How to Inspect Used Heavy Equipment For Sale (+Video Overview)

From dozers and wheel loaders to skid steers and backhoes, use the following heavy equipment advice and checklists to feel more confident making your big purchase.


Audio version:

In the market for used heavy equipment? Let’s make sure you can buy your next piece of equipment with confidence. 


Unlike like shopping for a used car, buying used heavy equipment can be a bit of a blind spot for most folks. Even if you’ve already decided on what model of construction equipment, logging equipment, or other such commercial equipment will be the best for the job, determining a good used model or a trustworthy seller can be tricky. 

This buying guide is broken into three sections and a total of 16 used heavy equipment buying tips—all designed to take you through equipment inspections, documentation, and seller reputation so you can buy with confidence.

Guide Contents

Section 1. Heavy Equipment Inspection Checklist (7 Tips)
A. What Exhaust Color Says About an Engine
B. Visual Inspections of Equipment Mechanical Components
Section 2. Heavy Equipment Documentation Check
A. Operating Logs
B. Maintenance Logs
C. Exceptions
Section 3. Checking the Reputation of a Used Heavy Equipment Seller
A. Investigating Companies or Dealerships
B. Investigating Individual/Private Sellers
Section 4. Renting vs Buying Equipment
A. Be Aware of Past Inexperienced Operators
B. Investigate the Rental Company
C. Long-term Lease vs. Ownership

Section 1. Heavy Equipment Inspection Checklist

 
A. What Exhaust Color Says About an Engine

The color of the exhaust of a piece of heavy equipment can tell you quite a bit about the condition of the engine.

Black Exhaust
Black exhaust may indicate too much fuel in the mix resulting from bad fuel injectors and a failure to regularly change the air filter. 

White Exhaust
White exhaust should cause concern, as it usually indicates a faulty head gasket or some other condition causing water to mix with the fuel. 

Blue Exhaust
If the exhaust is unmistakably blue, this can indicate oil leaking into the fuel supply—typically as the result of worn seals, rings, or incorrect oil levels. 

B. Visual Inspections of Equipment Mechanical Components

Check for Leaks
Look over all cylinders, loaders, arms, and hoses for anything that appears wet. These should be dry and free of leaks. 

Inspect Welds
Welds can speak volumes about the treatment and repair of used heavy equipment. If welds are present, they should be clean and sturdy. An inordinate amount of welds, however, should raise a few eyebrows. Welds on loader arms and buckets are especially concerning and should provoke questions about the equipment’s history.

Body Damage and Rust
While most used pieces of machinery will have cracks, dents, or rust, keep in mind that they will only worsen with time and eventually require repairs. 

Tires or Track Damage
All tires should be properly inflated (no sagging), have ample applicable tread, and have no cracks or damage to the sidewalls. For tracked heavy equipment, the tracks shouldn’t contain cracks or abundant wear.

Pins and Bushings
Inspect the pins and bushings of all used heavy equipment. Even though some pins and bushings can be relatively simple or inexpensive to fix or replace, if such parts are overly worn, this may indicate misuse by past owners or operators. 

Operating Noise
When in use, the brakes and drivetrain of a piece of equipment should not grind, squeal, or rattle. Because some heavy equipment disc brakes are expensive to replace, if they seem to be in bad shape, this may be a dealbreaker.

A Thorough Heavy Equipment Inspection Checklist

These tips should get you started on distinguishing higher quality items of used heavy equipment from equipment to avoid. However, for a robust inspection checklist, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has a detailed heavy equipment inspection checklist PDF document to help you further pair down your used heavy equipment for consideration.

Section 2. Heavy Equipment Documentation Check

 Every piece of heavy machinery has a story of what it's been through. Unless you have the proper documentation of any piece of commercial equipment, its history will remain a mystery until the signs reveal themselves—and usually not in the way you want them to. To know what you’re getting yourself into by buying such a piece of equipment, let’s look at what documentation you should keep an eye out for. 

A. Operating Logs 

If you can find a piece of equipment with an operating log, that bodes very well for gauging the full history of the heavy equipment and makes it a good candidate for purchase. Operating logs will have either the number of miles or hours logged by the equipment operator. While logs are not mandatory, used commercial equipment without a log should raise questions about its past use. 

With this being said, the operating log and the condition of the used heavy equipment for sale should be consistent with each other. If the operating log looks a bit limited compared to a piece of equipment with considerable wear or the equipment looks quite nice, but with a log that indicates extensive use, this should, at the very least, warrant additional questions about the condition of the used heavy equipment for sale. Also, for such equipment, a secondary inspection of the pedals, levers, and seats is a good idea—areas that may indicate true use, yet are infrequently replaced. 

B. Maintenance Logs

If something has been repaired or replaced on used heavy equipment you’re considering purchasing, you want to know about it beforehand. Ideally, used commercial equipment sellers will be able to provide time-stamped records demonstrating regular maintenance—such as consistent fluid changes (hydraulic fluid, transmission fluid, oil changes, etc.), small repairs, state of power systems, and any major problems. Such maintenance logs can be used to verify that the heavy machinery has not only been properly maintained but also properly used—as certain required maintenance issues may be the result of improper operation. 

If you notice any extensive gaps in the maintenance logs, these may indicate neglect and should be questioned. 

Like the operating logs, remember to compare such logs against the condition of the heavy equipment being sold. 

 C. Exceptions

While extensive documentation referencing a piece of equipment’s operation and maintenance can fast-track your machinery shopping journey, it is still possible to find terrific heavy equipment for sale without any operating or maintenance logs. For this reason, don’t automatically discount machinery solely for lack of records, but definitely ask questions. 

Section 3. Checking the Reputation of a Used Heavy Equipment Seller

Even if you’ve found what appears to be a piece of heavy equipment for sale in great condition and a reasonable price and proper documentation, it pays to investigate the reputation of the seller—whether this seller is a company or an individual. 

A. Investigating Companies or Dealerships

Check Public Records
A reputable heavy equipment dealership or commercial sales company will have a large presence— including a positive rating by the Better Business Bureau. Online reviews are also a great way to summarize the character and integrity of a potential heavy machinery seller.

Verify Ownership
It may seem obvious, but always make sure the equipment is owned by the seller—not a mysterious third party. If the business is not sure, you can check by using the Product Identification Number.

B. Investigating Individual/Private Sellers

Verify Ownership
Verifying the ownership of a piece of used heavy equipment for sale may be even more important for a private seller than a company—as some companies have been known to pose as private sellers. Make sure the seller has an original invoice for the heavy equipment and that the title has their name on it.

Title Check
Make sure the heavy equipment for sale has been entirely paid off and can be legally sold. Don’t take the seller’s word for it until seeing the title as they may not know offhand if they are listed as the owner on the title.  

Section 4. Renting vs Buying Equipment

 

Renting can be a great way of trying out various forms of heavy equipment before buying it. There are, however, some situations to be aware of before choosing the heavy equipment rental route over buying. 

A. Be Aware of Past Inexperienced Operators

Like rented vehicles, rented heavy equipment may not be in the best condition due to the carelessness or inexperience of past operators. People tend to value what they own more than what they rent, so proper care may not be their highest priority. For this reason, check the maintenance and repair logs of the heavy equipment you decide to rent so you don’t end up responsible for someone else’s carelessness or experience. 

B. Investigate the Rental Company

Just as you’d investigate a company or individual selling heavy equipment, also do so with a heavy equipment rental company. This is especially important because you will be signing a binding contract with them in order to rent their equipment. 

C. Long-term Lease vs. Ownership

Renting heavy equipment will always be more expensive than the cost of ownership. A long-term lease, however, may end up costing more than paying down a heavy equipment financing note. Why? Heavy equipment is a depreciating asset—meaning that it will lose value with time. For this reason, paying for the chance to eventually own it outright when you’re simply going to replace it may not make sense versus leasing it and then returning it or eventually trading it out for a newer model. 

It pays to do the math and calculate if a long-term lease makes sense for you or your company. 

Ready to Buy Heavy Equipment? We Can Help.

Now that you’ve been armed with a heavy equipment considerations checklist and know how to check out your seller, you’re invited to look through the vast heavy machinery listings from My Little Salesman and put your skills to the test. Good luck! You’ve got this. 

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About Ken Lane
Ken’s affinity for the heavy equipment industry was fostered as a curious youngster—becoming happily lost on his grandfather’s tractor sales and service lot (his favorite color is still Allis-Chalmers Orange). Since then, he’s perfected the art of turning black coffee into helpful buyer resources and marketing materials for My Little Salesman.
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