Used truck prices have never been lower. If you can find the
work, or have your eye on a carrier where you'd like to hang your shingle, this
might be the best time to jump into truck ownership. So go ahead and dream. Make
up a wish list and see if you can find the sweetest rig in the world.
But once you've found that ideal vehicle, you'll have to
grapple with getting a loan to buy it. Don't be surprised if the truck you've
picked is too dear for your present situation. First-time buyers are often
dazzled by the glitter and can get sucked into buying too much truck, or options
they don't need. Your first truck has to be a workhorse. The extras are nice but
they shouldn't influence what you're willing to pay.Another mistake is not
spending enough on a truck. Would-be truck owners see a bargain in an older
truck but don't count on expensive repair, towing, and downtime costs that could
potentially sink a new business. Before you buy, it's imperative to know how
much it's going to cost to run, and how hard you're going to have to work to pay
for it. That's why it's recommended first-time buyers have a couple years'
experience under their belt before taking on owner/operatorship.
Gone are the days when you could drive away from a dealership
putting 0% down or less. These days a 15%, or more likely a 20%, down payment is
pretty standard. You might be able to do better, depending on your credit rating
but the cards are stacked against a young man or woman just getting into the
business. When applying for a loan so much depends on your credit rating, your
age, your years of experience in trucking, and home ownership certainly helps.
But do take advantage of a dealership's financial department.
"Banks traditionally don't like touching trucks," according to Adam Davy, branch
manager of Arrow Truck Sales Canada in Toronto, Ont. "We can accommodate
prospective buyers and start the process. We know what will be acceptable." The
financial advisor can also school you in the fundamentals of truck ownership,
and what it will take to keep your head above the water.
Know what you need We've all seen powerful trucks doing
embarrassing jobs: big iron shunting containers in a drop yard, or an 18-speed
with a double bunk picking up recycling bins. One Saturday night I covered a
friend's bread run. He'd just bought a monster with 500 horses and a bunk the
size of my kitchen. His contract involved making deliveries to grocery stores
around eastern Ontario, but the loads were never more than 20,000 lbs and
usually averaged 12,000.
The truck pulled great but was really unsuitable and
unnecessary for the task - the fuel gauge would drop while you watched it and
the elongated nose and big sleeper made it difficult to back into tight spots.
He could have gone with 325 horses and still had power to spare.
Do you know what you want to do with the truck? Most serious
carriers require O/Os to have units no older than five years, and dealers will
often suggest you find the job first and then come looking for a truck. Be sure
to read the specification sheet carefully and find out exactly what the truck
you're buying has in it, including rear-end ratio, transmission type and
registered axle weight. If you're doing tanker or deck work, you'll want a
tractor with a 51-inch fifth wheel height as opposed to the 47-inch standard for
Most highway drivers prefer 10- or 13-speed transmissions.
Automatics are fine and getting better but I might shy away from one with a lot
of kilometres. If you're hauling heavy or working in the bush you'll want
something with lots of gears.And why get a sleeper if a day cab will do?
Unfortunately there are fewer day cabs around than sleeper units, and the
operators tend to hold onto them longer. City trucks will have a lot fewer
kilometres, have suffered more hard knocks, and have way more idling time on
their engines. But a well-maintained city tractor can be functional for better
than a decade, just look at the Louisvilles still kicking around.
First-time truck owners hauling general freight usually need
something mid-range with a sleeper that can pull up to 80,000 lbs GVW. Fuel
mileage is critically important. So all the better if you were to find something
But beware - the lowest price is not always the best deal.
Nevio Turchet, used truck manager of Select Trucks Toronto, suggests first-time
buyers should be thinking about spending around $50,000 for a used truck.
"Something that's three or four years old tops, with some
original warranty on it - 500,000-600,000 kms, not more than 650,000," he says.
"If you're working regionally and going to be putting on a lot of miles close to
home, you might want to go with a 58-inch bunk instead of a 70-inch bunk."
When it comes to engines, everyone's got an opinion. It
doesn't matter if you're a Cummins, Detroit, Volvo or Mercedes fan, there's a
new zeitgeist concerning fuel mileage and smaller lightweight engines are in
style. However, many operators still prefer big engines with lots of power.
"Typically, guys running the highway would want at least a
big block 475 hp," says Grant Wilkinson, used truck manager at Kenworth Truck
Centre Toronto. "Caterpillar manufactured a very fine engine - the 430-hp C13
that puts out 1,550 torque pounds and is 700 lbs lighter," he says. "That's 700
lbs more freight you can put on and you'll get better mileage, too." Cat has
discontinued making these engines but Wilkinson expects parts will be available
for a long time to come.
Finding the truck that's right for you Whether you choose to
buy from a dealer or purchase a unit privately, it's good to take someone along
when you go shopping. Another set of eyes and ears could keep you from making a
decision you might regret later. First-time buyers often get blinded by chrome.
Overall, the consensus is that it's better to buy from a reputable dealer -
someone you can expect to be around a few years to come. According to Dennis
Sheehan of Sheehan's Truck Centre, Burlington, Ont., "When we buy a truck or get
one in here on a trade, we check it over very closely," he says. "There's
absolutely no way we would sell a truck to anyone with a bad engine. If we find
a truck has issues, we'll dump it at an auction."
One has to be doubly careful when buying a used truck
privately. Truck mechanic Ron Martin explained that checking out a truck is like
doing a very thorough circle check. You're looking for problems that may sneak
up and bite you later.
"I'd have a close look at the steering and see how the tires
are worn. If possible, I'd back under a trailer and you can check a lot of
things that way," he says.
"Visually inspect the antifreeze - smell the antifreeze, if
there's any evidence of corrosion you might have a serious problem. All the
stuff you'd do in a pre-trip, but more intensely - cracked or hardened hoses,
fan belts, check for leaks, both air and liquid. See if the doors line up."
Martin thinks you can tell a lot about the condition of a
truck by the way it's been treated. He's seen trucks only a few years old where
the floors were starting to rot out.
"If there's an interior light out and the seller tells you
it's just a burned out bulb, it might be the truth and it might not. Pop off one
of the connectors in the back of the tractor and see if the terminals are green.
If they are then you could have a wiring problem that may cost you thousands
down the road in repair and downtime costs. Any small item should be fixed
before you buy it," says Martin.
Martin also suggests checking the colour of the exhaust.
"When you look at the top of the stack, you should see just a shimmering haze
that's almost invisible. If the exhaust gas is too white or too black it's
usually an indicator of engine wear."
Engine oil analysis is a good way to find out the condition
of the motor and is a relatively inexpensive procedure. But a person selling a
rig privately will have probably just changed the oil and you won't get an
accurate reading. However, most dealers accepting a trade-in or buying a used
truck may have already have taken an oil sample and already had the analysis
done. A dealer might also let you make the sale conditional on a positive oil
analysis after the truck has been driven under load for several thousand
Don't be afraid to ask for a print-out of what the engine has
been doing (a dealer should be able to supply this). This is a download directly
from the black box and will tell you how many hours the truck has on it, how
much idling it has done, and the fuel mileage it's been getting.
A high idle-to-drive ratio makes a truck less attractive.
That's why used trucks with bunk heaters or APUs are more coveted. If you don't
have an APU on your tractor, you might want to think of installing one soon
after purchasing it.