Top Tips for Buying a Used Pickup

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By Bruce W. Smith

Automakers sold almost 17.5 million new vehicles in the U.S. in 2015, and more than half of those were light-duty pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers. New pickups continue to be a hot commodity in 2016, with more than 600,000 sold in the first quarter.

At the same time, there's a big demand for used pickups, both gas and diesel. The used pickup truck market is estimated by some experts to be three times bigger than the new-truck market. Those who can't afford to buy a new pickup, or who like to take advantage of depreciation, are always searching for a good deal on a used pickup.

If you're hunting for a used pickup, there are literally millions across the nation from which to choose (do a search at Cars.com or here on PickupTrucks.com to see what's available). We guess that most of us shop within 100 miles of our home — and probably less than that — so the number of used pickups available in your area will drop considerably. Still, you should be able to find at least a dozen potential candidates close to where you live.

When shopping for a used pickup, don't be blinded by the bells and whistles, nice paint and attractive price. Be smart and thorough in your decision making, and be sure to see the truck in person and do your own inspection.

To compile our top recommendations for buying a used pickup, we talked with used-car dealers, wholesale vehicle buyers, auto repair mechanics and other dealership experts to find out what they look for when buying a used pickup (with a special thank you for advice going out to Guaranty Chevrolet of Junction City, Oregon). Then we added a couple of our own tips garnered from first-hand experience. In no particular order, here's what you need to keep in mind when buying a used pickup:

 

1. Diesel Matters 

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Diesel pickups are far more expensive to maintain and repair than gas models, so it pays to look them over closely before buying, especially if they have more than 60,000 miles. Check a diesel pickup's coolant overflow reservoir for any signs of fuel or oil in the coolant or under the coolant cap. Contaminated coolant is a sure sign of oil cooler, exhaust gas recirculation cooler or head gasket issues, which can cost a load of dough to repair. Also, check for leaks around injectors or from injector lines, or around the turbocharger; if you see problems or previous repairs, be cautious. Finally, if engine repair work has been done, get the specifics on when and who did the work. Follow up with the shop that did the work to find out more details.

 

2. Warranty

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Are the drivetrain and smog system components still under warranty? Check the mileage against the truck's drivetrain and the federal emission warranty, which covers some pickups for as long as eight years or 80,000 miles, whichever comes first. This is of particular concern for higher-mileage (125,000 miles or more) diesel pickups, where out-of-warranty engine, computer and transmission repairs can be more likely and costlier. That's where a used truck from a dealer has benefits as some offer a limited warranty after their mechanics have given the truck a detailed inspection and pre-sale service.

 

3. DPF Deletes Are No Good 

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Some diesel owners are notorious for removing the diesel particulate filter, muffler, EGR cooler, and blocking or removing the EGR valve for more power. Yes, these "deletes" add power, but removing them is against federal smog laws. Many states/counties require those parts to be replaced before a pickup can be sold or licensed. Replacing deleted exhaust/smog components can cost thousands of dollars. If the diesel truck you are eyeing is missing any of these components, make sure the owner includes the deleted smog-related parts in the deal.

 

4. The Test Drive

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As with any vehicle, you want to take the truck on a test drive. Accelerate hard, give the brakes a workout, and get the engine and transmission up to operating temperatures. A 20-minute drive should be enough time to reveal any readily apparent drivetrain, steering and/or suspension issues. Does the truck wander? Is there play in the steering wheel? Does it brake straight and strong? Are there any quirks in acceleration? Does the transmission shift smoothly through the gears? Try manually shifting the automatic. Do you see exhaust smoke during hard accelerations or when you lift off the throttle and the truck slows? Pay close attention to your gut feelings.

 

5. Transmission Checks 

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Always pull the dipstick on an automatic transmission before buying a used pickup. The fluid should be reddish with little smell. If the fluid is brownish or smells like burned brake pads, the transmission has internal issues. If it's a manual transmission, short-shift it into high gear during the test drive and accelerate fairly hard to check to condition of the clutch. There should be no slippage or chatter. Also get to a speed where you can cruise in 3rd, 4th and 5th gear without the need for throttle — listen for gear whine or driveshaft vibrations when the truck is in this "limbo" driving mode. Lastly, when feeling for driveline vibration, be sure you know what kind of tires you're driving on to make sure you don't mistake mud-tire issues for a driveline issue.

 

6. Shifting Gears 

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While test-driving a 4x4 pickup, take the time to put it in four-wheel drive. Get off the pavement if you can. Drive it in both high range and low range. Listen for any odd sounds or grinding related to the transfer case operation. Make sure the front hubs are locking or the front tires are driving. Slip it back into two-wheel drive and spin the rear tires to see if the limited-slip or locking differential (if so equipped) is operating correctly. You are not abusing the truck — you are making sure you are buying a 4x4 that works as it should.

 

7. Crawl Under, Look Up 

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After the test drive, check underneath for signs of fluid leaks. Leaks under the engine may indicate a serious issue in a front main seal, water pump or failing gasket. Also check the rear of the transmission, transfer case (if a four-wheel drive) and axle housings for oil leaks. Pay close attention to the backside of the wheels for signs of oil coming from bad brake lines and axle bearings. The seller may have pressure washed underneath prior to you seeing the truck, but leaks of concern will usually show up after the test drive when fluids and lubricants are up to operating temps.

 

8. Service Records 

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One of the best indicators that a used pickup is everything the seller claims is if it has a detailed logbook or service record and receipts of performed work. Oil and filter changes at regular intervals in accordance with the owner's manual, receipts showing any/all work done, and any other dated records can be a good indication the seller isn't trying to hide anything. It also indicates the engine and transmission should have a longer life than a pickup whose owner let routine maintenance lapse for long periods of time.

 

9. Background Check 

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It's always good to do a background check on any used vehicle you are interested in buying. Carfax.com and VincheckPro.com are two sources that offer such services. Keep in mind that these services are only as good as the sources feeding them the information. If a pickup has been in an accident, for example, and the owner or the shop doing the repair work didn't report it to an insurance company, that repair work will not show up. It's also advisable on a later-model used truck to check the vehicle identification number to see if there are any outstanding recalls that need addressing. Go to safercar.gov to find out.

 

10. Flood-Damaged Vehicles 

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Vehicles that have been flooded can make it into the open market when they should have been scrapped. If a pickup was refurbished because it was flooded, our advice is to avoid it. If the truck has bubbles under the paint, new carpet and seats, mold or water marks on seat belts, seats or headliner, or has rust or mud anywhere in the cab, beware. Do a thorough inspection; lift the carpet and look for signs of corrosion in the cab or under the hood. Check for moisture inside the instrument panel. The biggest issue with flood-damaged pickups is that water submersion wreaks a slow, cancerous death on mechanical, electronic and fuel systems. Flood-related problems are difficult to detect unless you check the less obvious parts of the truck.

 

Bonus: Salvage Titles 

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If a truck has a "salvage title," it's been considered a total loss for some reason and it's been refurbished. Ask a lot of questions as to why it has such a title and exactly what type of work has been done. We'd recommend you have a trustworthy mechanic give it a thorough inspection before making a decision. There's a possibility the truck was flood-damaged, cleaned up and found its way into the used-vehicle market, possibly thousands of miles from where it originated. If the title has a stamp on it that says "flood," know there will be issues no matter what the price.

Cars.com photos by Bruce W. Smith

 

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Comments

Here's another tip. Don't buy a used truck with 22k miles for $10k off MSRP. Buy it new for $10k off with the full warranty still intact. If you are unsure, ask others who are more experienced in buying full-size trucks because $10k off a used full-size is nothing to brag about.

@ Mike, the problem is if you get 10k off the halfton new, in 5 years you loose another 20-25k in what you paid, better off buying used with low mileage

@Mike

sir you are seriously at risk for a terminal case of brown eyes. It's probably coming out your ears.

An MSRP of 27k minus 10k equals a nearly new half ton truck with 12 mos on the clock for $17,000.

10k off of a $50,000 half ton love boat is no big dea--agreed.

The truck came with GM's CPO warranty 100k miles powertrain for five years.

Today that truck can be retailed for about 12k It looks and drives like new inside and out.

Gas, oil, tires, wipers, satellite-radio subscriptions have been the only expense. Still on the original brakes and shocks.

The only major repair was for a crank trigger, fully covered under warranty.

You cannot beat it.

I never buy from any owner under the age of 30. Or anyone whose parents or some other family member has the title.

I bought one Ford... needed an exhaust manifold and complete brake system rebuild (all soft lines, pads, shoes, drums, rotors, the whole works.)

I inherited one Ford... Needed an entire hydraulic clutch rebuild from the master cylinder all the way down to the plates; springs, bearings and all.

Get the idea I don't like Fords?

Road Whale - in the name of full disclosure why don't you post the age of those vehicles you purchased. IIRC the F150 was a 1990.

I purchased a used Ranger off of a trusted buddy. It needed a head gasket and brakes. It was worth it since the truck was good otherwise and the cost of repairs put it on par with one that was mechanically sound. I drove it for 3 years and when sold it I calculated the cost of ownership over the 3 years was 800 dollars (not including fuel, oil changes,insurance).

The 1990 F250 I had lasted 15 years without major repairs. Cracked exhaust manifolds were a typical problem with those trucks. I only had to get one replaced. Brakes were routine wear.
The '84 Ranger I had was a low cost unit over the 6 years I had it.
The worst vehicle I has was a Dodge Grand Caravan. Residual value sucked. I got 1,300 for it and incidentally that was what I got for my old F250.

Yeah got that idea but no matter what brand of truck, they all need repair at some point. They are trucks you know.

I agree with Lou. At 25 years old, your argument is invalid.

Also, papa jim said he got $10k off because it was used. To put it bluntly, Papa Jim is lying to you.

The discount is the price of what you would have paid new vs used. Nobody pays MSRP. The buyer would have gotten around $7k off new. He said he got $10 off. Therefore the actual money he got off was $3k.

He also had a tradein so that complecates things. He likely left money on the table there so the real amount he got off was probably $1-2k off for being used.

As to the warranty, the new trucks have 100k 5year powertrain warranties. Since Jim started at 25k, and 1 year old, the warranty became only 75k, 4 years. So Mike is correct in that in that Jim got less warranty.

This true money Jim got off is not worth it to me buying used 1 year old. I understand it may be worth it to others so good for them. We'll just have to agree to disagree and pray that Jim educates himself better next time.

I agree with Ken. $10k off a bottom feeder edition is ok. But anyone can get $7k off. Minus the money he lost on trade it really wasn't that great of a deal. So he got a couple grand off for being used. Big whoop! If it was me I would have just ordered it new for only a couple grand more. The great deals just aren't there for 1 year old used trucks.

In 2010 I started out looking at used trucks. 2-3 year old trucks were selling for close to the same as that of a new truck with discounts. It was a no-brainer. 12k off with full warranty. I was also shopping for a friend and told him to get a new truck. He got a used Chevy. He went pale and very quiet when I told him what I paid.

@Ken you are so full of brown, smelly decaying stomach contents.

I know what I paid. Your comments are based on your guesses. Since you weren't there, you don't know s**t.

I got a killer trade for my Ford and they were trying to sell it 3 months later.

Every post I see you commenting on is s**T.

And your boyfriend just posted on Facebook and he's waiting at the bus station.

@Lou BC

I won't do what Ken just did, because I wasn't there when you bought your F150.

However, I do know that Ford was dying to unload the previous generation engine package, which consisted of 4.6 2 valve engines, the upgrade V8 4.6 three valve engine and the 5.4 Triton. Their six sucked so bad they no longer offered it in pickups, just vans.

These motors were all a bit long in the tooth (19 years?) and Ford wisely replaced that with the Coyote four valve 5.0 and the eco boost.

My point in recounting all of this is that dealers were dying to get the 2010s off the lot.

I find it better to not give advice to people, usually people have already made up their mind as to what they are going to buy. I myself will buy new if there is not much difference in price between a late model used truck and a new one. If you keep a vehicle for 5 years or more depreciation is not that big of a factor. The advice in this article is sound and as Clint stated it is better not to fall in love with a particular vehicle. If you have any doubts about a vehicle it is better to walk away there are plenty more. Patience can be your friend. If you are planning to keep a vehicle for a number of years it is best to follow the recommended maintenance in the owner's manual.

Got my 03 Silverado in 2012 for $6,000 120,000 miles off craig's list. Great truck no major problems I'm the third owner. Trucks a daily driver I put about 35,000 miles on it That 4.8 is an awesome engine, feels like it brand new. You have to know what to look for. LONGEST LASTING BEST BUILT TRUCKS ON THE ROAD.........................................

"Road Whale - in the name of full disclosure why don't you post the age of those vehicles you purchased. IIRC the F150 was a 1990."
-- True. With less than 120k miles on it.
The second is a 1997 Ranger with... get this... less than 20k miles on it when I inherited it.

Of course, that doesn't count the '73 Gran Torino that I had to replace the 302 Windsor with a 351 Windsor or the '75 LTD-II that didn't even have the power to climb a 10% grade with a similar 302 Windsor under the hood (purchased brand new.)

I've never had any luck with Fords whether new or used. I used to swear by GM, but they screwed themselves over royally long before the bankruptcy. So unless something incredible comes out within the next 2-3 years, my next new purchase will be an FCA.

@Roadwhale, Vulpine, etc.,

So unless something incredible comes out within the next 2-3 years, my next new purchase will be an FCA.

Posted by: Road Whale | May 2, 2016 8:54:57 PM

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So, when was the last time you bought a brand new truck?

Papa jim, the biggest piece of bullshat in here is you. Not gonna go to any trouble posting links but if you know how to use a search engine you can see how thin the metal is on GM vehicles. Close the hood by pushing it down dents it. I remember reading a forum where a guy had dents on the cowl and couldn't figure out where they came from. He saw his son washing his truck and leaning over the hood while putting his fingers on the cowl. Takes a complete idiot to call someones post bs without even checking. I hope you're not actually a parent to a child.

@Tom you did not read your post before hitting the button. You make yourself look worse than I could have done to you.

When somebody says "I'm not going to cite anything that backs me up" as proof. Equals idiot!

Tom is full of dog S%$t. GM trucks don't dent easy, Ford's sure did though, Why do they think they changed to thicker beer can AL LMAO!!

Let's not call each other names. There are many good suggestions from the comments on this article. The article itself is good. Clint has some good suggestions as well in that it is better to not get too attached to one truck you are looking at in that if you look further you might find something better. I have mostly bought new trucks because there is not much difference in price between a new truck with a full warranty and one that has a couple of years on it. That is not to say I would never buy a used truck because I have and it was excellent. I keep my options open as to new and used and as to brand. Sometimes if you are patient you can find the one truck that meets your needs and wants.

A few years ago I was offered a 5 speed manual F-150 with low mileage for a reasonable price because the person could not drive a manual anymore. I had 2 trucks in great shape and wasn't interested. If I would have had only one truck I would have looked at this truck and made an offer. One owner trucks with low mileage and complete maintenance records are hard to come by. Sometimes an opportunity to buy a good vehicle comes by when you are not looking.

@Jeff S

the five sp F150 with the 300 straight six was a pretty good package. The five sp with the Essex V6 4.2 was a hit or miss proposition.

The Essex was ok most years but some of them had EGR issues and some had problems with the intake manifold cracking.

The mid 1990s 300 cubic inch motor was a sweet ticket as long as you weren't in a hurry to get anywhere. Very dependable though.

@papa jim--The F-150 was either a 98 or 99, this was about 5 or 6 years ago when I went for an oil change. The F-150 had about 30k miles. I could have had it if I made an offer but I had 2 good trucks. It was a single cab 2 wheel drive which are not as popular but is was a good solid original owner truck owned by an older couple. You are correct about the older straight 6s they were hard to beat for good solid reliability. My old IH had a straight 6 which could not be killed. Most of today's V-6s are fairly reliable and offer good power. Many were critical of the 3.0 V-6s in the older Taurus but my wife had the 24 valve V-6 in hers which had lots of power and was extremely reliable.

I have bought 1 used truck in March of 1987 that was 2 years old at the time with 30k miles. At the time I was moving from Houston to N KY and I was looking for a late model compact truck at an affordable price. I had looked for a while and all that were available had high mileage at higher prices. I found a 85 Mitsubishi Mighty Max with a 4 speed manual and air but no radio or no rear bumper advertised at a local Cadillac dealership for $3,995. It had been on the lot for several months and had been a trade-in with only 30k miles. The dealership was using it as a parts delivery vehicle. It did not have a scratch on it or dent (even the bed). I was able to negotiate the price to $3,550 cash. I put in a radio with a tape deck, a rear bumper, a bed liner, and side tie down hooks. I drove that truck for 14 years and had 200k miles on it.

If I could afford it I would buy new. I'm tired of the long nights and neglecting my family wrenching all weekend long to keep these old a** pos trucks running.

I agree that it is important to test the limits of a truck that you are looking to purchase by being extremely observant while test driving. It seems like a good idea to pay attention to the vehicles alignment, brakes, and suspension. My husband has been wanting to buy a truck for quite a while. We are nervous for undisclosed issues when buying, but test driving may be away to eliminate asymmetric information.

We understand that this one should come off as but natural or through common sense. Howbeit, we chose to stress this one because unfortunately, some truck owners tend to just work with the first truck removal and wrecking company they meet out of convenience – that more often, they tend to disregard whether or not that company is really duly recognised by the government and has the required licenses and certificates in the automotive industry to operate. In addition, you should know if they really and truly use eco-friendly processes in wrecking and disposing old trucks.

Looking to buy me a used Chevy from a neighbor. Havent looked into buying another truck since i bought my F-150 almost 10 years ago. That truck was new at the time & financed. Thanks for this article. Gave me an idea on where to start looking when checking this truck out.



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