How to Inspect Used Equipment to Avoid Extra Costs Down the Road


With the rising costs of production, many companies look to secondhand machines as alternatives to expensive construction equipment.

With a reputable dealer, this decision could help you get a machine that gets the job done without costing a fortune. Unfortunately, if you don't do your research, you could end up spending more than you expected in the long run. If the machine needs repairs, not only will the repairs themselves be costly, but you'll lose valuable time on the job site. If the machine gives out altogether, you'll have to start from square one. 

Finding a reputable seller with the equipment you need takes time and dedication, but if you put in the effort, you could walk away with a great piece of equipment for an excellent price. To help you make a safe, economical choice, we've put together a guide to show you how to buy used equipment so you can get a great machine that will last for years to come.

What to Avoid When Buying Used Equipment


When starting your search, there are some warning signs you must take into account when considering a machine. Hereis a list of what to consider when buying used equipment so you notice the dead giveaways of a bad deal:

  • Not knowing the difference between "certified used" and "as is." A certified used machine is given all the servicing repairs needed to bring it as close to new as possible. You get the used price with assured performance. "As is," on the other hand, means you buy the equipment with no promises or expectations. The dealer is not responsible for any malfunctions, because you purchased the equipment in whatever state it was in. You assume responsibility for any costs of repairs needed to bring it to working condition — and even then, it isn't guaranteed to work.
  • Not adding the repairs to the cost of the vehicle. Seeing a lower price on a machine and not factoring in the cost of repairs required could put you way over budget. Don't get lured in by a low ticket price without understanding the cost of repairs needed to bring the equipment to working condition. If you can, have a knowledgeable third party inspect it and give you an estimate for how much repairs will cost. 
  • Not asking about past use. The way the machine was cared for, the job sites it worked, and what maintenance or repairs were done will impact the quality of the machine. It will also give you an idea of malfunctions you can expect in the future. If the owner repaired the forks three times, you could assume they will require repairs again. 
  • Not leaving a paper trail. When you buy commercial machines, you make a significant investment. Give yourself peace of mind by paying in a traceable way — such as a certified check. Ask the dealer for an invoice or receipt to verify the sale and condition of the equipment. Keep everything in writing, so if the equipment does not arrive in the condition you agreed upon — or if it never arrives at all — you have some legal recourse to get your money back. 
  • Not checking the documentation. When changing hands through a sale, the equipment must have a clear title. The equipment cannot have outstanding loans or liens against it. Most importantly, the current owner must have the proper documentation to prove they are the legal owner, and no one stole the equipment.
  • Not buying from a dealer who knows the worth of the machine. Many factors go into the price of a used vehicle.The most substantial depreciation occurs within the first year, and within the first fourth of its life, it loses about 50% of its value. However, age alone does not determine its worth. Purchase from someone who understands the true value of the vehicle. While the seller should not expect the retail price, if they set the price suspiciously low, wonder why. There are no hard and fast rules, but an older machine that was better maintained could be in better condition than an unmaintained, newer machine. 
  • Not knowing what exact requirements you need in your machine. When starting your search, make sure you know exactly what you need before you make any purchases. You don't want to go through with a sale and realize once you get to the job site that the tractor doesn't have the carrying capacity you need. Consider what size, model, capabilities, and possible attachments you'll need to get your particular job done. Pay attention to detail — it's better to ask more questions than not ask enough.
  • Not testing the machine before purchasing. If the dealer has confidence in the equipment they sell, they should have no problem letting you test the equipment. Check steering, pedals, dashboard, controls, sticks, and seat adjustments. Watch the exhaust the equipment emits while running. Not all exhaust is bad, but you can tell based on the color and if it persists past starting what underlying issues the emissions represent.
  • Not taking the time to inspect for damage. Don't just take the dealer's word on the condition of the equipment. If you do a cursory check and start to see unmentioned problems, you can assume there are more significant problems under the surface. On the outside, rust, damage, or hairline cracks suggest negligent care and repairs needed in the future. However, it is also important to note that a machine can be well maintained on the outside but poorly cared for on this inside. Further in this article, we break down specific things to look for when inspecting each part. 

Past Owners and the Machine's History 

The machine's past ownership will say a lot about the condition you can expect when buying used heavy equipment. With poor care and maintenance, a newer machine could give you less productive hours than an older machine with better upkeep. Learn as much as you can about the types of jobs owners used it for, the conditions it went through, and the machine's previous care regiment — including both routine check-ups and more significant repairs. 

Was it kept in a covered shelter? If it weathered the elements, was it in a location that sees a lot of snow? Hurricanes? Would any particular season cause more than traditional weathering?

Also, don't just consider the quality of the dealer you're purchasing used construction equipment directly from. Inquire about the machine's complete past ownership to see how frequently it changed hands as well. This check might give you insight into its past use and whether it changed hands frequently.

Consider the Dealer


Always perform thorough research on the dealer you consider buying from. Check their website for testimonials and see if their business has reviews on Google or Facebook. Listen to the accounts of previous buyers. While some reviews cannot be trusted, if you find an overwhelming opinion consistent throughout the comments, you can most likely take stock in what they say.

You want to buy from someone honest and trustworthy. If the dealer is upfront about issues with the machine, they are probably trying to make a fair transaction. 

On the other hand, if you find problems with the machine that the dealer didn't mention, they either didn't price it correctly because they don't know enough about machines or they deliberately lied about the equipment's condition.

Unpack Its Years of Operation

When understanding the equipment's wear and tear, know the difference between its age and its annual use. Look at clocked hours to figure out how much it was used over the years. An older machine might be better than a newer one if it was used less frequently. 

During those years of operation, how well was it cared for? A well-maintained machine with more clocked hours is worth more than one wither fewer hours but was not regularly maintained. 

Construction equipment sees its most significant depreciation during the first year of its use — with regular use, the value decreases by approximately 30% in its first year. Afterward, with proper maintenance, the value stabilizes. That's why a well-maintained used machine can retain its value, and you can get a good machine while avoiding brand new prices. 

Ensure Proper Documentation 

Avoid buying stolen equipment by making sure the person you purchase the equipment from is the legal, registered owner of the product. If they possess the equipment legally, they should have no problem showing you the original paperwork, including the invoice with their name on it. If they cannot produce the proof of ownership documentation, walk away.

To check even further, write the machine's product identification number (PIN) or serial number and run it through the National Equipment Register or check with your local police department to make sure no one reported equipment with that PIN stolen.

However, even if no one stole the equipment, the transaction could still be illegal. You cannot sell machinery with an unclear title. The title is unclear if it hasany liens against it or is not paid off in full.

You can check for liens by searching the financial statement from the Uniform Commercial Code. Make sure the equipment is paid off by asking to see the title in the seller's name.

The Machine's Maintenance History

Understanding the maintenance the machine has undergone will help you understand how it will fare in the future. Knowing what to expect when it comes to future repairs is important not just for your wallet, but for the timing of your project. Having an out-of-service machine could delay the progress of the project, which will ultimately cost you more money.

Know the difference between repeated regular maintenance and multiple large repairs. If the machine has received routine maintenance throughout its life, the equipment will likely stay in working condition longer. However, if the machine needed regular maintenance to fix a problem — such as a forklift needing multiple repairs on the carriage — then you may not get the lifespan you expected out of the equipment.

While you should expect some degree of wear and tear, it's crucial not to ignore these general signs of poor maintenance: 

  • Loose pins and bushings
  • Faulty brakes
  • Rust and cracks on interior and exterior
  • Welding not made by the original equipment manufacturer

How to Inspect Used Construction Equipment Components


Don't just take the dealer's word on the status of the machine. Always inspect used heavy equipment on your own and make sure your assessment lines up with the dealer's. If you don't know how to inspect the machine, bring someone with you who does — ideally, bring someone who can project how much the repairs will cost. Only then will you know the exact price tag on the machine. Here are some tips on buying used construction equipment and how to inspect it to know if each part of the machine is working properly:

  • Tires: Check for bubbles or cracks — these indicate they've been left outside for long periods. Take note of mismatched, cut, or uneven tread depth.
  • Transmission: Check for leaks, but most importantly, test drive the machine to make sure it shifts appropriately. If it doesn't, a differential lock may be disengaged, or the computer might require calibration.
  • Engine: During the test, listen and look forodd sounds or emissions. Knocking noises could mean the engine bearings need replacement. If there is a loss of power when accelerating, the engine is most likely worn. 
  • Undercarriage:Depending on the terrain of the job site it was used on, the undercarriage will have more or less wear. Machines used on sand will wear out the undercarriage more quickly than dirt. Check the sprocket teeth — the thinner they are, the more wear they have experienced. Look for rust, but also look for different parts that look significantly newer than others — that is likely to suggest the part has been recently repaired. 
  • Fluids: Check the engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, and hydraulic fluid. Make sure none of them are mixed, contaminated, low, or dirty. If they're low, figure out if it was lacking maintenance of if they are leaking somewhere.

Ready to Start Your Search?


When you buy a used machine through Thompson Tractor, you can avoid buying bad used construction equipment.We've been a dealer for certified new and used Cat® machines for over 60 years, so we've become a trusted part of the Alabama and Northern Florida construction community. Even once you've bought your used heavy equipment, we continue to stand by our products and offer support throughout the life of the machine.

Check out our listings of used vehicles or submit a request to see if we have the machine you need to get the job done.