Purchasing a Used Tractor: A Checklist to Consult Before You Buy

Reader Contribution by Monica White
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Although most of us would prefer to own new equipment, sometimes purchasing used makes sense. This is especially true for beginning homesteaders who are still learning about their properties and the repetitive tasks involved in maintaining land and livestock. If you’re in the market for a used tractor, the following advice will help you assess the value and condition of a machine before you make your final selection.

“Let the buyer beware” when it comes to any purchase of used equipment. Even if you feel you know a tractor’s history of use and repair, it’s always a good idea to conduct a thorough inspection before forking over cash and extending that final handshake.

Inspection Checklist

Begin by taking a good overall look at the tractor, observing its general condition and level of cleanliness. A well-cared-for tractor usually indicates one that’s been well-maintained. As you approach the tractor, take a good look at its body parts, noting whether they appear original to that particular tractor. Parts may have been replaced due to an accident. Sometimes, replacement parts lead to additional problems down the line. If you suspect replacements, be sure to ask the owner about them.

Look underneath the tractor to observe the condition of the axles and drivetrain, and check for any excessive leaks. While looking over the body, examine all hoses and belts for cracks and other forms of deterioration, and make sure connection clamps are secure. Check the condition and security of the muffler and exhaust pipe. If you observe a hot or warm exhaust pipe, it could indicate the seller has warmed the engine beforehand to ensure a smooth starting performance. The fuel tank and fuel neck should be rust-free and in good condition. The tractor’s floor pedals should be tight, not wobbly. The same applies to the operator’s seat. Also, confirm the presence of a good working seat belt.

Tractor tires can be expensive, especially the large rear tires. Check the quality of the rubber as well as the treads. Neither should be excessively worn, cracked, or beginning to deteriorate. Check that the rims and valve stems aren’t rusty. Many older tractors have a mix of water and calcium chloride added to the rear tires as a counterweight. The calcium chloride keeps the water from freezing in frigid temperatures. But calcium chloride is caustic, and if the liquid has leaked from the tires onto the metal wheels, it can rust the rims.

Throttle Up

Never turn on a tractor without first being securely settled into the driver’s seat. If you start a tractor while standing beside it, the machine may roll forward unexpectedly, pinning you between the large rear tires and resulting in serious or fatal injury.

Check the oil before starting the engine to make sure it’s not gritty with metallic flakes, or milky (a sign of coolant in the oil). Make sure there’s sufficient lubricant to prevent engine damage during operation. Examine the oil and the oil filter to make sure they’re clean. A date printed on the filter may indicate the approximate date of the last oil change, but there are no guarantees.

Power up the tractor from a cold start, if at all possible. Place the gear in neutral and release the kill switch, if one is present. Turn the ignition key switch to “on.” The tractor should fire up without any hesitation. (Note: The tractor shouldn’t start while in gear.) Gradually rev up the engine to the approximate power takeoff (PTO) range, normally around 2,400 rpm. Then, gradually decrease the engine rev back down to idle. The combustion should sound strong and smooth throughout this process, with no misfires, knocks, or sputtering. Be sure to check the PTO by turning its switch to the “off” position; the PTO should shut off immediately. If it continues to run, this may indicate impending clutch or brake failure.

Use a flashlight and an inexpensive voltmeter to check the electrical components. The alternator output can be tested easily by reading the excess battery voltage supplied by the alternator. With the tractor’s engine running, attach the voltmeter’s black metal rod to the corresponding black terminal on the battery. Attach the red metal rod to the corresponding red battery terminal. A good alternator reading on a 12-volt tractor battery will fall between 14.2 and 14.7 volts. If the reading is outside that range, it indicates an alternator that’s either too weak or too strong.

Turn on both the heater and air conditioner, if the tractor has them. All the tractor lights should work well. Flickering lights or outages could indicate electrical issues. Gauges should read accurately and be fully functioning. Finally, the battery and battery terminals should be free of rust and corrosion.

Test Drive

Approach the tractor test drive with care and caution. Take into consideration that you’re operating unfamiliar equipment in unfamiliar territory.

The test drive should assess the tractor’s ability to handle the features and terrain found on your own property. Make certain the machine is capable of handling the various power needs you’ll require of it. The horsepower of the engine and the PTO should be rated highly enough to meet the many demands essential for your situation. As you progress through the test drive, gradually increase speed, taking the tractor through, at minimum, all of the working gears. Attempt to prove the tractor’s capability and maneuverability. Observe its full range of operating performance in high and low, and forward and reverse. If possible, drive the tractor uphill, downhill, and across grades. Observe the handling performance on each maneuver, and make sure the clutch isn’t slipping.

Check the hydraulics, and that the loader raises and lowers easily. You can conduct a quick hydraulic test by disengaging the brakes and placing the gear in neutral. On level ground, the tractor’s front wheels should become raised – a pretty good indication the hydraulic pump is working properly. If they don’t, there may be further issues concerning the hydraulics and the pump.

If any implements or attachments are being sold with the tractor, check that they’re in good condition, and also make sure the tractor’s coupling mechanism is free of connection issues. The tractor’s steering shouldn’t pull to the left or right. Check the front tie rods by steering left and right; the steering should feel solid and intact, not loose or with play. Check the brakes in tandem and separately, if possible. On many tractors, a lever allows the operator to test the left and right brakes separately. You disengage the left brake to check the right brake, and vice versa.

When you’re satisfied that you’ve fully tested the tractor’s operation, turn the ignition key switch to “off” and pull the kill switch full-out to engage. The tractor should shut down immediately. Finally, examine the radiator’s front cover and fins to make sure they’re in good condition and not bent or dented, and verify that the radiator, transmission, and hydraulic fluids are all clean and not leaking. The weep hole under the tractor should have its cotter pin hanging in place.

Shop Around

Private owners in your area can be a good place to start when shopping for a used tractor. Try looking on,, and Invest time upfront to research recalls and other mechanical issues peculiar to the make and model of the tractor you’re considering.
Also, check for good used machinery at local tractor dealerships with reputable service departments. Some dealerships will fix the tractor on your property or pick up the tractor for servicing. You should also have your own means of transporting a tractor to and from your property.

Whether you’re dealing with a manufacturer, dealership, or private owner, don’t be shy about negotiating the best deal on price, warranties, and financing terms.

And don’t be afraid to walk away if you’re uncomfortable with any aspect of the inspection or any negotiated terms of the deal. You’ll likely get a better deal by waiting than by accepting a bad bargain in the short term.

By staying in the driver’s seat at all times, and with a little prior knowledge and preparation, you should be able to secure a good purchase and reap the full value of a used tractor.

Given the choice of a new or used tractor, most would choose new, but sometimes it makes sense to purchase used. Purchasing a used tractor may not be a bad way to go, especially for beginning homesteaders who are still learning their properties and the repetitive work tasks involved.

This post does not claim to be all inclusive, but is intended to assist those considering a used tractor to make more informed purchasing decisions. It goes without saying of any used tractor purchase, “let the buyer beware.”

You should inspect any tractor that you intend to purchase, even if you feel that you know its history. So before forking over the cash and extending that final handshake, it is worth assessing a used tractor before making a final decision.

Photo by Monica White

Sources of Resale Value of Used Tractors
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Monica White is a freelance writer, member of the Georgia Air National Guard, and an avid runner and cyclist who loves the great outdoors and all things DIY. She divides her time between Tampa and her central Florida property, where she’s growing a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Monica on her outdoor lifestyle blog.

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