Just like back in 4-H and FFA, you want to learn how to separate the Grand Champion Bull from the bum steer that someone is steering you toward when looking for your best-used truck!
This is the report that requires work. You are in charge. You're the customer. Find out the facts about the trucks that are important to you. Where I sold trucks last, if the customer had doubts about the condition of a used truck, I would drive it in the shop where there was room and get a creeper for the customer to roll under the truck and look for oil leaks and old mud caked in the frame from extreme off road use. Some used vehicles tour auctions from around the country and come from the last hurricane, tornado or flood area. It's a smart thing to wonder about a truck that has sand and mud stuck to the starter and where do you suppose the seaweed wrapped around the U-joint came from?
When I was an auto broker with AAA Auto Club, some of the members we helped buy vehicles for, would bring along a mobile mechanic to check out a used vehicle. That's a good idea, or take the used truck that you've narrowed down, to a trusted mechanic. The mechanic will have list of checks to know if the truck's drive train is sound along the engines computers and sensors. If you are an AAA member, they have a great service to certify mechanics that you can trust.
Now get your creeper, flashlight, notepad and oil rag to have some fun on test-drives. And take long test-drives. Forget the short route with only right-hand turns that your salesperson was taught to take you on. It's your money, your time and your fun!
- Shake rattle and role. Does the truck vibrate excessively at idle? Does it shimmy at highway speeds? Does it need just tire balancing or bigger parts? Oil slicks, I thought the oil went INSIDE the engine. Is oil dripping from the transmission, engine, differential, power steering, transfer case etc.? Are those same components wet with oil? Any thing else leaking, gas, antifreeze, brake fluid? Any smoke from the exhaust? Is it black, blue or white? Any holes in the bed? Are they from toolboxes or a trailer hitch?
- You can get the TSB (Technical Service Bulletin) on the truck you're looking at. It will show the recalls and what modifications are sent to dealer service departments to fix known problems. Not all of it may pertain to your truck.
- Do a CarFax report on the truck. Some dealers are doing this now for you. You'll want to know if the truck has a clean title or salvage title. Also take the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number usually on the left base of the windshield) to a dealer for the brand of truck you are looking at and have the service department check the history with the brands national database. Then you will know if there are any open recalls or known problems. And they can tell you if there is any remaining factory warranty left. Don't assume if the truck has less than 36,000 miles that there is warranty left. Some factory buy-back lemons go to auction and back to a car lot with low miles and no warranty.
- Find out the rear axle ratio. Most trucks will have the axle code in the driver doorframe or in the inside of the glove box door. There is usually a tag on one of the differential bolts with the ratio info on it, (another reason for bringing your own creeper.) When in doubt get the service department to help you decode it. 3.55 rear axle ratio will pull smaller trailers with a ½ ton. 3.73 is better for medium loads and 4.10 does best for your biggest loads. 3.73-axle ratio is the only way the GM Duramax diesel comes. With Ford you have to go to a F350 dually to get the 4.10 option. 3.73 was standard, 3.55 is standard starting in 2008. Dodge diesels can have 3.55 or 4.10 in 2002 and older, 3.73 or 4.10 in the 2003-2006 model. 2007 plus, has an optional 3.55 axle ratio.
- Look under the surprisingly new bedliner to see what the bed floor really looks like. A lot of the time the new bedliner is there to hide the holes from the gooseneck hitch. I don't worry if a truck has a rear receiver hitch especially if it was part of a factory tow package. But a hole or holes in the bed where a fifth wheel or ball was attached might be a truck to avoid unless it's exceptional in every other way. There is no way of knowing how big a trailer was pulled with the truck. Most of the folks I know, who pull trailers, usually pull a little too heavy. If the truck pulled a trailer that was thousands of pounds over the capacity, (like I would) it can strain the drive train and give you premature transmission, clutch, U-joint and axle replacement.
- If you're looking at an automatic transmission, be sure to look for an external tranny cooler. No I'm not talking about the lines that go through the radiator, but a separate cooler in front of the radiator. If you are sure the truck didn't pull a trailer in a previous life, then you can add an external tranny cooler if the rest of the truck checks out.
- You've been told this for years, but it's still true. Sell your trade yourself for the most money. And it's easier to know where you are in the deal if you're just working with the numbers on one truck, not a truck and a trade-in.
- If the VIN checks out and the service records show the truck is clean, bring your creeper and roll underneath and look for abnormalities in the frame and look for evidence of being used off-road a lot. You know, the caked in clay inside the frame channel and bent steel brake lines and rusted shocks. Make sure the differentials, transfer case, engine and transmission aren't leaking. If you have remaining bumper to bumper factory warranty, what you find will be fixed, but if there are a lot of things wrong it will cost you too much time. Check the gaskets around the driver door, the threshold and the carpet to see if the wear matches the miles on the odometer. Check the paint for over spray by the door hinges, hood hinges and where the fenders meet the liner. Try each gear including reverse with the brake on to see how fast it engages each gear and how much play, (roll) it has. If it moves too much before you fill the axle move, you could have wear in the pinion gear or u-joints. If you hear too much noise in the tranny when you engage, then there is another problem. Once again if the truck has factory warranty, all these things can be fixed and you have peace of mind, I just don't want to see you with chronic problems. The mechanic can check how the tranny engages. And the normal stuff, seeing what comes out of the exhaust, water, oil or carbon monoxide. Checkout the 4x4, if a shift on the fly, engage the button or dial, put in 4x4 hi with the hubs in auto or lock and do the circle to see if it hops. This is what you want. Then stop the truck and put in 4x4 lo and drive slower in a circle. And if manual 4x4 do the same with the floor lever and the hubs engaged. The mechanic will have list of checks to know if the truck drive train is sound and checking computers and sensors. Some trucks have solid hubs, so they are always on and you just engage the transfer case with a lever or switch.
- Newer trucks with diesels will have 5 year or 100,000 mile warranty from the factory when new, so as I stated above, have the VIN checked with the same brand service department to see if there is any warranty left. On a diesel it's important to have the mechanic check the radiator fluid and maybe have it tested for metal and oil. And the other side, check the oil and see if any water in it. With diesels it's important the radiator fluid had a conditioner added at the right service interval. If the radiator fluid gets bad it can pit the sleeves and water jacket called cavitation.
- One way to look at buying a truck new or used is your future needs. Find the salesperson and dealership you trust and build a relationship. There are some good ones out there. The month I got out of the business, my oldest son rolled his truck and we had to go truck shopping. I had forgotten how hard it was. We started out going dealer to dealer, reading the paper, looking on the Internet and I just tagged along as dumb ole dad playing with my granddaughter. After my son and daughter-in-law got tired of the search and after changing their mind several times on which vehicle would work for them, they felt like most folks car shopping, frustrated! I got on the cell phone and called one of the veteran salespeople I bought from and trusted as an auto broker. I told him what they wanted and then we went and picked it up. Of course I have the advantage, knowing the dealer cost of vehicles and who to trust. But the point I was trying to make to my kids was, you're going to buy a lot of vehicles over your lifetime. Find the salesperson and dealer you trust and build a relationship and send them your friends. You still need to do price research to keep everyone honest, but in the same areas of the country used and especially new, cost all the dealers very close to the same. I would think a positive relationship with a salesperson and dealer you trust would take some of the stress out of something you will do over and over again.