Buying a New or Used Tractor: What to Look For

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Which tractor should I buy?

So you've decided to invest in a tractor. Good choice. Tractors are very versatile tools for homeowners and farmers alike, but which one should you buy? The choices are dizzying to say the least, and new tractor prices can rival the cost of a new car so the investment merits heavy consideration. If you choose wisely and follow wise maintenance practices your new tractor can provide you with a lifetime of rewarding use.

What about used tractors? Is a used tractor a good investment? When you look around at the many older models still in use today, I think the answer would have to be a resounding "YES." A good used tractor can still provide many years of service, but again, what should you buy? Is one brand really better than another? Should you buy a gas or diesel model? What should you check before purchasing any used tractor? I'll try to shed some light on a few of these questions.

As far as any particular brand of tractor is concerned, it's mostly a matter of personal or regional preference. In the South “Green” is as good as gold, but in Northern and Midwestern areas, you find more “Red” models. Around here, the majority of small, used tractors are Ford blue. That's not to say there aren't other models around, these just seem the most popular and more affordable in this particular area. Some remember when grandpa bought his first Ford 8n back in the 1950s and farmed a whole 640 acre section with it. Others remember hearing the ol’ “poppin’ John” Deere of the same era. Each make has its own peculiarities and different layout of controls and such, but it ultimately comes down to personal preference far more than anything else. If you have a local dealer for a specific brand, that might come into consideration as to the availability of parts and service, but if you're mechanically inclined, parts for most anything are available via the Internet, even for makes no longer in production. There are a few exceptions, for example the International 414 gasoline model. Certain engine parts for this tractor are no longer manufactured or available. It's a good tractor, and the diesel counterpart is still well supported, but if you strip a distributor drive gear, the entire tractor becomes a yard ornament. I know. I have one.

The diesel engine is superior to the gasoline model in power, torque and longevity. They're just plain built heavier to work harder. The flip side of that is if it breaks, it's expensive to repair, far more expensive than a gasoline model. Diesel shops around here charge $90 and up per hour, and that gets expensive quick. But if you're serious about farming, I would still recommend investing in a diesel. That's not to say that an old reliable gasoline model wouldn’t provide years of good service. In fact, if you live in a colder climate and intend to use your tractor in winter for feeding livestock, dragging firewood or even grading the snow off the drive, a gasoline model would be a good choice as diesels do not like extreme cold. Temperatures below freezing are likely to cause starting problems with a diesel left out in the cold, and much below 30 degrees Fahrenheit you will start having problems with the fuel gelling if you don't add fuel treatments prior. Diesel models can be used in colder climates, but should be parked inside if possible or at least under a shed, and/or electric engine block heaters should be utilized. And definitely treat the fuel in winter!

If you're interested in a particular tractor, try to get a hands on experience with it without advance warning, in other words, show up when it hasn't already been started that day. How an engine starts from stone cold tells you a lot about its condition.

If it's above 40 degrees, a diesel engine should be running within two to three revolutions. My 45 hp Deutz will start in less than one full revolution even with frost on the hood. That's a good tight engine and fuel system. If a diesel turns too many revolutions before firing either the compression is low, or the fuel system, injector pump or injectors are in need of service. You can very easily drop a grand on an injector pump, and half that on injectors. A good, tight diesel engine should have very minimal smoke. It might let out a small cloud at startup, but should clear right up and run with almost no smoke unless loaded heavily.  Diesel engine oil will always be black. If it was changed yesterday and run two hours, it's black. Make sure it doesn't smell burnt though, or smell like diesel — that indicates fuel washing down the cylinder walls and spells trouble.

Gasoline engines should start within a few revolutions from cold if everything is in good order. Again, long cranking times may indicate low compression, or the need for an ignition tune-up which is far cheaper than injectors. There should be no smoke, except for maybe just the slightest bit at startup. If a gasoline engine smokes, you can usually tell if it's fuel or oil by the smell. You know, raw gas has that pungent chemical smell, burning oil smells like ... well, burning oil, more smokey. Fuel problems can be relatively minor and inexpensive to repair. Even replacing the carburetor is likely around $100 or so. Oil smoke means major engine rebuild, which (if you're mechanically inclined) can be done for maybe $500 in parts, but labor would be more than twice that if you have to pay someone else to do it.

Regardless of what type of tractor you choose, there are a few things you should always check before buying. Check that all gears work properly, forward and reverse. Try starting out in the highest gear from a dead stop to see that the clutch doesn't slip, this can be a little tricky, but it will tell you a lot about your clutch. If possible, attach something like a rotary cutter to the PTO and make sure it engages properly with a load. Make sure the lift works strongly. If it's slow, weak or drifts down, it may need repairs. A little drift is acceptable; most older equipment will have some. Check the oil and water and make sure neither is mixed with the other, this would indicate internal engine problems. Look for leaks around the rear axles  at the wheels and around the PTO shaft. They may well be oily and grimy as some leaking is normal, but if it's wet with oil it will need a new seal, not expensive, but you gotta have the skills to replace it.

Finally, older, smaller less expensive tractors can be very tempting, and may suit your needs just fine depending on what you want to do. An 8n, or Cub may suit you fine if you intend to mow a little grass, plow a small garden, maybe drag a few trees. These models could probably be compared to a good mule that doesn't have to be fed every day if not in use. OK, maybe a little better than a mule, but the point is if you've got more time than money, say the $2,000 range, these can be adequate. If you've got bigger fields to plow or loftier plans, if you intend to use your tractor on a weekly basis, I would double the money and move up to a $2,000 to $3,000 Ford, gas or diesel, or 820 John Deere, or 414 International — diesel only.

Good luck, and good tractor hunting.