A blue 2020 Ram 1500 is parked in front of a desert and a colorful blue and yellow sky.

8 Glaring Red Flags that the Used Truck You’re About to Buy is a Lemon

If you’re among the thousands of Americans seeking a reliable used pickup truck as your personal vehicle, you might want to read this. Buying a used pickup is not as easy as looking around and grabbing the cheapest truck you can find that has what you want. There’s a lot more involved, particularly if you’re looking for a lower-priced option. If you are buying from a private seller or a no-name used pickup dealership, there is a good chance that a bargain truck will come back to bite you.

Why is buying a used pickup truck more complex than purchasing a car or SUV? It boils down to use. Most pickup truck owners use their vehicles for heavy-duty work, like hauling cargo or towing, which means wear-and-tear are likely more extensive. If the truck you’re eyeing hasn’t been properly used and maintained, you could end up with a lemon. Pickup trucks are designed for rugged use, whether that means off-roading or showing up on the job site every day. Still, if the previous owner pushed that truck beyond its specified limits or otherwise failed to keep it properly maintained, that could spell trouble for the next owner down the line. And that could be you.

The best way to guarantee that you are getting what you paid for is to buy from a reputable used pickup dealership. While small-time used car lots have a well-deserved reputation and individuals may not even know what they are selling, a large authorized dealership will inspect every car they have on their lot and provide you with a full vehicle history report. Major dealerships will also offer the option of Certified Pre-Owned trucks that come with extended factory warranties and support that are as good as what you will get with a new truck. However, if you don’t want to play it safe by visiting a reputable dealership, here are eight potential red flags you should watch out for before you decide to plunk down thousands on that used pickup.

A red 2019 Ram 1500 Warlock is parked under a bridge after leaving a used pickup dealership.

#1 Damage to the Frame

Most pickup trucks see extremely heavy use, especially trucks used on job sites or for hauling and towing. Off-roading is another heavy use activity that can affect overall soundness, both structurally and mechanically. It is critical to have a licensed mechanic carefully inspect the frame for evidence of damage. Bent or damaged frames can spell huge long-term issues, including phantom vibrations and the potential for less protection in the event of a collision.

#2 Overly Stiff or Overly Relaxed Suspension

Trucks are designed for rigidity, so some roughness is just a characteristic of how they drive. It’s when the suspension feels overly tight or a little wobbly – especially during turns – that you should be concerned. When the truck is on a paved road or highway, it should ride smoothly and absorb minor bumps. Signs of a worn suspension include wobbling or uneven-feeling ride quality, extra-bumpy response when driving over uneven roads. An easy way to check the suspension is by conducting a bounce test: simply rock the truck several times, then stop and observe. If it continues bouncing, the suspension is likely bad.

#3 A History of Over Towing

All trucks are built for a specific max towing capacity (and payload capacity, for that matter). Exceeding the truck’s specified capacity means putting excess wear on the transmission, suspension, and other components. Continuously doing so may cause irreparable damage due to the truck being asked to work much harder than it was designed to. It may be hard to spot this particular type of wear, but you can ask private sellers what they towed and check maintenance records to see if the tow hitch and trailering equipment was regularly inspected.

#4 Excessive Rust

A sure sign that the truck wasn’t garaged or properly maintained, excessive rust indicates a virtually unfixable problem. If the truck’s body is deteriorating, rust is the evidence. Sure, you can bring it to a body shop and have it repaired, but the truck will never have the same factory-designed structural integrity. This is especially common in colder climates where road salt is used, but rusty vehicles can also be found in warmer climates. Keeping a truck close to rust-free can be as simple as frequently washing it and keeping it garaged. If the truck is rusty, it probably wasn’t well-maintained.

#5 Skipping the CARFAX Report

It may not be obvious if the truck you want was involved in an accident or if it sustained flood or fire damage. That’s why pulling a CARFAX report is critical. CARFAX reports contain important information that can inform buyers about potential problems they may not otherwise know about, including whether the truck has a salvage title (meaning it was “totaled” by an insurance company) or whether it was in a serious accident. If the seller doesn’t provide one (any reputable dealership will give you one for free), be sure to get the VIN number and buy one yourself.

A white 2020 Jeep Gladiator is parked in front of trees and snow-covered mountains.

#6 A Stinky Cabin

Most sellers will take the time to clean out the truck’s interior before they list it for sale. That might mean using air fresheners or other chemicals to mask unpleasant odors, like cigarette smoke. Don’t just give the cabin a cursory glance: pay attention to low-level smells or other signs that odors have permanently taken up residence in the seating surfaces or headliner. That means climbing in the cab, closing all the doors and windows, and spending a few minutes evaluating what your nose picks up. Living with baked-in smells is a long-term unpleasantry that you can easily skip and may hint at deeper problems like water damage.

#7 Available Warranty

Generally, it pays to be a little handy if you’re buying an older truck because you’ll be better equipped to recognize potential mechanical issues before they become a big problem. However, having some warranty coverage will always help with your peace-of-mind. Used pickups that are sold “as is” without any coverage will always be the riskiest buys since the seller obviously doesn’t trust them enough to cover any repairs.

#8 Not Having the Truck Thoroughly Inspected

No matter what the age or mileage of your potential used pickup truck, it’s essential to have a mechanic thoroughly inspect it from bumper-to-bumper. Hopefully, the seller has all maintenance records so you can easily determine whether it’s been taken care of, but a multi-point inspection can also uncover potential problems or gaps in service. An inspection means you’re making an informed purchase, which is critical for long-term satisfaction and vehicle reliability.

Choose Your Used Pickup Carefully

Buying a used truck can be tricky, but if you take your time and do some homework, you’re much more likely to come out ahead. If all of this seems overwhelming, don’t be afraid to put your trust in a local authorized dealership. There are many benefits, including gaining access to Certified Pre-Owned trucks – the cream-of-the-crop nearly new option – and having access to a full-service maintenance and repair facility with skilled technicians. Free CARFAX reports and dealership warranties are other advantages you will find at a major used pickup dealership. It’s a convenient way to shortcut the process and guarantee the truck you buy is among the highest quality used pickups available.