Used but Useful

| August 02, 2005

“The slightly older truck with higher miles is more available – trucks that are 4 to 5 years old and over 550,000 miles,” says Freightliner SelecTrucks President Bill Gordon. “It really is the result of major fleets finding that the trucks can accumulate additional miles without extraordinary costs in repairs. They’re also reluctant to order new trucks in substantial number.”

Delays at the plant can be factors, too. “Extended lead times getting new product out of the factory today have caused some fleets to maintain their trucks and continue running them,” Gordon says. “Owner-operators are also hesitant to trade in on a three- to four-year cycle because they’re concerned about the price of fuel and operating costs.”

As supply has dipped, price has gone up. A 5-year-old owner-operator-spec’ed truck with 500,000 miles on it that cost $110,000 new can now cost more than $50,000, depending on condition and options. However, those prices are in line with new trucks, which can now cost more than $150,000 with similar specs, say used truck dealers. In the past two years, the average mileage on used trucks sold by Arrow Truck Sales has gone up 70,000 miles, while the average price has gone up $7,000, Wallace says.

The shortage of 3- to 4-year-old trucks is also affecting auction supplies. “That whole market has dried up considerably,” says Paul Wachter, president of auctioneer Taylor & Martin. “We used to have a lot of repossessions, but that market has gone down dramatically.”

For expanding owner-operators, especially those without big cash reserves, buying used represents a logical strategy to reduce overhead. A truck that’s paid for can sit in lean times. A new truck has to work to meet its payments.

“A lot of my customers who are single operators are doing well and want to expand,” Walker says. “Their shippers are giving these guys an opportunity to put another truck on. They’re typically looking at used. It makes more sense.”

If you’re shopping for used trucks, finding out everything you can about the units you’re considering is essential, says Used Truck Association President Eddie Walker. “Do your homework. Ask where it came from and what maintenance has been performed on it. Know the truck, its service history and the availability of warranty.”

Most used truck dealers will allow your mechanic to inspect units. If they don’t, run – don’t walk – away from the dealer, Walker says. Other advice:

  • Shop a number of dealers.

  • Look at the number of trucks sold by a dealer. “If he is turning equipment over quickly, he’s probably selling a pretty decent truck,” Walker says.
  • Check out the number of hours on the engine, in addition to the mileage. A low-mileage truck may have a high number of idle hours, making the engine much more used than it seems.
  • On trucks with 600,000 miles, check the front end suspension and bushings, says Arrow’s Lee Wallace. Even the rears may be wearing out.
  • Look for units with transferable warranties on key components. Or find large dealers that offer extended warranties and have a network to service those warranties, says Peterbilt’s Scott Pearson.
  • Contact the previous owner and find out the vehicle’s maintenance history.

The drawbacks of older equipment can be overcome, especially if you’re handy with a wrench. And in those cases, used equipment can be quite a bargain.

“More and more buyers are buying a 550,000- or 600,000-mile truck with the belief that that truck has substantial life left in it,” says SelecTrucks’ Bill Gordon.

“I have a diesel mechanic on staff,” says Harlyn Barnes, who runs 10 trucks out of Paducah, Ky. “I also can handle almost all the routine maintenance and repairs. I don’t recommend buying used unless you have the ability to work on trucks or a reliable mechanic on staff.”

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