Tips for Buying Used Heavy Equipment

Posted on: April 06, 2022

For many in the industry, the question of new vs. used construction equipment comes down to one factor — cost. Used equipment is often more cost-effective than new equipment, making it more appealing to buyers. But it’s important to remember that the value you’ll get from a used machine depends entirely on how much use you can get out of it after purchase.

Knowing what to look for is key to finding a good used machine at a great price. So to help you out, we’ve created this list of pointers so you can learn how to buy used construction equipment.

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Research the Seller

Before heading to the lot, try to learn as much about the seller as possible. A well-established seller should have reviews or testimonials available online.

For smaller or newer dealers, do as much research as possible to learn more about them. It might help to ask colleagues and business partners if they’ve had experience with this seller, or track down information from past customers. Their experience in the industry is another sign of credibility – someone who’s been selling heavy equipment for a long time, or is part of a family business, will be a safer bet than someone who’s new to the scene.

Pro tip: Any trustworthy seller will let you test the equipment before you make a decision. If the seller bars you from taking a test drive, they may be hiding something from you.


Examine the Machine’s History

Checking the ownership history is an excellent way to tell if you’re getting a good deal. If equipment has changed hands frequently, it might be underused or poorly maintained. But if it’s been with one owner throughout its operating life, it’s likely the owner took good care of it.

Additionally, you should look out for ownership issues, such as liens and seizure of equipment. Liens are problematic because they can interfere with your legal rights as the machine’s owner. Seized equipment is also concerning – it means the equipment was taken from a buyer who could not pay in full, so maintenance was probably spotty at best.

Maintenance Record

The machine’s maintenance record should tell you everything you need to know about its condition. A detailed record of proper maintenance reduces the chance that you’ll encounter surprises during use.

The previous owner should have recorded the following:

  • Fluid changes
  • Any repairs, major or minor
  • Issues experienced during normal operation
  • Any current replacement needs

Pay extra attention to the frequency of past repairs. If one part is consistently experiencing serious issues, chances are high you’ll have the same problem moving forward.

Inspect Used Equipment Before Purchase

Before you buy, it’s best to conduct a thorough inspection of the machine to ensure you’re getting the best deal. If you don’t feel confident in your ability to thoroughly inspect heavy equipment, bring a trusted colleague or local expert along to help you.

Look out for the following when inspecting a used machine:


Your machine’s engine is one of the most expensive parts to fix, so you want to make sure it’s in good condition.

Turn the engine on and let it run for a few minutes. Listen for abnormal noises like rattling, knocking, coughs or hiccups. Strange engine sounds can indicate engine malfunctions, which can cause serious issues later.

The exhaust color can also reveal potential engine issues:

  • Bluish-gray smoke: The engine is burning abnormal amounts of oil. It could be the result of a worn seal or ring or indicate something as serious as a leak.
  • White smoke: Watch for a few minutes to make sure the white smoke isn’t water or steam, which are both normal in cold starts. White smoke can mean that the engine is burning fuel incorrectly, which could stem from a faulty head gasket, water mixing with fuel, a compression issue or even coolant in the engine.
  • Black smoke: The combustion engine has too much fuel in it. If it persists past startup, there may be a malfunctioning fuel component.


Fluid Levels

The condition of a machine’s fluids can reveal the care it has received. Check the levels of the following:

  • Transmission fluid
  • Brake fluid
  • Hydraulic fluid
  • Coolant
  • Engine oil

If they seem low, it could mean the owner hasn’t bothered to keep up with regular maintenance. Or it could even be a warning sign of a more severe issue, like leakage or contamination.

Dirty fluid can also be a red flag. Look for dark brown or cloudy fluids with abnormal smells, and make sure the fluids haven’t mixed. Mixed fluids could be a sign of an internal breach, which can cause engine damage if it hasn’t already.

Signs of Wear

Examine the machine for signs of extensive wear. Checking the following parts should give you a good idea of the machine’s condition:

  • Undercarriage: Pay special attention to areas that experience the most friction, like the undercarriage. If it looks overly worn, it could cause problems later.
  • Tires: Check that tires are in good condition. While tires are easily replaceable, you’ll likely end up footing the bill.
  • Exterior: Surface-level cracks and rust might seem harmless, but they could be a sign of deeper problems that can damage the machine’s integrity.
  • Pins and bushings: The machine may be in poor condition if they seem abnormally loose.


Look for welds on the backhoe, loader arms or buckets. Minimal welding is okay, but if the welding looks extensive, it’s best to avoid this machine. Extensive welding can be a sign that the part has experienced breakage under extreme use, which could also indicate deeper issues that aren’t immediately visible. Manual welding is never as strong as factory machine welding, so the likelihood of the part breaking again increases with each weld.

Operating Hours and Age

A machine’s age and hours run should be an important factor in your decision-making process. High hours can indicate a machine that’s closer to the end of its life than you might want to deal with.
However, a history of regular maintenance and proper usage is ultimately more important than running hours. For example, a poorly maintained 2,000-hour machine will be less valuable than a well-maintained, properly used machine logging 15,000 hours. Even though one has higher hours, the newer machine is more likely to experience serious issues due to misuse and poor upkeep.

Buy Used Heavy Equipment From Carolina Cat

If you’re looking for high-quality used equipment in North Carolina, Carolina Cat has you covered. As a proud Cat dealer, we strive to provide you with the best continuing service we can manage. A heavy equipment purchase is more than just any purchase – it’s the start of a long partnership. Trust us to provide the best service Cat has to offer.

Click here to find your nearest location, or browse our selection of used equipment online.