A red 2020 Chevy Silverado 1500 is shown from the front driving on a dirt road.

What to Look for (and Look Out for) in a Used Truck

Pickup trucks are becoming more popular by the year. Not only are drivers seeing the appeal of having a hardier vehicle that can haul its fair share of weight, but pickup truck models are on a steady path of improvement. What was once seen as work vehicles tuned to a specific utilitarian market have now become some of the most well-rounded options for auto shoppers. Take trucks like the 2020 Silverado 1500, for example, which has mass appeal thanks to its superb driving performance, available safety features, infotainment tech, and plenty of interior upgrades to choose from. Ask any new or used truck dealer, and they’d agree that there’s been a sudden uptick in the demand for pickup trucks.

If you’re shopping used, though, be on your guard. You’ll need to sidestep the many landmines of affordable used trucks that may be more costly to maintain than they’re worth or, worse, fail on you completely. It’s more realistic than cynical to assume that many used trucks available to the public aren’t a good investment. However, for every lemon on the lot, there’s a solid investment that rivals purchasing a brand-new vehicle. You just have to know what to look out for.

Your Wish List

Of course, every car shopper has at least a vague idea of what they’re looking for when they shop used with a good price likely being high on the list, but rare are the vehicles that do it all. For example, Ford F-150 trucks are affordable and great for towing, but they’re often critically panned for their cheap interior stylings. Ford seems to keep holding onto the gray or beige plastic paneling from the 1990s, even though the rest of the world has moved on. Ram trucks, meanwhile, tend to be on the pricier end of the truck market, even on a used lot, without necessarily performing better or towing more than their competitors.

As for a used truck that does the most for their value, offering well-rounded benefits that can satisfy any driver, we’d recommend a Chevy Silverado 1500. The 2018 edition of the Silverado is one of the best used trucks you can buy due to its standard driver-assist features like the rear camera, solid tow capacity of about 5,600 pounds, and excellent driving performance. A 2018 Silverado 1500 with the 5.3-liter V-8 will offer like-new performance and handling that still feels revolutionary, especially when compared to clumsier trucks by other auto brands. Even better, if it has the features of a Z71 off-road package added, you have your eyes on one of the best trucks for taking on any terrain.

Of course, this assumes that you’ve found a Silverado in good working order, ready to go the distance with you for more than, say, 5 years. Nobody wants to take home a poor investment, but that’s sadly what you may get when used car shopping. Don’t let a dealership’s reputation blind you into impulse shopping, either. There may be plenty of shoddy trucks at your local used truck dealer, especially if you buy for under $10,000.

Even if you’re a handy automotive hobbyist who can repair a damaged truck, you could be making a poor investment if a truck is priced higher than its condition deserves. Sure, a Silverado 1500 is a reliable truck, even well into 6-figure mileage, but only provided that it’s been well-maintained by its previous owner. Below are some tangible signs that a pickup truck is better off heading for the salvage yard than your driveway.

A silver 2020 Chevy Silverado LT is driving on a highway after leaving a used truck dealer.

It’s Being Sold for Suspicious Reasons

Why exactly is someone ready to let go of their pickup truck? If you’re engaging in a private sale from the previous owner, do you get the sense they’re trying to pass on their truck to you like it’s a cursed doll? Some savvy pickup owners may recognize the signs that their vehicle’s condition is going south and then try to arrange a quick sale to raise funds for a newer truck. Unfortunately, a sticker price that’s too good to be is the top sign that this is exactly what’s going on.

Luckily, there’s a way to get the truth out of the previous owner. Just ask for the vehicle’s history records, which should include service/maintenance history, accident history, and salvage titles. Insurance companies issue salvage titles to indicate that a vehicle is a total loss, and its repair or service needs exceed the estimated value of the vehicle itself, aka it’s a lemon. If someone refuses to issue records, walk away, and don’t negotiate any further.

There’s a good way to indicate that a vehicle is being sold for positive reasons, by the way. For example, if a vehicle is a recent trade-in, it may simply have been part of a temporary lease. The previous owner likely traded in their pickup for an upgrade. In general, the newer a used vehicle is, the better. Not only does this mean that it’s less likely to have accrued damage or excessive mileage, but this also means that the vehicle was probably only owned/rented for a short term. In other words, it’s practically still new.

Its Maintenance Records Are Poor

It’s tough to make up for the extensive damage of a poorly maintained truck, even a reliable one like a Silverado. These trucks may be famously hardy and long-lasting, but a truck with a negligent previous owner is going to be more of a burden than an investment. Don’t purchase a truck without taking a look at its maintenance records.

Has it undergone regular oil changes? If not, the damage has been done, and it’s nearly impossible to reverse. No amount of sprucing up you think you’re capable of can undo the damage of running an engine without clean, ample oil to lubricate it. Bear in mind other issues that stem from general negligence like stained upholstery, driving on bad tires (which can wear out the transmission), and driving while low on power steering fluid and other depleted fluids.

It’s in Poor Condition

A black 2018 Chevy Silverado 1500 Z71 is driving on a dirt road past yellow grass.

Use your best judgment here. If you have your eye on a certain used pickup, how does it look? Does it have cosmetic problems like dents or body rust? These are signs that the previous owner shrugged their shoulders at the idea of general truck upkeep. Is it’s mileage well above 100,000 miles? This isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but it does mean that you should budget this pickup as a shorter-term purchase that you’ll need to replace again in a few years. Do the tires have worn tread? Factor replacing these tires soon into the total cost of the truck. The vehicle’s service records should list any parts that have been replaced, as well as how recently they were replaced.

While some pickups are designed to last a long time, like the Chevy Silverado 1500, there are some trucks that have shorter life spans and hosts of costly problems. For example, used Nissan Frontiers commonly need a transmission clutch replacement, which can cost you over $1,000 to repair. Take note of a vehicle’s make and model and do your research on how gracefully it tends to age.

You’re Not in a Dealership

At times, it helps to practice being present. For example, if you’re taking a gander at a used truck and are thinking of putting money down, stop, take a breath, and ask yourself, “Where am I?” If the answer is anything but a truck dealership, turn around and walk away. We may be encouraging caution, even when shopping used at a dealership, but the truth is that dealerships are the only remotely wise place to even consider buying a used pickup truck. Most dealerships are thorough about inspecting potential trade-ins and won’t re-sell a vehicle that’s on its last legs.

Even better, a used truck dealership will likely receive a consistent inventory of certified pre-owned pickups. If you want even more confidence when you buy a used truck, consider shopping certified pre-owned. CPO trucks are thoroughly inspected, have a clean record, and are backed by a manufacturer warranty. CPO trucks may be a bit pricier than other used vehicles, but you still pay less than buying brand-new. Most importantly, you get peace of mind that a CPO truck from your local dealership is a solid investment: a truck that’s in it for the long haul.

Put Your New Knowledge to the Test

Now that you know some of the things to watch out for when shopping for a used truck, it’s time to put your buying skills to the test. Check out your local used dealership to see what kind of vehicles they have to offer. Test drive the models you like and check for potential problem areas as you go. Once you’ve had the chance to take a good look and find a worthwhile model to invest in, snap that truck up before someone else comes along to buy it. If you follow these simple guidelines, you will be able to find a used truck that will last you for many miles to come.