Buying a Farm Truck off the Internet

by Beth

With our list of property cleanup tasks growing daily, we quickly realized how much we needed a truck, a workhorse that, while maybe not fuel efficient or pretty, could handle rough terrain and haul heavy loads for up to 20-ish miles a pop.

We set to work combing Craigslist within a 100-mile radius for trucks with the following criteria:

  • 4×4
  • Long bed
  • Ford or Chevy – we see a ton of old Ford and Chevy trucks on the road, which means they’re standing the test of time AND that there are people around to work on them.
  • $2,500 or less

Any other features were gravy. Cosmetic issues (body ripples, rust) or luxury features (cruise control, radio, A/C) were of no import to us compared to whether the truck would start up and stay street legal for a few more years.

Here’s my guide to finding a truck that will do that. Disclaimer: I’m not a mechanic – just a cheapskate who has purchased and driven used cars for a couple decades.

8 Steps to Finding a Good Farm Truck

1. Phone Interview
This goes for anything on Craigslist. Ask a bunch of questions on the phone and pay attention to how you feel when the seller answers.

Ask why they’re selling the truck, how long they’ve had it, if it starts up every time, if the 4×4 works. Use your spidey senses to tell if the seller is trustworthy.

If your conversations have given you a good feeling, arrange a time to meet in a public place in daylight with a buddy.

If you think of it, grab an old white rag to take along on your journey.

2. Quick Homework
Before you meet, type the make & model into KBB (only back to 1992) or NADA.com pricing tools to start to form an offer in your mind, regardless of the price on the posting.

You can firm up your offer after inspecting the truck and deciding what it’s worth to you, but insight on market value will be a confidence booster when it comes to negotiations.

3. First Impression (of the Truck, not the Seller)
Before you crank it, walk around to check the wear pattern on the tires and peek at the ground under the truck for leaks.

Uneven wear on the tires can mean bad suspension, which you’ll be able to suss out more during the test drive.guide to car leaks

Leak-wise, generally, any fluids other than water under the front, passenger side are not great. Here’s a quick guide.

4. Pop the Hood
Before cranking the truck, look under the hood. Check that belts and hoses aren’t cracking too much. Some of those are cheap to replace, but some aren’t.

Pull out the oil dipstick and wipe it. Put it back in all the way and pull out again to check the level and consistency. If it’s sludgy and/or the oil cap is filled with residue, it probably hasn’t been changed often. Proceed with caution.

If the oil looks new but is low, there could be a leak.

5. Start It Up
If the following happens, you can walk away:
– Not cranking
– Fluid leaking under the car after it starts
– Badly smoking tailpipe

6. Back Under the Hood
Leave the truck running in neutral with the parking brake on, and go back under the hood. If any of the following is happening, walk away:
– Knocking, hissing or clicking
– Strong smell
– Fires of any size or location

If it’s an automatic, check the transmission fluid. With the truck still running, pull the dipstick, which is probably labeled “transmission fluid.” Check color and consistency with a white rag.

Particles, burnt smell or black fluid can mean transmission fluid in need of a flush or indicate a much bigger problem.

Foam means that the wrong transmission fluid was used, which may be another red flag. Since the seller should have gotten the vehicle in tip-top shape before listing it, you may as well avoid a vehicle with these symptoms.

Wipe the dipstick, insert it fully and pull it out again to see if there’s enough fluid in the transmission. Again, if it’s low but looks new, you can pretty much bet on a leak somewhere.

Walk around the back and have your friend press the breaks to test the taillights. Turn the lights on and off. Test the directionals. Malfunctioning lights can mean a broken bulb or switch, or it could be wiring-related. We’ll test that in a minute.

7. Review the Paperwork
Ask if they have repair records and receipts for anything recently purchased or installed. On high-mileage vehicles, plenty of items will naturally need, or recently have needed, replacing. Many sellers even put this part directly into their ad.

Another point they’ve hopefully included in the listing is a clean title. When you meet the seller in person, it’s cool to ask to see the title and scour it for any liens. Then check that the VIN on the title matches the VIN on the truck.

If the title doesn’t have the seller’s name on it, you’ll want to be very satisfied as to why. This happens in the world of low-cost farm trucks on Craigslist, and it’s not always a sign of something terrible. If the seller sketches you out, starts talking too fast or won’t make eye contact (about the title or anything else), though, walk away.

Even a title with no lender lienholders may have liens, like from a repair shop. If they don’t show on the paper title, they should show one of of your state’s websites.

Tennessee’s is here: http://www.tn.gov/sos/bus_svc/MotorVehicleSearch.htm

Type in the VIN to make sure you’re not purchasing more than you bargained for (i.e., somebody else’s debt). You or your test-drive buddy can pull this up on your phone while the other one is test driving.

8. Drive It
If you’ve made it this far without deal breakers, get the show on the road. If the seller wants to come with you, cool, but they probably won’t. Either way, if they’re creepy, you should have left before this stage anyway. There are endless used vehicles out there, and you’ll find another perfect truck.

Anyway, after you’ve started driving and tried the AC, heat and radio (if you care if those things work), turn the radio off and accelerate.

In an automatic, if the truck hesitates before shifting gears, slips gears, or makes strange noises, it’s either low on transmission fluid (see above) or is about to need pricey repairs.

Vibrations at any speed can mean steering/suspension issues. Is the wheel wobbling? If not, it might be a motor mount, which isn’t as bad. But were the tires worn oddly? Was there power-steering fluid under the truck? If so, expensive repairs may be needed to keep the truck street safe for the long haul.

If it’s a manual transmission, listen for noisy gears and watch for hard shifting, revving or delays in catching, indicating problems in the clutch and/or transmission. We all know transmission repairs are expensive, but a clutch replacement can run more than $1K, too.

In fact, clutches can need replacing as much as every 100K miles, so check with the seller if a high-mileage truck has had its clutch replaced any time recently.

Watch the temperature gauge. If it shoots up or down at any speed, it’s a no.

Turn the wheel hard as you drive. If anything electrical flickers, it’s no. This indicates faulty wiring. Meaning, that when your head and tail lights go out, you can either only drive during the day and hope there’s never a cop behind you or spend a pretty penny chasing down the electrical problem(s).

While you’re at it, hang a U-turn and listen for clicks and pops. If you hear these and saw a lot of wear on the inside or outside of a tire, you could be in for a new ball joint, and that can run over $1,000.

Warn everyone in the car and then brake kind of hard. Listen for squeals and feel how responsive the brakes are.

Testing the 4-wheel drive can be done in many ways. Engage it (however it engages, whether you have to hop out to turn hubs or just twist a dial in the cockpit) and see if you feel a difference in power. If you cut the wheel, there should be protesting or banging; don’t push this too hard. You could also drive to gravel or mud surface and have a friend watch to see if front and back engage on the soft ground.

Wrapping Up
Has the seller been relaxed the whole time, or is he/she jumpy or over talkative? If the truck passes your tests and you trust the seller and the situation, make your offer and hope for the best!

If you can agree on a price that works for all parties, write up a bill of sales with the date, make & model, VIN, price, your and the seller’s names, and sign it.

Make sure that, when the seller signs over the title to you, they sign using the same name that’s on the front of the title (so if it’s titled to “Joe,” they shouldn’t sign “Joseph”).

Do as We Say, Not as We Do
In reality, you may forget to do half of these things, and in our case, we accepted more repair issues because our needs and budget were limited. Plus, we committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with a vehicle, which can impair judgment.

As I write this a month and half later, after shelling out dough for tires, a wheel bearing, etc. and breaking down twice a week (so far with easy fixes), we still love our farm truck, and it’s hauled an unbelievable amount of gear, a lawnmower, tree trunks, an ATV, and how.

Overall, the less you want to be on the side of the road, though, the more you should pay attention to the steps above.

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