Buy a Used Truck With the 12 Point Truck Inspection Checklist

When buying a used truck, make sure to do this 12 point truck inspection checklist from our expert mechanics.
By MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
February/March 1992
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If the maze of financing (seemingly laid out specifically to confound new truck buyers) doesn't interest you, then you'll probably be considering a used pickup truck. It's absolutely necessary to be armed with some good advice before you stride onto the used-car lot. Don't let anything rush you. Know what your exact price range is, and don't deviate from that original plan. Find out if the seller has maintenance records available. Not all will, but most conscientious owners keep good records of their maintenance. And don't ever allow yourself to be rushed. Tell the seller that you're going to need 45 minutes to an hour with the truck. If he can't spare the time, you can't spare the money.

We talked to two retired mechanics, Kenny Meade and Donald Ringuette,and here is the advice he felt all used-truck buyers need to know before spending their money.

12 Point Truck Inspection Checklist:

  1. Examine the truck only in daylight; even a well-lit lot will conceal defects and hamper a good inspection. You should also be on level ground in order to check the fluids correctly.
  2. Check each opening and body-panel joint for fit. Run your hand along the bottom of the doors and check for hard, rusty edges. Check the panels along the body from back to front; if they seem wavy or uneven, check them with a magnet (plastic body repairs won't attract a magnet).
  3. If there are any raised spots on the roof, it means rust underneath. A more extended inspection of that area might be necessary if you want to buy that vehicle.
  4. Look at the inside of each tire for signs of leakage (brake fluid, grease) and tread wear.
  5. Raise the hood, remove the radiator cap and take a look at the coolant fluid. Usually it will be greenish in color. If the color seems wrong, or if the fluid has rust in it, the engine will probably have a tendency to overheat. If you are unsure of the quality of the fluid, an inexpensive tester would be a good investment. Next, examine the air filter for excessive dirt, as well the surface of the engine itself. Large amounts of grease or oil deposited on the engine are an indication that it wasn't well cared for. Look for recent engine work, like edges of new gaskets showing. Most engines will go 70,000 to 80,000 miles before any major engine work is necessary, but all motors should be checked thoroughly in case the previous owner's favorite hobby was drag racing. If the car has an automatic transmission, check the transmission dip stick. If the oil on the stick has a burnt smell (like burnt cork), back away! This usually means transmission trouble on the horizon.
  6. Start the engine. Make sure there are no knocks or thuds. These sounds may indicate a bad crankshaft or connecting-rod bearing, and both of them are costly repairs. All trucks should have a high idle setting. Fuel-injected engines automatically set theirs, carbureted engines will require applying some generous gas after starting to set the fast idle. If the idle does not seem right, have the engine checked by a mechanic.
  7. After the vehicle comes off fast idle, put it in drive and set the emergency brake to see if it holds. Put it in park and let it idle while you go to the rear. Use a rag (wad it up) to cover the tailpipe outlet. If you do not feel pressure while holding the rag against the end of the tailpipe, you have a leaky exhaust (often you'll be able to hear such a leak as well). Put your car in drive with your foot on the brake to see if it idles okay.
  8. Check all switches and extras on the car (lights, air, etc.)
  9. Shut off the motor, open the trunk, raise the mat and look for rust. Some light rust will be present even on new cars, but keep an eye out for more severe corrosion. While checking the trunk look at the wiring that crosses the rear, has it been cut and taped for trailer wiring?
  10. Drive the car at least 10 miles, shut the engine off, allow it to cool for a moment and then start it again. If the engine hesitates upon starting the second time, have it checked by a mechanic. Once started, accelerate very slowly to see if the transmission up shifts smoothly. Then check acceleration up to highway speed for engine smoothness. It's always a good idea to take somebody with you on a test drive. The extra rider will be able to notice things like rattle and wind noise that the driver might be oblivious to.
  11. At a safe place, try a panic stop to see if the brakes behave. Next, try a rough road to see if the shocks control after bouncing. Bounce the truck's front end — if it bounces more than three times, the shocks are worn.
  12. Odometer (mileage meter) tampering is still commonly used to deceive buyers. Although gauges in new models are more difficult to tamper with, you should still be careful. If a seller tells you that his '85 pickup has 35,000 miles on it, check for a few things, such as excessive wear on the brake pedal (if the comers are worn away, there's a lot more than 35,000 miles on the truck); wear on the armrests and upholstery; and large numbers of pits on the windshield.

These simple checks won't take long and are about as comprehensive as you can manage without a complete mechanical inspection. If any seller hesitates to allow such an examination, it's a very good indication that you should be looking elsewhere for a truck. With used vehicles especially, the time and care you devote to the search will definitely pay off.

Even after you have inspected some trucks, make sure the truck you are looking for is the right one for you. Read Find the Best Pickup Truck for Your Needs to learn more about your ideal truck.


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