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What to Look for When Buying a Used Truck

Looking to purchase a used truck? Be on the lookout for these common issues. Here is what to look for when buying a used truck.

These Trucks May Not Be New, But They’ll Work

2022 Ford F-150 - ford.com
2022 Ford F-150 - ford.com

Pickup trucks were originally built for use by businesses or out on the farm. Today, the modern truck isn’t just for work, they’ve turned into daily drivers that are purpose-built to haul your whole family around and tow your toys for a weekend of fun. They’ve got all the power to tow a full-size camper trailer and a functional bed that can carry heavy loads, while also providing a buff exterior, spacious interior, and a ton of features to make driving a truck an enjoyable affair.

Not everybody can afford to go out and purchase the best brand-new truck when the basic base models feature a price tag of over $30,000. That leaves us with the used truck market. Used trucks may have the added miles, a little age, and not all of the latest tech, but they check the boxes where it counts for a fraction of their original price. Buying used can be the smart choice here for the budget savvy, that is, if you know what to look for when buying a used truck.

What To Look for When Buying a Used Truck

Ford dealership
Ford dealership

When buying a used truck (or any used vehicle for that matter), you should look it over with a keen eye and take note of any issues you can bring up with the dealer. This can act as leverage for you when negotiating price or steer you away from a potential headache and towards a better used option. There’s a lot more to think about beforehand though too. You can find tons of used trucks for sale online that come in a multitude of different years, sizes, styles, and amounts of power. We crafted a list of helpful things to think of and do so that you know what to look for when buying a used truck.

What Are You Towing?

2018 RAM 2500 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com
2018 RAM 2500 - media.stellantisnorthamerica.com

First things first. Do you plan on towing something? A boat? A camper? Whatever you plan on hooking up to the hitch, you’ll want to choose a used truck that can accommodate the weight. Not every truck is ready to pull 10,000 pounds around behind it, so you’ll want to figure out what size truck and what kind of power you’ll need for your specific scenario. 

If you’re planning on doing some serious towing, a heavy-duty truck is the option to be on the lookout for. These beefy trucks can tow anywhere from 12,000 pounds to over 35,000 pounds when properly equipped. The typical engine in this category of truck will be running on diesel, but gasoline options are out there too. This is also where you’ll find the dually trucks that feature two wheels on either side of the rear axle. A dually setup helps with trailering, payload, and is commonly used in conjunction with fifth wheel or gooseneck trailer setups. Common models in this heavy-duty truck category are the Ford Super Duty F-250, Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD, GMC Sierra 2500HD, Ram 2500, and Nissan Titan XD.

2014 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 - media.chevrolet.com
2014 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 - media.chevrolet.com

Lighter duty full-size trucks can also handle some extensive towing, but not the substantial numbers that heavy-duty options can. These trucks can handle between 5,000 to nearly 14,000 pounds depending on model and configuration. Full-size pickup trucks are one of the most popular vehicles purchased every year throughout the in the United States, with the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado 1500, and Ram 1500 topping the list.

The next choice is more for the adventurers out there that don’t need to tow too much. Mid-size trucks have grown in popularity thanks to niche experiences like overlanding or crafting prerunners, plus they offer a more maneuverable truck for in town too. These moderately smaller trucks can still do some towing if they’re set up right, with towing figures being as low as 3,500 pounds or as high as 7,700 pounds. Your mid-size truck options to look for are the Toyota Tacoma, Honda Ridgeline, Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Jeep Gladiator, Ford Ranger, or Nissan Frontier.

2005 Subaru Baja - media.subaru.com
2005 Subaru Baja - media.subaru.com

For those of you that don’t care for towing and just want the utility of a bed mixed with the smaller size of a car, you could look at the utes of old like the El Camino or Subaru Baja. Those are kind of a grey area when it comes to being considered trucks, but there are compact trucks that serve that same purpose. The original Ford Ranger or the Chevrolet S-10 could be considered when used truck shopping and there are even more recent compact trucks too. The Hyundai Santa Cruz and Ford Maverick only recently came on the market, but there are some used examples floating around out there. Going for a compact truck provides you with better gas mileage, a smaller size to work with, and a useful truck bed. Compact trucks are still capable of towing too, but it isn’t always recommended.

How Many People Need to Fit?

2014 Ford F-150 Extended Cab - carsforsale.com
2014 Ford F-150 Extended Cab - carsforsale.com

Now that you’ve nailed down some of your towing, you’ll want to take note of who all is coming along for the ride. Trucks come in a number of different cab configurations that fit different needs for different passenger scenarios. If you’re strictly doing work and may only bring along a single passenger, a two-door regular cab will fit the bill. Maybe you need some impromptu rear seating or a bit of extra cab space for storage? An extended cab will introduce a little space behind the front seats along with some folding rear seats to accommodate additional passengers and sometimes a half door is built in for ease of access.

Next up is the crew cab which, as the name implies, can help in bringing the whole crew wherever you’re going. Crew cabs feature four full doors and about the same interior space as you’d find in a mid-size SUV. Finally, there’s the mega cab, a longer cab design that really opens up the interior for a crazy land yacht experience. This option is pretty rare today, so you’ll be fronting some extra cash – even on the used market.

2011 Nissan Titan Crew Cab - carsforsale.com
2011 Nissan Titan Crew Cab - carsforsale.com

One final note here, keep in mind that the difference in interior space between a mid-size truck crew cab and a full-size truck crew cab can be noticeable. So, if you don’t want your rear seat passengers to be cramped on long trips, you may need to scrap those mid-sized plans and spring for a full-sized truck when out used truck shopping.

How Big of a Box Do You Need? 

2019 Ford Ranger - media.ford.com
2019 Ford Ranger - media.ford.com

The next part to keep in mind is how often and what you are loading into that bed. Do you have an ATV that’s being loaded up in there from time to time? Are you planning to be the person people ask to help move a king size mattress across town? You’ll want to consider both the bed length and payload capacity that you think you’ll need for your specific scenario. You’ll also need to consider that your cab preference will dictate what size box you can have and what kind of truck you pick can limit your payload capacity. For instance, a Ford Ranger with a crew cab is only available with a five-foot bed and payload maxes out at about 1,905 lbs. Meanwhile, a Ford F-350 crew cab can feature either a six- and three-quarter foot bed or a full eight-foot bed with a max payload of just over 7,000 pounds.

What Are Your Must-Have Features?

What kind of tech or special features do you want in your truck? A nice stereo, plush seating, trailer assistance tech, built in bed storage, it can be whatever you want. Write down a quick list of anything you think would benefit your experience with a used truck.

What’s Your Used Truck Budget?

Person figuring out their budget
Person figuring out their budget

Now we’re venturing into the less fun part. What is your actual budget for this used truck purchase? You’ll want to get those numbers all figured out and establish if you’re trading in another vehicle, financing, and if you’re saving any of this budget for building this used truck to your liking.

What Can You Live Without?

Now that we have the budget in place, you’ll unfortunately want to look back at your preferences list and establish what you can live without. I know, there’s probably a specific truck in mind and you’ve crafted your dream daily on paper, but if all these specifics point to a used truck that isn’t in your set budget, you’ll have to make some compromises. Once you have the strict needs vs wants down, it’s time to start shopping.

Find More Than One Used Truck Option

2020 RAM 1500 Classic - carsforsale.com
2020 RAM 1500 Classic - carsforsale.com

I know some of you out there are brand loyal, but widening your options to other trucks that fit your needs will help you end up with a great used truck in the end. Look across the different competitors and even within the same brand’s options. If you’re shopping for something like a Ram 1500, consider the Ram 1500 Classic or even a Chevrolet Silverado 1500. Even if you are going to stay loyal to one type of truck, look around your local market a bit. Some dealers may have that used truck you’re set on with lower miles or have a slightly older version of the truck that’s got all of the options on it for the same price. Essentially, establish multiple used truck options and cast a wide net so that you can secure the best deal.

Establish the Maximum Mileage and Truck Age

While you’re looking through all of those Carsforsale.com listings, be sure to filter your search with the year range and mileage range. These helpful filters will narrow the results down to a set range you feel comfortable shopping within. You’ll want to weigh what matters more to you here as well, age or mileage. While you can have a low mileage truck from the 90s for the same price as a high mileage truck from the 2010s, that older truck won’t have very many modern advancements and age can lead to issues as well.

Speaking of Carsforsale.com’s filters though, be sure to use the other helpful filters we provide for transmissions, engines, drivetrains, fuel types, and more to really make used truck shopping a breeze.

Understand Known Issues with Your Choices

2007 Ford F-250 6.0L V8 - carsforsale.com
2007 Ford F-250 6.0L V8 - carsforsale.com

Now that you’ve made a list of some choices for your next used truck, you’ll want to do a bit of research. Older trucks all have their known issues that are either easy fixes or reoccurring headaches. For example, Dodge Ram 1500s built before 2000 are known for having transmission failure, the 6.0L Powerstroke found in Ford Superduty trucks from 2003 to 2007 is notoriously flawed, or the Chevrolet S-10 from 1994 to 2004 has some starter issues (especially after having sat for a bit).

Ask About or Look Up the Truck’s History

Now that we’re starting to narrow in on the used truck choices, get some history on your picks. You can either get a free vehicle history report online if you have the vin or you can ask the salesman in person about the previous owner(s). A truck’s history can be an important piece of the used car shopping puzzle. The difference between fleet truck use and personal use can paint a better picture of what kind of stress a used truck has undergone.

If you’re able to get a vehicle history report, you can find out if the truck is a salvage title, how many times the title has changed hands, if there are any open recalls, if there has been any undisclosed damage, or find out if the odometer is true to the report. Better yet, once you see the truck in person, look in the glove box for a possible maintenance history. A well-maintained, high-mileage truck can be a heck of a bargain.

Check For Rust

Wheel arch rust
Wheel arch rust

Now we’re venturing onto the dealership lot to take a look at your used truck choices up close and personal. The largest thing to look for is an all-too-common issue in the Salt Belt – rust. Some surface rust is to be expected from time to time, however, if you notice that truck frame rails rotting away and looking like Swiss cheese, time to move on to the next choice. Some have taken to putting an undercoat on the bottom of trucks that is supposed to protect the frame from rust, but if this is performed after rust is already prevalent and not done properly, then this can actually accelerate the oxidation process leading to a larger problem that’s just been painted over.

The five common areas to check for rust on these old trucks are the wheel arches, rocker panels, quarter panels, the aforementioned frame rails, and the floor pans. That last one you’ll need to either pull up some carpet or take a good look from under the vehicle. If you experience rust there, then the exterior elements can make their way into the cab easier leading to mold and further rust damage to the floor pans. Once a floor pan gives way, you can get a nice look at the road beneath you while sitting in the cab. Obviously, that isn’t a sight you want to see.

Check the Suspension

Leaf spring suspension
Leaf spring suspension

Next up is taking a look at the suspension. Suspensions are important in trucks as they keep the ride stable and are important to both towing and payload tasks. Problems with the suspension can be more noticeable during a test drive, so you can revisit this one after taking a test drive. If the truck seems to be leaning in one direction or sitting lower than it should be, this can be a sign of worn or damaged struts.

A test you can do on the suspension to check it is just putting a little weight on the truck and listening for a squeaking or creaking sound. If you start to get into the cab or sit on the tailgate and it sounds like an old trampoline, that can mean issues with a handful of suspension components. When you take a look behind the wheels, take note of any cracked or broken components, excessive rust, or oily shock absorbers. That last one can mean that the shock absorbers are leaking fluid and aren’t going to work very well.

Check the Tires

Checking over a tire
Checking over a tire

It’s a used truck, so it’s going to have some used tires. The dealership may have polished them up a bit to look nice, but take a careful look at that rubber. Check that the tread is good, wear isn’t uneven, and that they’re the correct tire for the truck. Having some big mud chucking treaded tires may make a used truck look beefier, but if they aren’t installed properly with the correct changes to ride height and steering components, you can experience an annoying time behind the wheel just trying to take the truck around corners.

One other important piece to take note of is the age of the tire. Check that the rubber isn’t cracking and also check the tire identification number. This series of eight to thirteen letters and numbers is imprinted on the sidewall of the tire to help identify a number of different things including when it was made. After the year 2000, the week and year that the tire was made is found in the last four digits of the tire identification number. The first two are the week and the last two are the year. If you find the tires are older than ten years, they’ll most definitely need to be replaced. Most manufacturers recommend replacement after six years too, so take that into consideration if they’re under that ten-year mark.

Pop the Hood

Checking under the hood
Checking under the hood

Popping the hood of a used truck can answer a couple of things. The first part is in relation to the suspension again, and that’s checking that the strut towers are in good shape. If those are rusted and having the struts poking through, that’s going to be an issue that needs to be addressed. Looking towards the engine, you want to do some of the normal checks you would do if you were checking your own vehicle. Check the fluids, timing belt, air filter, and the battery plus its connectors.

It also is a good idea to start the engine with the hood open so that you can get a good understanding of how the truck is running and if anything sounds like there’s a problem. With the truck started, take note of any lights on the dash (and make sure the check engine light isn’t covered with electrical tape). If the truck is showing a warning light, ask to check what codes the computer is throwing so that you can know if it’s something major or something as simple as a new fuse.

Take Note of Aftermarket Parts

1999 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 with lift kit - carsforsale.com
1999 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 with lift kit - carsforsale.com

While performing these different checks all around the vehicle, look for aftermarket parts. Lift kits, special wheels, special shocks, performance engine parts, or anything else that clearly isn’t from the original manufacturer. While these special parts can act as a bonus to the used truck purchase, they also pose the question of if the person that installed it knew what they were doing. Anyone can install an aftermarket part, but that doesn’t mean it was done right. Try and get some information about these aftermarket additions before you end up with somebody else’s half-baked project truck.

Take it For a Test Drive

Something you should do with any used vehicle purchase, not just a truck, is take it for a test drive. Feeling how a truck runs and rides can help you better understand what you’re getting into. Even after looking over all the areas mentioned above, you can’t catch everything. Driving the truck can tell you if there’s an overheating problem, if the ride is jarring from a busted suspension, if steering has issues, plus plenty of other complications with the potential purchase.

If you aren’t very vehicle savvy and want another opinion, see if you can take the truck to a trusted mechanic. They can act as a neutral party that is only there to gain your trust as a potential customer and can help point out any issues a used truck may have.

Go Out and Get Your Truck

Receiving keys to purchased vehicle
Receiving keys to purchased vehicle

Hopefully this helps you understand what to look for when buying a used truck and gets you the truck you’ve been wanting. Remember, if you find any issues with a potential truck you’re looking at and don’t want to miss out on it, you don’t have to walk away. Bring those issues up with the dealer and they may be willing to further negotiate the price down to account for a worn part or old tires. Then you can use that portion of the budget to get your new purchase into shape and start towing, mudding, or whatever you plan on doing with it.

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Jesse McGraw

Jesse McGraw brings his life-long car obsession into his writing. A fun childhood that involved growing up around race tracks, working on a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, and collecting Hot Wheels developed into a strong appreciation for automotive history. If there is an old, obscure, or rare car, he wants to know about it. With a bachelor's degree in Web Development & Design from Dakota State University, Jesse can talk shop about car or computer specs, focusing on classic cars, imports, and car culture.

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