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Top Tips for Buying a Used Pickup

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Automakers sold over 15.1 million new vehicles in the U.S. in 2021, and more than three-quarters of those were light-duty pickup trucks, SUVs and crossovers.

At the same time, demand for used cars is up; overall used-vehicle sales in 2021 increased by about 10% compared with 2020, and many of those were trucks. Those who can’t afford to buy a new pickup — or who just like to take advantage of depreciation — are always searching for a good deal on a used pickup.

Related: 6 Months With a 2022 Ford Maverick: Is It Still Our Top Gun?

If you’re hunting for a used pickup, there are millions available on Cars.com, and there are ample filters to narrow down your choices. When shopping for a used pickup, don’t be blinded by the bells and whistles, nice paint and attractive price. Instead, be smart and thorough in your decision making, and be sure to see the truck in person and do your own inspection.

To compile our top recommendations for buying a used pickup, we talked with used-car dealers, wholesale vehicle buyers, auto repair mechanics and other dealership experts to find out what they look for when buying a used pickup — then we added a couple of our own tips garnered from first-hand experience. In no particular order, here’s what you need to keep in mind when buying a used pickup:

1. Diesel Matters

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Diesel pickups are more expensive to maintain and repair than gas models, so it pays to look them over closely before buying, especially if they have more than 60,000 miles. Check a diesel pickup’s coolant overflow reservoir for any signs of fuel or oil in the coolant or under the coolant cap. Contaminated coolant is a sure sign of oil cooler, exhaust gas recirculation cooler or head gasket issues, which can cost a load of dough to repair. Also, check for leaks around injectors, from injector lines or around the turbocharger; if you see problems or previous repairs, be cautious. Finally, if engine repair work has been done, get the specifics on when and who did the work. Follow up with the shop that did the work to find out more details.

2. Warranty

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Are the drivetrain and smog system components still under warranty? Check the mileage against the truck’s drivetrain and the federal emission warranty, which covers some pickups for as long as eight years or 80,000 miles, whichever comes first. This is of particular concern for higher-mileage (125,000 miles or more) diesel pickups, where out-of-warranty engine, computer and transmission repairs can be more likely and costlier. That’s where a used truck from a dealer has benefits, as some offer a limited warranty after their mechanics have given the truck a detailed inspection and pre-sale service.

3. Steer Clear of Diesel Particulate Filter Deletes

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Some diesel owners are notorious for removing the diesel particulate filter, muffler, EGR cooler and blocking or removing the EGR valve for more power. Yes, these “deletes” add power, but removing them is against federal smog laws. Many counties require those parts to be replaced before a pickup can be sold or licensed. Replacing deleted exhaust/smog components can cost thousands of dollars. If the diesel truck you are eyeing is missing any of these components, make sure the owner includes the deleted smog-related parts in the deal.

4. The Test Drive

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As with any vehicle, you want to take the truck on a test drive. Accelerate hard, give the brakes a workout, and get the engine and transmission up to operating temperatures. A 20-minute drive should be enough time to reveal any readily apparent drivetrain, steering and/or suspension issues. Does the truck wander? Is there play in the steering wheel? Does it brake straight and strong? Are there any quirks in acceleration? Does the transmission shift smoothly through the gears? Try manually shifting the automatic. Do you see exhaust smoke during hard accelerations or when you lift off the throttle and the truck slows? Pay close attention to your gut feelings.

5. Transmission Checks

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Always pull the dipstick on an automatic transmission before buying a used pickup; the fluid should be reddish with little smell. If the fluid is brownish or smells like burnt brake pads, the transmission could have internal issues. If it’s a manual transmission, short-shift it into high gear during the test drive and accelerate fairly hard to check the condition of the clutch; there should be no slippage or chatter. Also get to a speed where you can cruise in 3rd, 4th and 5th gear without the need for throttle; listen for gear whine or driveshaft vibrations when the truck is in this “limbo” driving mode. Lastly, when feeling for driveline vibration, be sure you know what kind of tires you’re driving on to make sure you don’t mistake mud-tire issues for a driveline issue.

6. Shifting Gears

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While test-driving a 4×4 pickup, take the time to put it in four-wheel drive. Get off the pavement if you can, and drive it in both high range and low range. Listen for any odd sounds or grinding related to the transfer-case operation. Make sure the front hubs are locking or the front tires are driving. Slip it back into two-wheel drive then spin the rear tires to see if the limited-slip or locking differential (if so equipped) is operating correctly. You are not abusing the truck — you are making sure you are buying a 4×4 that works as it should.

7. Crawl Under, Look Up

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After the test drive, check underneath for signs of fluid leaks. Leaks under the engine may indicate a serious issue in a front main seal, water pump or failing gasket. Also check the rear of the transmission, transfer case (if a 4WD) and axle housings for oil leaks. Pay close attention to the backside of the wheels for signs of oil coming from bad brake lines and axle bearings. The seller may have pressure-washed underneath prior to you seeing the truck, but leaks of concern will usually show up after the test drive when fluids and lubricants are up to operating temps.

8. Service Records

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One of the best indicators that a used pickup is everything the seller claims is if it has a detailed logbook or service record and receipts of performed work. Oil and filter changes at regular intervals in accordance with the owner’s manual, receipts showing any or all work done, and any other dated records can be a good indication the seller isn’t trying to hide anything. It also indicates the engine and transmission should have a longer life than a pickup whose owner let routine maintenance lapse for long periods of time.

9. Background Check

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It’s always good to do a background check on any used vehicle you are interested in buying; CarFax and VINCheckPro are two sources that offer such services. Keep in mind that these services are only as good as the sources feeding them the information. If a pickup has been in an accident, for example, and the owner or the shop doing the repair work didn’t report it to an insurance company, that repair work will not show up. It’s also advisable to check the vehicle identification number on a used truck to see if there are any outstanding recalls that need addressing; visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to find out.

10. Flood-Damaged Vehicles

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Vehicles that have been flooded can make it into the open market when they should have been scrapped. If a pickup was refurbished because it was flooded, our advice is to avoid it. If the truck has bubbles under the paint; new carpet and seats; mold or water marks on seat belts, seats or headliner; or has rust or mud anywhere in the cab, beware. Perform a thorough inspection by lifting the carpet and looking for signs of corrosion in the cab or under the hood. Check for moisture inside the instrument panel. The biggest issue with flood-damaged pickups is that water submersion wreaks a slow, cancerous death on mechanical, electronic and fuel systems. Flood-related problems are difficult to detect unless you check the less obvious parts of the truck.

11. Salvage Titles

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If a truck has a “salvage title,” it’s been considered a total loss for some reason and has been refurbished. Ask a lot of questions as to why it has such a title and exactly what type of work has been done. We recommend having a trustworthy mechanic give it a thorough inspection before making a decision. There’s a possibility the truck was flood-damaged, cleaned up and found its way into the used-vehicle market, possibly thousands of miles from where it originated. If the title has a stamp on it that says “flood,” know there will be issues no matter what the price.

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