine got hot at any point. Usually a salesperson will not remove the oil pan or the valve cover to get a look at the inside of the engine however you may ask some pertinent questions regarding the health of the engine which we address in the next tip.
Review the Truck’s Registration and Maintenance History
28. Ask for Maintenance Records – Since you can’t really inspect the engine right there in the yard the next best thing is obtaining the truck’s maintenance records. You want to know exactly when the engine had an inframe or overhaul done to it. A great engine won’t need an overhaul for around 500,000 – 1,000,000 miles. You are going to want to know what was replaced during the overhaul such as the cylinder head, camshaft, crankshaft, rods, pistons, liners, rings, gaskets etc… You are also going to want to know if the engine has a new oil pump, water pump and aftercooler. Was the engine replaced with a remanufactured or new diesel engine model? Are the parts installed used, remanufactured or new? Are they aftermarket or OEM?
Consequently you are going to want to ask for maintenance records on the transmission, hydraulics, brakes, tires, axles and trailer.
29. Check the Registration – Make sure the registration papers and title matches the truck in front of you. Check and verify the VIN and the odometer reading are accurate. You are also going to want to check the log books, weigh station records, DOT Inspections and emissions testing records.
30. Check Accident and Lien Records – Before you purchase this used semi trailer you are going to want to know the whole history of the rig. The Carfax or Rigdig Records will let you know if the semi has been in any accidents. You are also going to want to know if there are any liens placed on the truck before you buying it. Many times in this industry deals are made in cash, check or wire. Do your homework before making a “handshake deal”. If you are financing the truck use your resources. Dealer financing isn’t going to give you the best deal. If you get any push back know when to walk away.
31. Inspect Axle Configuration Paperwork – Each city, county and state have various regulations regarding the axle configuration rating ie… how many lbs. the rig is rated for. The last thing you want to do is buy a truck only to find out it is not rated for the state you are driving in. Ask yourself what type of loads you will be hauling. Pulling 80,000 lbs. of carrots will be different than 80,000 lbs. of bricks due to the weight distribution on the axles. Each truck is different but most are 4 x 2, 4 x 4, or 6 x 4 configurations. With your standard semi-tractor the steer axle is in the front of the cab, there are tandem axles in the middle of the trailer and single axles towards the back. Most trailer have either a 3, 5 or 6 axle configuration. Bigger trucks (doubles or triples) are referred to as Rocky Mountain Doubles, Triple Trailer Combination or a Turnpike Double. Oversized rigs will require special permitting and an escort.
32. Check the Emission Regulations – Most used engines out there today will be at least a Tier III or Euro 5 rating. Check to see what the jurisdiction is in your area. For example, California has anti-idling laws through the California Air Resource Board (CARB).
Test Drive Inspection Tips
33. Start Up the Engine – When you do start up the engine make a note of the exhaust. It doesn’t matter if the exhaust pipe is on top or out the bottom of the truck. Inspect the color of the smoke. If the engine you have is an older mechanical engine, pre 1998 or so, a small puff of smoke upon startup is fine. The fuel systems on mechanical engines take a bit to warm up so to speak as the injector timing adjusts. If the engine is electronic and you are seeing smoke upon startup then there are issues. The metered amount of fuel should be automatically burned right out of the gate. This article explains the different colors of smoke (blue, black, white) and how to diagnose the issue.
34. Listen to How Loud the Engine Is – Upon startup you want to keep your ear open to how loud the engine is. Wait for the oil pressure to build up and see how much the engine quiets down. If the engine is abnormally loud and causes vibrations in the cab there could be issues with the motor mounts or with the engine itself.
35. Cold Start Ready – Diesel engines historically do not do well in colder environments. It takes the use of block heater or glow plugs to get them started sometimes. If you are purchasing a used semi truck in a colder climate make sure the pistons and rings are not slipping around. A used diesel engine with some miles on it should have gone through the initial break-in period where the rings have had a chance to seat properly. An engine with improper seating will have oil consumption issues.
36. Check the Clutch – When you are starting up the engine push the clutch in and gauge the feel of the transmission. How long does it take for the transmission to engage? If shifting gears is rough you might need a new clutch or a clutch adjustment.
37. Test Drive the Truck – Test the truck on both city and highway conditions. How does it handle going around turns, up and down hills or in bumper to bumper traffic? You are going to be spending a lot of time in this truck; it has to feel comfortable. Take the truck on a less traveled, very smooth, and level grade road. Go about 10 mph and let the steering wheel go. Notice if the truck pulls to the left or to the right. If the truck immediately pulls to one direction or another there is an issue with the steering, suspension or axles. Next hit the brakes while going straight. Notice if the brakes are sticking; is one working harder than the other or is one not working at all? Drive the truck for a couple of hours and listen to everything. Make note of anything that doesn’t sounds or feel right.
38. Ask for a Dnyo Test – Some used truck or salvage facilities will have a full dynamometer which will test the durability and general health of the engine. It will give you an accurate readout of horsepower, RPM, torque rating and exhaust gases. Ideally if an engine is rated at a certain HP you want to make sure it is really pulling the quoted figures. Not all Dynos are created equal. For electronic engines with an ECM most likely you are going to need to go to the dealer or authorized partner to have an ECM readout. Most places do not have access to propriety dealer software like CAT ET. An ECM readout will also give you the true history of the engine, overhaul records and any engine abuse reports. At the very least make sure you have a mechanic look over the engine before you make an offers on the truck.
How to Negotiate with the Salesperson
39. Ask Why They are Selling the Truck – If you are purchasing the truck through a small or medium sized dealer then you are probably fine not asking this question, however if you are purchasing the truck from an individual person you want to know the motives for getting rid of the semi. Watch their body language and whether or not they give you a direct answer. Always trust your gut on this one.
40. Check with Friend and Family First – If possible check with friends and family first who might have any trucks for sale or have any recommendations. You will always get the best deal from someone who is trustworthy. If you are not going that route ask local diesel mechanics or machine shops if they know of any reputable dealers in town. Check out trucking load boards and trucking forums for advice on where to buy a used semi truck from. One of the largest resources for used semi trucks is Truckpaper.com which features used trucks for sale all over the US and Canada.
41. Negotiation Tips – The entire reason for the thorough inspection of the truck is twofold: one not to get ripped off with a junky truck and secondly to aid in getting the best deal.
A) Do not give a positive or negative response to the salesman when you are reviewing the truck. Be as neutral as possible in any interactions with him/her.
B) Shake your head a bit in disgust when inspecting even if everything looks fine. You want to off the impression you are dissatisfied with the truck.
C) Don’t ever say “Oooh I like that”. When you want something you automatically give away your power to the salesperson.
D) Say, “I like the truck but it looked better on your ad… and you want how much again?!”
E) Don’t ever say the sales price out loud. When you do that you subconsciously agree to those numbers.
F) Ask them, “We are negotiable on this, right?” You want the salesperson to know you mean business right from the get go and that you are not paying full asking price.
G) You want the salesperson to know they will lose this deal.
H) Take a long time inspecting the truck so they know you are a serious buyer. Ask them questions but do not befriend them. Be friendly but know who you are the guy in control of this interaction.
I) The more hours you spend with this person the more they want to close the deal. Most likely they are going to be beat down by hours of inspection and questioning. They have already invested their time and emotional energy into the deal and want to close it. Once again let them know a mechanic will also be inspecting the truck before an offer is made.
J) If you can, sit at the head of the table during negotiations. The head of power always sits at the head of the table.
K) During the price negotiation ask them what they will take for the truck. Tell them what you found wrong in the truck and about what it will take to fix it. Never throw out a number first. Get them to come down and then you can throw out your unrealistic lower number. Go back and forth but never be afraid to get up and walk off the lot. If you negotiate correctly you will potentially knock off $50,000+ or more off of the truck.
Buying a used semi truck can be the way to go if you are trying to preserve cashflow, adding another truck to your fleet or are simply weary of newer post emissions engines. It is important to buy from a reputable source but know that it is your responsibility for inspecting the truck and doing your homework before pulling the trigger. Just keep in mind these tricks and you’ll make yourself a heck of a good deal all the while leaving the sales staff bewildered how someone got the better of them for once.