How to Buy a Used 4X4

An easy guide to purchasing a used hunting or fishing truck by Slaton L. White

One of my father's ironclad rules of life was, "Never buy someone else's trouble." Of course, the first time I heard that pronouncement was right after I came home with my first used car, purchased "as is" from a lot near the construction site where I had sweated out a summer in purgatory carrying armored cable and 3/4-inch electrical pipe.

He told me I had squandered my money. I defended myself vehemently, which triggered another of his aphorisms: "Never argue with an idiot." I stomped off in righteous indignation, but came to my senses when the transmission failed shortly thereafter. I was out $400--a month's pay. At least I didn't make the same mistake twice.

Risky Business: Buying any used vehicle is risky business. Hunters and fishermen interested in four-wheel-drive versions face additional worries, mainly because of the extra driveline components and the wear and tear of hard offroad use.

Still, buying a used pickup or sport utility remains an appealing proposition, mainly because of the attractive purchase price. New 4x4s can easily run to well over $30,000; however, they depreciate quickly, losing (on average) half of their value within three years. By targeting a 4x4 that's three to five years old, you stand to pick up a solid performer at a substantial savings. Also, used vehicles, by and large, are cheaper to insure.

The Search: Let's say you're in the market for a used 4x4. Where do you begin? First, develop a profile of the truck you want. This is necessary because trucks come in many models and load designations. For instance, if you're looking at a full-size pickup, you may face as many as a half-dozen engine combinations, the choice of a manual or automatic transmission, three payload ratings (1/2, 3/4 and 1 ton) regular or extended cab, plus option packages such as heavy-duty suspension, towing, offroad handling, and heavy-duty cooling. The vehicle profile helps keep the confusion manageable.

The profile should also take into consideration the intended use of the truck. For example, are you primarily interested in towing? Or would you rather buy a shorter wheelbase version for heavy-duty offroad use? Do you want plush interior amenities, or do you prefer the truck to have an interior that can be hosed out after an outing in the mud?

The profile can help you intelligently evaluate each prospect and quickly eliminate those that lack the required features. Your individual budget will no doubt be a big factor in determining exactly what kind of truck you end up owning, so you should also develop a list of acceptable tradeoffs that will help you keep within your price range.

The process is a lot like buying a new vehicle: you still want to make sure the intended vehicle is equipped to do the job. The big difference here is that you'll need to thoroughly look over used 4x4s, keeping a sharp eye for signs of abusive wear and tear. Be sure you aren't buying someone else's trouble.

By "wear and tear" I don't mean ordinary dents and scratches. In the 4x4 world, such blemishes can be expected. In fact, some sellers count on being able to pawn off a truck with major mechanical problems by sprucing up the exterior and cleaning up the interior. On the other hand, a truck in perfect working order may have a weathered appearance that could put you off if you don't look beyond the surface.

Follow the lead of a Texas quail hunter who acquired a three-year-old sport utility that had some warts--minor cosmetic problems--but was in great mechanical condition. Describing his purchase he said "This dog can hunt!"

Wear and tear can be a sign that some deeper problems exist, however. Look for signs that indicate corrosion, collisions, leaks, and excessive wear. Always view a used 4x4 during the day, as you can easily miss these warnings at night. Avoid rainy days as well; you won't be able to see any leaks. If possible, have a friend accompany you. Two pairs of eyes are better than one, and some inspection routines need two people. Listed below are some of the things to look for. (See the appendix for an evaluation chart that you can bring with you.)

Step by Step: Examine the outside appearance. Start at one corner and walk around the vehicle, checking the lower areas (the areas most susceptible to corrosion damage) first. Then move to the upper body panels and make another circuit. Does the paint match all around? Color variations, as well as poorly fitting doors, body panels, or hood may mean the vehicle was in an accident. A fresh coat of paint is also suspect. What's it hiding?

Look underneath for puddles, which can mean leaks from the cooling system, transmission, brakes, or engine. Get under the vehicle and check the frame for cracks or other signs of fatigue. Note damage to skid plates, steering linkages, cables, hoses, wire harnesses, and so on. Inspect the suspension (springs, shock absorbers, and bushings), driveline components (shafts and U-joints), and exhaust system for signs of wear and tear.

Is the underside caked with mud and grime? If it is, you'll most likely inherit a corrosion problem. If the pickup has a bedliner, check the surrounding sheet metal for signs of corrosion. Look carefully along the underside of the cargo bed for rust.

How are the tires? Uneven tire wear probably means improper wheel alignment, but it can also be a sign of accident damage. Find out. Don't forget the spare, and make sure the jack and other tire-changing equipment are in place and in good working order.

Push down on each corner of the vehicle. If it bounces more than once before leveling off, it probably needs new shock absorbers. Stand about 10 feet in front of the truck. Is it listing to one side? If one side of the truck hangs lower than the other, it may need new springs.

Climb inside. If you detect a musty or moldy odor, suspect a wet interior. (If the interior reeks of a heavy masking scent, suspect the same.) Seats should be free of rips and tears, and should not sag when you sit down. All windows should move freely up and down, and all doors should open, close, and lock properly (don't forget the tailgate). With your helper outside, turn on the lights (low and high beam), turn signals, back up lights, and so on.
Don't forget to inspect accessory equipment such as caps, roof racks, winches, and brush guards. Check each thoroughly.

Engine: The engine is a big-ticket item. Take the time to evaluate it carefully. Open the hood and look around. Is the engine compartment reasonably clean? A filthy mess of oil and baked-on crud may indicate a lack of routine maintenance. Inspect all hoses and belts. If the engine is warm when you arrive, the seller may be trying to hide cold-start problems.

Look at the tailpipe. Black smoke means a problem with the fuel system, which may be corrected by a simple adjustment. Blue smoke means burning oil, and white smoke (at any other time than start-up on a cold morning) means coolant is seeping into the cylinders.
Here's a simple test: Run your finger around the inside of the tailpipe. Signs of oil moisture point to a "burner." A soft sooty substance suggests periodic cylinder misfire, a retarded spark ignition system, or an overly rich mixture condition. Any or all of these warrant a further check to determine the nature and extent of the problem. For example, a partially clogged air cleaner element (cheap fix) can leave the same signs as an overly rich fuel mixture (expensive fix.) If the material that rubs off on your finger is dry, the engine passes this first step.

Beyond the tailpipe test, there are three basic telltale areas that help you determine the overall health of the engine: cylinder pressure, coolant, and spark plugs.

Cylinder pressure reveals the operating condition of valves, piston rings, valve seals, and cylinder head gaskets, as well as cracks in the head and block. Experienced shadetree mechanics probably have the equipment required for such tests. If you don't have the tools or the experience, don't worry. These tests can be performed by a professional mechanic for you.

Coolant is another important indicator of overall engine health. Remove the radiator cap while the engine is cold. Start the engine and let it warm up by operating it at moderate (2,000 to 2,500) rpm. If bubbles appear in the coolant, as viewed through the radiator fill spout, you may have head gasket or head/block cracks. If possible, drain a small amount of coolant from the radiator until the upper portion of the core is exposed. Look at the condition of the core. It should be clean and rust-free. Gum, sludge, rust, or a combination of all three indicate a lack of proper maintenance.

Spark plugs are, in many ways, the barometer of an engine's condition. This inspection can be performed by you or by a pro. You're looking for dry, clean porcelain and a deposit-free appearance. A tan to light brown coloring on the porcelain insulator and electrode is a good sign of a well-tuned engine. A sooty coating on any part of the plug (center wire, ground strap, or body) often indicates an over-rich air/fuel mixture. A shiny or oily appearance on these parts suggests excessive oil in the combustion chamber. Plugs with a heat range higher than that recommended by the truck manufacturer often indicate that the owner has tried to prevent plug fouling. This requires further investigation.

Small deposits of metal (aluminum, typically) on the porcelain normally mean the engine has been running in detonation (commonly known as knock). This is not good. Knock is a certified engine killer. Move on to another vehicle.

If all plugs appear to be colored acceptably, but one or two fail the test, suspect malfunctioning spark plug wires before you fault the cylinder in question. In fact, comparing the questionable plug readings with the cylinder pressure check will either verify or eliminate bad wires.

Test Drive: If the truck passes muster so far, begin the test drive. The truck should start quickly even when cold, and the transmission should engage smoothly, without loud clanks. The clutch on a manual transmission needs to be checked. If it engages late (pedal almost all the way up) or doesn't have about one inch of free play at the top, it probably needs to be replaced. Find an inclined driveway and try backing up the slope. If the clutch chatters or slips under these conditions, it needs to be replaced. With an automatic, hold one foot on the brake while shifting into drive and reverse. Delays in engagement indicate problems you want to avoid. Have a companion stand behind the truck as you drive slowly away. The vehicle should track straight. If the front and rear wheels are not exactly in line, the vehicle is side-tracking (an indication of serious body, frame, or alignment problems).

On the road, the truck should accelerate smoothly without hesitation or unusual noise, and should not lose power on hills. Roll down the window and listen for excessive noise from the exhaust system. Let off the throttle and listen for rear end noises, and brake often to see if the truck veers to one side. A spongy brake pedal could mean problems with the brake lines. The steering should be smooth and vibration-free, with little free play in the wheel.

On a bumpy section of road, see if the vehicle bottoms out or hops to one side--signs of suspension problems. Listen for squeaks and rattles too.

Shift into high-range and low-range 4WD. Make sure it engages and disengages easily and smoothly. Listen for any loud or unusual noises.

After driving, let the engine idle for 10 minutes. Check for signs of rough idle or overheating. Pull out the automatic transmission fluid dipstick and smell it. If the fluid gives off a burnt odor, serious trouble awaits. Shut off the engine and check the engine oil. It should be clean. Let the truck sit for 5 minutes, then restart it. The engine should kick over immediately.

Home Stretch: If the truck makes it this far, arrange to have a professional 4x4 mechanic (one whom you trust) put the truck on a lift and go over it again. (If the owner hesitates or balks at your request, take it as a sign that something, somewhere, is "real bad wrong" with the truck. Go elsewhere.) Make sure the mechanic checks the front and rear differentials, wheel bearings, U-joints, and axles for signs of damage. Have him prepare a written estimate for any repairs. That way, you'll have some leverage when haggling.

Assuming the truck clears this hurdle, you're ready to make an offer. Prices vary by region and season. You'll probably pay more if you live near a big city, less in a rural area. The old rule was that prices rose in the summer and dropped in the winter. Given the current popularity of 4WD trucks in suburban areas, you very well may see prices rise in the fall as bad weather sets in. Some models also hold their value much better than others. The Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com) can help give you an idea of what the average retail price for the vehicle you're interested in is.

The preceding mainly applies to vehicles that are three to five years old. If your budget requires you to shop for vehicles older than that, you can still follow the basic outline, but obviously you will see many more signs of wear and tear. (Some sportsmen may be looking at vehicles as old as ten years. If that's the case, read on.)

Plain and simple, the whole process--particularly the persistent attention to detail--can wear you out. Here, it helps to be able to summon the exasperating wariness of a big brown trout. Do that and you won't buy someone else's trouble.

The Other Road: Like many young men, Jeremy Cole is no stranger to empty pockets. But this 25-year-old California outdoorsman hasn't let his personal budget shortfalls keep him from pursuing his outdoor passions. Lately, this passion has fueled the desire to own his first 4x4. "The idea," he said, "is to use the truck to get a little farther in. Then I can hike to spots beyond the reach of most fishermen."

Cole realized that a new 4x4 was out of the question. But he was surprised to learn just how expensive the best of the used 4x4s (vehicles three to five years old) have become. "I couldn't believe the prices I saw when I visited a local dealer," he said. "There wasn't anything that I could afford."

Cole's sticker shock is the fallout from the unprecedented popularity of four-wheel-drive vehicles these days. As the prices for new 4x4s skyrocket in response to the demand, the prices for used models are also pulled upward. Unfortunately, this trend leaves outdoorsmen on tight budgets out in the cold.

But Cole was resolute, and his resolve started him down a different road. Once he decided to abandon the safety net (such as it is) of a dealership--which usually offers a limited warranty on what it sells--he realized that his truck was probably within reach. It's a risky road that often requires an investment in sweat equity, but it can lead to a big payoff--as long as you proceed cautiously.

"I started looking through one of those 'auto shoppers' that I found at the 7-11," he said. "The first thing I realized was that I would have to settle for a vehicle far older than what I wanted originally."

In Cole's case, his budget commanded him to look at high-mileage models. When he got to ten-year-old trucks, he started to see prices he could afford.

Cole then checked out government, business, and commercial auctions. (If you go this route, be forewarned: You can get a great deal, but you can also end up with a useless heap. It's strictly caveat emptor.) Then he browsed the Yellow Pages. Under "Trucks and Equipment," he struck pay dirt when he found a local dealer who specialized in brokering used equipment for large companies and public utilities.

Cole stopped by and saw a truck with promise: a 1986 GMC S-15 4x4 pickup with just under 100,000 miles. "It had the 2.8-liter V6 and an automatic transmission," he said. "When I first saw it, it had a pretty ugly ding on the rear panel, rust in the bed, and the shadow of 'So Cal Edison' was still visible where the utility's logo used to be. The interior was worn but undamaged. Overall, it seemed in decent mechanical shape, but it really needed a facelift. The paint had turned to chalk in the hot California sun."

The price was right--$5,000, as is. But before he plunked down his cash, Cole had an expert look over the vehicle for serious mechanical defects.

After the truck passed muster, Cole began the job of bringing the vehicle up to spec. His first job--an affordable body and paint restoration (see appendix).

Where to Buy:

* New Car Dealerships: Prices are usually above book value, but good trade-ins can often be found (they get rid of the heaps). Warranties available.

* Used Car Lots: Some good buys can be had, but many of the worst--wrecks, rusted hulks, recovered thefts, and repossessions--end up here. Use caution. The advantage is that you may be able to buy close to the vehicle's wholesale price.

* Dealer Auctions: If you know someone with a dealer's license, attend an auction with him, and pay him a couple of hundred dollars to act as a middleman. Vehicles are sold at below wholesale prices, come with some guarantee, and are required to have notice of hidden problems.

* Government Auctions: Dirt-cheap, low-option, and usually well worn. Forget military surplus.

* People You Know: This can be the best source because you should be able to get a complete history of the vehicle. The downside is that problems which develop later may strain a friendship. Since you won't get a warranty, perform a thorough inspection before you buy.

* People You Don't Know: You'll have almost no practical legal recourse if something goes wrong later, so proceed with caution. Good buys can be found, however, which justifies the risk. Most likely you'll phone the owner in response to an ad. Many vehicles are grossly misrepresented, so ask specific questions. For example, "Is there any rust showing?" is better than, "Is it in good condition?" Ask to see the service invoices. The more frequently the oil and filter have been changed, the better.