Your Excavator Buying Guide: How to Choose the Best Excavator for Sale

Is a new or used excavator in your future? Use this guide during the buying process for help narrowing down your ideal excavator.

orange excavator guide
What is an excavator?

Also known as diggers or 360 machines, excavators are a type of heavy construction machinery equipped with a 360°-rotatable body attached to a powerful boom and arm. Excavators use tracks or wheels to move and carry loads. This configuration allows excavators to dig, clear rubble, and transport heavy materials. 

Equipped with the right attachments and appropriate operating capacity, excavators can proficiently break up concrete, lift heavy loads, grade surfaces, demolish structures, and more. Excavators are used in a variety of settings including construction, demolition, materials handling, forestry, mining, dredging, pile driving, trench digging, and much more.

What specifications should I consider when shopping for an excavator for sale?

Selecting the right excavator for your needs means carefully considering your needs before shopping for a new or used excavator for sale. Renting or buying an overpowered excavator becomes burdensome in terms of fuel economy, maintenance, precision, and transportation logistics. 

To determine the proper new or used excavator for sale for your needs, compare your needs to the following excavator specifications. 

Dig Depth: How deep do you need to dig? 

A excavator’s dig depth rating is how deep it can reach into the ground or materials. It pays to select an excavator with a maximum dig depth that somewhat exceeds your maximum depth needs. Keep in mind that harder soil or dense material will decrease an excavator’s dig depth.

Dump Height: From how high do you need to dump? 

If you’re needing to load dump trucks or move materials to higher areas, compare this height to an excavator’s maximum dump height. As the name denotes, an excavator’s dump height is a rating of how high its bucket can safely clear while dumping. Smaller excavators usually have a maximum dump height of 13 feet (4 meters), while larger ones can clear 30 feet (9 meters). 

Bucket Capacity: How much material do you need to move in a single trip? 

Different jobs vary in the amount of material that needs to be moved within a certain period of time. An excavator’s bucket capacity is the machine’s rating of how much material can be removed in a single trip using its bucket. 

Equipment Weight: How much weight can your job site accommodate?

If an excavator is too heavy, it may not be suitable for various jobs. The weight of the excavator should be carefully compared with the maximum weight ratings of any roads, foundations, or landscaped areas over which the excavator would need to traverse.

Operating Weight: How heavy are the loads you need to excavate or move? 

When shopping for a new or used excavator sale, it’s important to find one with an operating weight that slightly exceeds the weight of the loads you need to be lifted. The operating weight of an excavator is the maximum weight that the boom arm can sustain in order for the machine to remain properly balanced and stable to avoid tipping. 

How much power will you require from your excavator? 

After considering other weights and load sizes, consider how much engine horsepower your excavator will need to adequately perform. Try to keep the engine’s horsepower as low as is functionally acceptable to increase fuel efficiency and keep maintenance costs low. 

How much does it cost to buy or rent an excavator?

A new mini excavator costs anywhere from $20,000 to $35,000 on average, while new medium-sized excavators for sale are typically $100,000 to $500,000. The largest excavators on the market start at around $500,000. Used excavators for sale with 2,000 hours of use tend to sell for 25% less than the new value. 

Renting an excavator costs between $2,000 and $10,000 per month depending on the excavator’s size and type. In many cases, it’s possible to rent an excavator for months without exceeding the cost of a down payment on an excavator for sale. Unless you’re going to be using an excavator regularly, it may be more cost-efficient to rent one as needed.

What excavator attachments are available?

Excavators can be outfitted with a variety of attachments to enhance their performance capabilities under many different circumstances. If you know that you are going to be switching attachments frequently, you’ll likely want to look at excavators for sale with quick couplers—a pin system for easy attachment swapping. 

The following are some of the more popular attachments and their average costs. 

Auger Attachments

Augers are hydraulically-powered attachments that allow excavators to drill holes into sand, dirt, coral, clay, and even rock surfaces. Costs for auger attachments range from $200 and $400 for the bits and more $1,500 to $2,000 or more for an auger drive.

Bucket Attachments

Buckets are standard attachments for any new or used excavators for sale. There are many types, sizes, and grades ranging from heavy-duty to severe-duty. Specialized buckets attachments are designed specifically for digging, grading, pavement removal, or ditch cleaning. If you are going to be operating in wet or muddy conditions, it makes sense to obtain a bigger bucket. Bucket attachments can cost between $300 and up to $2,500. 

Clamp / Thumb Attachments

Clamp attachments—also known as “hydraulic thumbs”—give a better grip to bucket attachments to accommodate picking up irregular objects and heavier loads. An average clamp attachment costs between $350 to $450 or more.

Grading Blade Attachments

Grading blade attachments for excavators allow operators to smooth over and level surfaces such as basic roadwork and the like. Grading blades typically cost between $750 and $2,500.

Grapple Attachments

Grapple attachments are pincher-like attachments that have two sets of teeth that converge in the middle for grabbing large loads with little spillage. They can cost anywhere from $600 to $17,000 or specialized rotating models.

Hammer/Breaker Attachments

Hydraulic hammers attachments, also known as hydraulic breakers, are immensely effective in demolition operations— allowing excavators to break through concrete, rock, and asphalt. Hammer attachments can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $150,000.

Flail Mower Attachments

Flail mower attachments allow operators to use excavators to mulch grass and thick brush for landscaping and farmland clearing applications. These attachments can range from $2,300 to over $10,000. 

Hydra Tilt Swing Attachments

Hydra Tilt Swing attachments give the bucket an extra 30° of movement for use in constructing slopes, cleaning drainage ditches, and grading surfaces. The cost of these attachments varies. 

Rake Attachments

Rake attachments for excavators separate debris during cleanup, grading, and filling. They can be angled 25° to the left or right as needed. The cost of these attachments varies.

Ripper Attachments

Ripper attachments hook to the front of an excavator’s bucket to break up various types of terrain—including dirt, rock, concrete, or ice. The cost of these attachments varies.

Plate Compactor Attachments

Plate compactor attachments allow operators to pack the soil back into a freshly dug trench or ditch—saving time and manpower. The cost of these attachments varies. 

What are the different excavator weight classes?

In general, all excavators for sale can be broken down into two main weight classes.

Mini Excavators

Weighing 0 to 6 tons, mini excavators are best for jobs requiring both a lighter footprint as well as enhanced maneuverability—such for light construction, demolition, landscaping, and even for moving objects within a warehouse. A mini excavator has a dig depth ranging from 0 to 12 feet (0 to 3 meters) and can have anywhere from 95 to 120 horsepower.

Standard/Full-Sized Excavators

Medium to large-sized excavators can weigh anywhere from 7 to 90 tons (6,350 to 90,000 kgs). These excavators are widely used on commercial construction and demolition job sites. The average excavator can dig about 15 feet (4.5 meters) deep and has anywhere from 367 to 532 horsepower. 

The needs of a job and site conditions will likely determine which excavator weight class is most appropriate. A cramped urban site with a lot of tight turns and the need for very precise digging may require a smaller machine. Smaller excavators for sale also have a lower price tag and less costly maintenance. However, an expansive construction site with more material to move may be better suited for a larger excavator with greater bucket capacity—resulting in greater operation and fuel efficiency. 

What are the different excavator model types?

Depending on the demands of your specialty, there are various specialized excavator models best suited for particular types of work. 

Long Reach Excavators

As the name implies, long reach excavators have enhanced boom and arm reach for use when extended lengths are necessary—such as for dredging and other waterway work. To remain stable, long reach excavators utilize a counterweight with a low center of gravity to allow for a reach length of 40 to 100 feet (12 to 35 meters). Long reach excavators can run from $150,000 to $450,000

High Reach Excavators

High reach excavators are designed to reach upwards. High reach excavators are especially well-suited for top-down demolitions—as their design allows for precision demolition of elevated structures as well as controlled downward movements. Newer models also typically sell for $150,000 to $450,000. 

Dragline Excavators

Dragline excavators are typically among the largest excavator models. They utilize a dragline bucket system in which a bucket is suspended from the boom with wire rope cables, which is controlled with various chains, ropes, and cables. Dragline excavators are especially well suited for mining, road construction, and excavating waterways—such as ports, harbors, and the like. Newer model dragline excavators can cost anywhere from $210,000 to $650,000.

Vacuum Excavators

Also knowns as suction excavators, vacuum excavators are quite different from other excavator styles. Vacuum excavators are used for a “soft dig” process—a non-mechanical process of removing debris that has been loosened by air or water. The vacuum excavator uses suction to remove the debris and transport it to a separate container. Vacuum excavation is growing in popularity for jobs where extreme precision is required to reduce damage to surrounding structures. It is also utilized for strip mining operations—allowing for enhanced material sifting.

Newer model vacuum excavators typically cost between $250,000 to $600,000. 

What are the differences between crawler and wheeled excavators?

Excavators come in two different drive styles—crawler or wheeled.

three excavators diggingThree different styles of excavators. Can you name the three different kinds?

Crawler Excavators

Crawler excavators utilize steel or rubber tracks to move over difficult and uneven terrain.

What are the pros of crawler excavators?

The track-based design of crawler excavators allows for greater digging stability due to a lower center of gravity as well as increased ground contact.

What are the cons of crawler excavators?

Where crawler excavators shine in terms of traction and stability, they suffer in terms of transportability. Crawler excavators will damage paved roadways and landscaped yards without the use of a specialized trailer. When driving, crawler excavators are also slower—typically only able to drive 4 to 6 mph (6 to 9.5 kph). 

What are the pros of wheeled excavators?

Wheeled excavators are equipped with rubber wheels—allowing them to drive over a variety of terrains with minimal damage to roadways and landscaped yards. The wheels also provide for a smoother, faster ride—as fast as 22 mph (35 kph). 

What are the cons of wheeled excavators?

Wheeled excavators tend to have a higher center of gravity, resulting in reduced digging abilities when compared to their crawler excavator counterparts. 

What is the best brand of excavator?

The best brand of excavator is the company that manufactures the right excavator for your needs and budget. To help you determine which brand of excavator may be the right choice for you, we’ve collected some of the specializations of the most popular brands of excavators.

Caterpillar Excavators: Efficient and Low Maintenance

“Cat” excavators have a reputation for easy maintenance and excellent fuel efficiency.

Hitachi Excavators: Quality Parts

Ever since partnering with John Deere in 2002, Hitachi excavators will often use the same high-quality common parts and information systems as a John Deere excavator.

Komatsu Excavators: Tech-Savvy

Some new Komatsu excavator models now have advanced plug-and-play 3D GPS technologies.

Bobcat Excavators: Over-the-Side Lifting

The R-Series Bobcat excavator has 15% more over-the-side lifting capacity than the previous models. 

Kobelco Excavators: Disturbance Reduction

Kobelco excavators can be outfitted with special noise and dust-reduction systems that let workers continue digging later into the night with reduced disturbance.

Case Excavators: Heavy Loads

For the biggest loads, the largest Case excavators have an astounding operating weight of over 178,000 pounds (89 tons, 80,740 kgs).

John Deere Excavators: Smart & Safe

John Deere excavators can intelligently determine when the engine and hydraulics systems need oil. Their models also include an auto-shutdown feature for emergencies. Some models include various operating modes designed for maximum power or energy conservation. 

Yanmar Excavators: Consistent Reliability

Compact Yanmar excavators were the first of their kind in 1971, and the company has continued to consistently impress consumers ever since with a reliable design.

JCB Excavators: Endurance

JCB excavators are built for endurance. A large JCB excavator can go up to 1,000 hours without greasing the boom and 5,000 hours before needing oil.

What features should I look for in a new or used excavator for sale?

Depending on your work style or the weather conditions of your location, you may want to keep an eye out for some of the following features when looking at new or used excavators for sale.

Remote Monitoring

Remote monitoring technology allows for monitoring the excavator’s data from remote locations—including fuel levels, temperatures, GPS location, hour gauges, and the like. These technologies are especially useful for keep tabs on equipment during larger, multi-machine operations.

Angled Backfill Blades

Angled backfill blades allow for refilling and leveling holes. Unlike normal backfill blades, the design of an angled backfill blade is optimized to push more material and debris away with every pass—saving time and fuel.

Climate Control 

Climate control systems help to keep operators comfortable—allowing them to continue working throughout various weather conditions.

Zero Tail Swing

Zero tail swing denotes the ability for the cab of an excavator to rotate without overhanging the width of its tracks. Excavators without extended rear-facing components (a “tail”) can rotate their cab without the risk of swinging their “tail” components into nearby objects or structures. 

Control Patterns

All excavators utilize one or two different control patterns—that of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) or that of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Although both types can be found in North America, SAE tends to be more prevalent. From one pattern to the next, levers for the boom and the dipper may be reversed—making it important to buy an excavator with the most familiar control pattern.

Should I buy a new or used excavator for sale?

Used excavators can be considerably cheaper, but before you start looking at used excavators for sale, there are several reasons to consider if looking at new excavators for sale is a better option.

Why You Might Consider a New Excavator for Sale


EPA Tier 4 Requirements for Excavators

Newer excavators are designed to meet current government environmental regulations. If you are operating an older excavator that does not meet the EPA Tier 4 requirements, penalties and upgrading costs can be quite expensive depending on the model.

Excavator Fuel Efficiency

The money you save buying a used excavator may very well end up coming out of your fuel budget. Many used excavators for sale will have older, less efficient diesel engines—which may require additional maintenance.

Operation Experience

Used excavators for sale might not come with all of the creature comforts that workers have come to expect over the years. If your operators are used to adjustable seats, improved visibility, and climate control, some used excavators may feel like a downgrade. Keep your operator’s happiness in mind when seeing which features an excavator possesses. 

Used Excavators May Still Win Out

Even with all of these considerations, used excavators for sale are still physically quite capable of holding their own. Excavators, in general, are built to last—with many working 8,000 to 10,000 hours before needing replacement parts. Make sure to select used excavators for sale with lower hours.

wheeled excavatorA wheeled excavator performing road work in downtown Brussels, Belgium. Wheeled excavators are much more common in Europe than in North America.

What should I look for when inspecting a used excavator for sale?

In a perfect world, you’re hiring a trusted heavy equipment mechanic to inspect every piece of machinery you’re thinking about buying. Whether this isn’t possible or you just want to be able to eliminate certain excavators from consideration before the professional inspection stage, there are a few crucial aspects of an excavator to check out before buying.

The Excavator’s History (or Lack Thereof)

A used excavator for sale with one previous responsible owner is ideal. A well-documented history of owners and their maintenance records is your second-best option. The dead-last option is either an excavator with little documentation or one that was used as a rental. Rentals were likely driven by inexperienced drivers with sparse documentation Even if an excavator says it only has one previous owner, verify that it was not used as a rental.

Check Out the Exterior

Just like a car, check the outside of the machine for any dents, dings, cracks, or bends. Some cosmetic damage is to be expected—it’s a workhorse, after all. An abundance of external damage, however, may denote a less-than-responsible owner who dropped the ball when it comes to the machine’s other routine maintenance or repairs. Make sure that the boom and the stick are not bending or otherwise misshaped.

Inspect the Slew Ring

The slew ring controls the excavator’s rotatable base and should be tight and glide smoothly. It should not grind, pop, leak, or make any clicking noises.

Look at Connection Points

Check the stick, boom, and bucket of the excavator for loose connections. Loose connections may denote reduced operational precision with the bucket when dumping and digging.

Check Hydraulics for Major Leaks

The hydraulic system should be free from major leaks—particularly the hydraulic pump compartment. Make sure there are no cracks or leaks in any of the cylinders, hoses, and lines.

Inspect the Bucket for Damage

The bucket should not be missing teeth. The existing teeth should not be too worn down. A “scalloped” (worn-down) bucket is still usable—though with decreased efficiency and it will require a replacement sooner than a bucket in good condition.

Excavator Tires

For an excavator with wheels, the tires are designed to last 10,000 hours without needing major replacements. The tires should last at least half that number of hours. If not listed, ask how many hours are on the tires and when they were last replaced. A Hitachi excavator usually has Michelin tires that may last a little longer (about 7,000 hours).

Swivel Joint

Also known as a rotary manifold, center swivel, or rotary union, the swivel joint on an excavator should be in good working condition and not be leaking fluid.

Manufacturer Customer Support & Parts Availability

Before you buy any used excavators for sale, personally research how helpful the customer support team is for the machine’s manufacturer. Like marrying into a family, selecting a used excavator with a great support team can make for a positive long-term relationship. Guage the customer service team’s response times, helpfulness, and the availability of replacement parts for said excavator. 

Don’t Stop at the Hour Meter

The hour meter should be operational and show a realistic representation of the hours logged. If the hours on the meter seem too good to be true—especially older models—inspect the pedals for disproportionate wear-and-tear. The pedals are a good indication of the excavator’s overall usage and wear. If something seems odd, this may denote meter tampering.

Pay Close Attention to the Images

Buying used excavators for sale online without physically inspecting them is more common than in the past. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t closely study all provided images and ask questions. If something seems off about any images, consider running a reverse image search to see if the seller has pulled the images from another source. 

If the seller hasn’t provided many adequate images, you may ask them to properly photograph their equipment before you would consider purchasing it. 

Need additional help finding new and used excavators for sale?

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations—you’re an informed excavator shopper! Feel free to use this guide while looking at new and used excavators for sale online and in person.

Our help doesn’t stop here. 

To make your excavator shopping experience as easy as possible, we’re thrilled to connect you to thousands of excavators for sale from reputable dealerships and private sellers all over North America and beyond. 

Look at New & Used Excavators For Sale Now


Related:

By on
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.
More in Buying Guides