Our Top Tips for Buying the Right Used Semi Truck
Whether you’re a company driver looking to start out on your own, or a seasoned owner-operator just looking for an updated model, buying a used semi truck is not a simple process. Finding trucks can be hard; deciding what’s going to be the best option can feel like guessing; and getting a good deal can be a delicate balancing act. But with a little bit of preparation and a good sales rep, the buying process gets a lot easier.
We’ll walk you through deciding on your wants and needs for a used truck, finding options for sale, and assessing those options to determine the right truck for you.
A Note About the Supply Chain: As the market stands in January 2022, the supply chain for new trucks is still extremely delayed. This inevitably means that owners are holding onto new trucks longer than they might otherwise, driving down used truck inventory. With inventory levels as low as they are, trucks meeting your minimum requirements are going to be few and far between. The consensus among our used truck sales managers, each with decades of experience, is when you find something that works for you, grab it, because you won’t find another one quickly.
Are the supply chain issues driving you crazy? Check out our tips for managing through the problem!
How to Choose a Used Semi Truck
Before you start calling up dealerships, you should decide what you need in a truck versus what’s just a want. During your first meeting with a sales rep, you need to communicate that information along with your expectations for your truck. Knowing what you need in a truck will help you find a truck you’ll be happy with and help your sales rep sort through their inventory faster.
The Features You Need in a Semi Truck
First, the needs. These are non-negotiable; what aspects of a truck are going to be make or break. Ask yourself these questions:
What is my budget?
Get specific and have an honest conversation with yourself.
- What monthly payment is going to fit comfortably in your budget and what might be a bit of a stretch? Don’t expect interest rates similar to those of personal vehicles. Semi truck financing rates are usually in the mid-teens.
- What down payment do you have available? A solid down payment should be in the 10s of thousands of dollars.
- Also consider, if you have a trade-in, what the value of that is going to be. Condition is everything with used trucks, so assume you’ll get less than the sticker price.
At TEC, we invest in our used trucks, inspecting and reconditioning the powertrain, repairing any body or paint damage and giving them a thorough detail inside and out.
Not sure how much truck you can afford? Talk to our financing team.
Do any of my hauling contracts have terms I need to meet?
If you have a contract with a fleet, they may have requirements for your truck. You never want to end up in a position where your new truck is what’s losing you your contract.
How long will I be away from home, and will I team drive?
If the majority of your work is local, you probably don’t need a sleeper. But if you’re mainly working OTR, a sleeper is a must.
What kind of trailers am I hauling?
What you’re hauling determines how many axles you need. If your work is a lot of doubles, you might not need three axles.
Manual or Automatic?
Often this comes down to personal preference, but automatic (AMT) transmissions can have a big impact on how tired you feel at the end of a long drive. And if you don’t have a ton of experience with a manual, purchasing one may not be the best call.
The Features You Want in a Semi Truck
Once you have your needs listed out, you’ll have a much smaller list of used trucks to look at. Then you have to figure out your wants and prioritize that list. If you get very lucky, you won’t have to compromise on your wants, but more than likely, you’re not going to find everything you’re looking for in a used truck.
What make of semi truck do I want?
Decades ago, buying one make of truck over another could get you a very different experience as a driver and as an owner. Today, most manufacturers are extremely similar. Whether you buy a Volvo, Mack, Freightliner or something else, you’re likely going to end up with a truck that is going to get the job done.
But you also have to keep in mind that semi trucks do a lot of work every day, and that requires consistent maintenance. A factory or extended warranty can provide some peace of mind. Everyone has a different opinion on which makes are the most reliable, which are the most serviceable, etc. So, just go with what you like or what you’re most comfortable with.
What make of engine do I want?
Engines are less similar than truck makes, but when you look at the top three manufacturers, Volvo, Cummins and Detroit, the experience and performance is very much the same. The make you want is less important than the horsepower your work requires.
But don’t just consider the engine itself. You also need to look at serviceability. TEC has Volvo engines covered, as do all the Mack and Volvo dealerships across the country. As the largest manufacturer with over 3,700 service locations (including 16 TEC locations), your Cummins engine will have manufacturer-trained service no matter where you go. With Detroit, you’re covered by their 700 service locations. And if you have a long relationship with service locations along your route, you’ll want to keep their capabilities in mind.
Still struggling to decide which engine is the right choice for you? Read through our Mack engine guide.
Once all those big decisions are out of the way, you’ll also want to think about what exterior features you’d like in a truck.
- Hood mirrors or no?
- What about fairing size and placement?
- How big of a fuel tank do you want?
- Do you need a grille guard?
- Any color preference?
Many of these things are easy enough to add after purchasing so they only factor in if you have some close contenders, but it’s still useful to lay out your preferences on these things.
And remember, if the truck lacks something you really want, you can always talk to your sales rep about rolling the cost of the addition into the financing. Don’t let a good truck go just because it’s missing something small.
Once you know whether you need a sleeper, the interior features become less and less important. And much like exterior features, these are things that could be added to the purchase price of the truck or added on later. New trucks come with tons of slick amenities, but upgrading the interior of a used truck is an easy aftermarket job that our Service department can do for you.
Once you have your list of needs and wants, you’re ready to start looking.
How to Find a Used Semi Truck for Sale
With so many selling websites, both semi truck-specific and more general, finding a semi truck has almost become the easiest part. But, at the end of the day, there are essentially three places to buy a used truck: a dealership, an auction or a private seller. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method that we’ll discuss later on.
Either way, when you’re looking to purchase a used truck, your best first step is checking out our available inventory. Our inventory changes constantly, so if you don’t find what you want, give us a call! When searching for used semi trucks on Google, among the top results, you can expect to see a few classified ad-type websites that cater to heavy-duty equipment, along with some larger dealerships like us.
Two of the bigger semi truck selling websites you can expect to see are Truckpaper and Commercial Truck Trader. Both have classified-style listings and feature the full inventories of hundreds of dealerships, TEC included. Commercial Truck Trader also features listings from private sellers.
You may also find heavy-duty trucks on more general selling websites like eBay and Craigslist or even on Facebook Marketplace. There are deals to be had online, so browse around! But be careful; purchasing things online, especially big ticket things like semi trucks, can be risky.
OEM-affiliated dealerships aren’t going to be the lowest-priced option, but the best deals aren’t always the lowest price. And there’s a reason so many truckers choose to purchase from dealers. The biggest benefit is support. Buying a truck from a dealership gets you a sales rep on your side, who can help you out if there’s a problem with your truck. That sales rep can connect you with people in the dealership’s parts and service departments. So when you’re ready for maintenance or something breaks, you already have a connection there. Sometimes, sales reps can even get you in the door for service faster.
With a dealership, you’re also getting the experience of the entire sales team. They can connect you with financing options, like our in-house financing team here at TEC. If it’s your first time buying a truck, having an expert on your side can make the whole process easier and faster. Dealerships can also offer extended warranties to help protect you from big bills down the line.
When you buy from TEC, you’re also getting the strength of our entire network of 28 locations on your side. So when something goes wrong or you just need a oil change, one phone call to TEC can get you mobile service, a tow truck, an open service bay or whatever you need to get up and running again.
Auctions are the least common way for a driver to purchase a truck for one big reason. While the prices can often be super low, you’re buying a truck ‘as is’ with no inspection. So if all the injectors are 5 minutes from busting, you won’t know until the truck is your responsibility. Auctions are always a guessing game in terms of condition. You could get a truck that lasts you 10 years on the cheap, but you’re just as likely to end up with a truck that costs you more than it’s worth. Auctions are a big case of buyer beware.
Private sellers are usually priced lower than dealerships. Because you’re buying the truck directly from the original owner, they can charge a lower price. You’re also right in front of the owner, so you’ll have more opportunity to ask questions about the history of the truck and its service history.
Private sellers can also have some big downsides. Sellers can often be hard to track down if there are any issues down the line, and if something serious goes wrong with the truck, there’s not much they can or will do. Once the papers are signed and money changes hands, you’re on your own with that truck. If you choose to purchase from a private seller, make sure you have the truck inspected by your mechanic before you buy. When purchasing from a private seller, you also don’t have any options for extended warranties, and you’re on your own for financing.
Ultimately, when you buy from a dealership, you get an entire network of support for after the purchase. But if your only concern is getting the lowest-priced option, a private seller or an auction might be for you. Whichever route you choose to go, don’t discard the other options before you see what’s out there. It never hurts to explore what all is available.
What is the best used semi truck to buy?
That’s a hard question to answer because there’s no right answer. While our used truck sales team agrees on a lot, the best semi truck isn’t one of them. Some of the reasons people cite for their preferences are that the Volvo and Mack engines get excellent fuel economy (read our tips for getting better fuel economy, no matter what you drive) or that Freightliner sells more trucks nationally than other makes. We also hear that Volvos tend to have the most comfortable interior, or that Mack is great for heavy haul.
Ultimately it comes down to what you as an owner need and want from a truck. Everyone is going to have a different answer. What might be the perfect truck for you may not be the perfect truck for someone else, even if their work is similar to yours. As a Volvo and Mack dealer, we tend to purchase more of those trucks for our used fleet, but our used truck sales team knows that those makes aren’t everyone’s preference, so we buy and sell all makes and models of used semi truck.
When comparing two semi truck manufacturers, most makes are going to come out nearly the same. That may not be true of trucks from previous decades, but as engineers have innovated, all makes are moving closer to the most optimized and efficient truck. So if you’re looking for a truck with great fuel economy and a really comfortable ride, you can’t go wrong. Feel free to choose the make based entirely on personal preference.
How to assess a used semi truck?
Once you’re in front of a truck, you have to ask yourself, “is this truck going to work for me?” Take the time to look the truck over, look at the condition of the components, look for rust and wear. And most important, ask the sales rep questions. Whether you’ve been driving for five months or 15 years, you’re not going to have all the answers, and that’s okay. Ask your sales rep any question about that truck that comes to mind. A good dealer will be honest about a truck. We’re not going to sell you a truck based on lies, because that hurts our reputation and drives away you, our customers!
One very important question to ask is service history. Unfortunately, for many used trucks, you likely won’t get much, but it’s still an important question to ask. Service history will tell you how much of a priority preventative maintenance was for the previous owner. If any big overhauls or replacements have been done, like a new transmission or clutch, you know that those components are likely going to last you longer.
At TEC, we can provide service history for trucks coming off a lease with us. We can also list what service our locations have done on a truck, and if the truck is Mack or Volvo, we can list what work has been done at other authorized dealerships. For other makes of truck, we do the best we can to provide service information, but you may need to do some leg work. You can call up dealerships affiliated with those makes and request service records. They’ll be able to tell you a bit about the service history of a truck.
Ultimately, no matter where you purchase your truck, you likely won’t get the full service history. But you can get a sense of whether preventative maintenance was a priority for the previous owner or not. And if you buy from TEC, you can trust that we’ve gone through the truck and done our best to find any issues.
What is high mileage for a semi truck?
Fleets will typically trade in their trucks at around 500,000 miles. That’s about at the halfway mark of an average truck’s life. It’s also the point where you may want to consider getting an extended warranty. The more TLC you give your truck, the longer it will last you. Once a truck reaches one million miles, that’s the time when trucks start getting shuffled out of regular use and into more sporadic use. The owners of vintage trucks will tell you that a truck’s life is never over. But for a daily driver, one million miles is typically where the maintenance costs surpass the value of the truck.
So, how do you buy a used semi truck? A lot of thinking and checking and asking questions. But at the end of the day you’ll come out of it with a truck that will hopefully last you a long time and treat you well. So get out there and start searching for your next truck. You can start at our used truck inventory!