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Used Truck Buying 101: Everything You Need to Know


A pickup truck can serve as a comfortable daily driver, taking the family on road trips, hauling a weekend’s worth of gardening projects, and handling all weather conditions safely. It’s a workhorse when it comes to meeting most people’s needs.

But what do you need to consider if you’re contemplating buying a used truck? What do you need to consider on a used workhorse?

We’ll dig in to help you decipher the different types of pickups available in this guide. We’ll tell you what to look for and lay out the benefits and downsides of owning one.

Is a Used Pickup Truck Right for You? 

Trucks get built with durability in mind. They tend to hold up well under many years of use and, as long as their owners treat them well, hold their value better than comparable cars and SUVs.

If you’re considering a truck for its 4-wheel-drive (4WD) prowess or towing power, you might find an SUV is capable and easier to live with. But, if you also need an exposed bed for hauling, nothing but a pickup will do.

Upsides of a Pickup Truck

Trucks can do things other vehicles can’t.

  • Hauling: The exposed bed of a truck can carry more than any trunk or SUV cargo area. Depending on the configuration, trucks can carry roughly 1,500 to 3,500 pounds of stuff (though you have to count the weight of drivers and passengers against that total — see our payload capacity guide for the math). They also carry it outside the passenger cabin in a space you can hose down — a huge convenience if you’re hauling dirt, plants, construction materials, or anything leaving bits hard to get out of the carpet.
  • Towing: Nothing tows like a truck. Even powerful, V8-equipped full-size SUVs can’t best the pulling power of a properly equipped pickup. But “properly equipped” is doing some work there. When manufacturers advertise towing capacity, they usually refer to specially equipped models. The average truck can’t pull what the commercials claim — see our towing guide for details.
  • Off-road prowess: With their available 4WD setups, excellent ground clearance, and often rugged trail tires, trucks can get you places cars can’t.
  • Resale value: Engineers design trucks to take years of abuse, which helps them stay strong and capable but hold their value over time.

Downsides of a Pickup Truck 

A pickup isn’t the right choice for everyone. Several factors might make you happier with a different type of vehicle.

  • Size: A midsize truck is often as big as a large car or a 3-row SUV, and a full-size truck is one of the largest vehicles on the road. They’re hard to maneuver in tight spaces. They’re hard to park. And, in urban traffic, their vast size can be a nightmare.
  • Visibility: A recent “Consumer Reports” study found today’s full-size trucks are so high off the ground that they have a “front blind spot” up to 11 feet longer than most sedans and seven feet larger than a midsize SUV. If you drive in heavy traffic regularly or live with small children or animals that can hide in those blind spots, you might be better off with something closer to the ground.
  • Fuel economy: Trucks remain the least fuel-efficient vehicles most manufacturers offer. The arrival of hybrid and electric trucks will help ease that concern. But, with today’s gas prices, filling up the 36-gallon fuel tank of a Ford F-150 Raptor with premium gas costs more than $100, and you’ll only get 15 mpg out of it in city driving.
  • Ride comfort: Engineers must tune a truck’s suspension to handle everything from an empty bed to one filled with about a ton of cargo on the rear axle, which requires compromises they don’t make when designing other vehicles. Manufacturers improved truck design in the last decade. Some of today’s pickups use car-like suspension setups. If you did not get to test drive trucks in a decade or more, you might be shocked to find how well some of them handle on the road these days, but most will never ride with the comfort of a car or SUV because it’s the versatility that makes them great.

Determine What Type of Truck is Right for You 

Once you’ve decided you need a truck, you have a few more decisions.

Manufacturers today build trucks in many sizes and for many purposes. The basic idea — a torquey engine, a roomy cabin, and an exposed bed — holds for all of them. But one has very different virtues than another.

Compact Truck 

Small trucks minimize the drawbacks of pickup ownership. They can’t haul or tow as much as the big boys, but many buyers don’t need that. However, they can handle urban traffic and park easily in crowded lots in a way bigger trucks can’t.

Small trucks were once common in the U.S. market. But, as Americans showed an appetite for bigger and bigger trucks, they disappeared for nearly a decade. The Ford Ranger, for instance, was a compact truck until 2013, when it moved up to midsize. 2012-and-earlier Rangers are genuine compact trucks.

Fast-forward to 2022, and it’s the return of the compact truck. Ford now builds a small Maverick, and Hyundai makes the similarly sized Santa Cruz. Both are too new to be expected on the used market. So, if you shop for a used small pickup, you’re searching for a truck a decade or more old. Many can hold up that long in good condition, but you’ll want to inspect any small truck you consider carefully and take it to a mechanic you trust because of its age.

Midsize Truck 

You’ll see far more midsize trucks available on the used market. They’re a bit larger and more challenging to handle in traffic than compact trucks but still more straightforward to manage day-to-day than full-size trucks.

A midsize truck usually uses a smaller engine than a full-size model, but you might be surprised by how much work they can do. The midsize 2017 Chevy Colorado, for instance, offers a payload capacity of up to 1,574 pounds. That’s not far from the 1,980 pounds that the base model of its big brother 2017 Silverado can haul. If you rarely need the total payload capacity, you might find a Colorado less expensive and easier to live with than a Silverado.

Full-Size Truck 

Since 2014, America’s three best-selling vehicles have been full-size pickups (always the Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, and Ram 1500; almost always in that order). The F-150 has held the throne for more than 40 years across 14 generations of the vehicle.

Why? Because you can’t beat the combination of hard-working muscle and everyday living space found in a full-size truck.

When you shop for a used truck, these are the most common vehicles online or on the lot. But they range from bare-bones work trucks with few options to luxury trucks with every creature comfort imaginable.

Heavy-Duty Truck 

The Big Three domestic manufacturers (and Nissan) all take their full-size trucks and stretch the frames to even more immense proportions to create heavy-duty trucks.

These are big work trucks that rarely make sense for most buyers. But, if you plan to tow a fifth-wheel trailer or haul weighty loads routinely, they’re the only option. They cost more upfront, to fuel, and maintain. But, if you’re shopping for one of these, you know and need it anyway.

Electric Truck 

Consider this a placeholder because you’ll be the first if you find an electric truck on the used market. But manufacturers will be rolling out electric pickups over the next few years, so they will eventually make their way to the used market.

Electric trucks look surprisingly powerful — the weakest version of the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning boasts up to 563 horsepower. Test drivers report that they tow a load exceptionally well — they have more passing power while pulling a trailer than many gas-powered trucks have without one. But towing cuts their already limited range in half. Until electric chargers are as common as gas stations, Silverado EVs pulling boats may not be a common sight.

Off-Road Truck

Trucks have a reputation as great off-roaders, but it’s not true of every vehicle. Automakers configure today’s pickups for daily use on the pavement.

Many manufacturers, though, build off-road specials. For every year since 2015, Toyota has built unique Tacoma TRD Pro and Tundra TRD Pro models with additional off-road suspension parts, added ground clearance, off-road tires, and other gear to make them exceptionally good on the trail.

Off-road specials like the Ford F-150 Raptor are expensive but can be affordable on the used market. You’ll want to get a dirt truck carefully inspected before you buy, as the previous owner may have abused it (that’s what it’s for).

What to Consider When Buying a Used Truck 

Buying a used truck is like purchasing any other type of used vehicle, with the knob turned to 11. You’ll want to follow the classic advice — get it inspected.

The previous owner may have only driven it to church on Sundays. But they may also have loaded it over its payload capacity more than once, taken it further off-road than you could ever imagine, and rarely changed the oil. You need to now.

Every reputable mechanic knows how to perform a used car inspection and most charge between $150 and $200 for the service. Build the expense to get several trucks inspected into your budget.

The cost may seem steep, but it can save you thousands if it spots problems you couldn’t see without getting the truck on a mechanic’s lift.

Price 

Properly cared for, trucks hold their value better than cars and SUVs. After all, engineers design every weld and rivet to take more abuse in a hauler. So how do you know if the used truck you’re considering is overpriced?

Our sister site Kelley Blue Book is the only site with more than 100 years of experience evaluating the value of every car. Use our car valuation tool to figure out how much to pay, and look for Good Price and Great Price ribbons on used truck ads on Autotrader in your area.

Fuel Economy 

As you search for your used truck, find out the original EPA fuel economy estimates for those you’re considering. Then, budget for a tuneup on your used truck after your purchase. An engine’s fuel economy degrades over time, but most trucks can return to their original fuel economy performance with a few tweaks. A new oxygen sensor and a timing tuneup can pay you back at the pump, especially with 2022 gas prices.

Bed 

Most trucks are available in short- and long-bed configurations. The short bed is more than enough for most people. They’re also easier to handle in traffic and parking lots. But, if you routinely haul lumber, large furniture, or other long items, the long-bed option may be worth the added care in driving.

Short beds are usually around 5 feet to 6.5 feet. Long beds can be as long as 8 feet — big enough to lay flat 4-by-8 sheetrock, so you don’t risk damaging it on the ride home.

Some short-bed trucks come with bed extenders that fold out to give you extra room.

Cabin Type

You’ll need to learn a few terms to make sense of used truck advertisements. Truck cabins come in three types:

  • Standard Cab: A 2-door, 2-seat cabin is a standard cab. Manufacturers build more 4- than 2-seat trucks these days, but basic work trucks are still common in this configuration.
  • Extended Cab: An extended cab comes with two doors and four seats. The front seats slide forward to give you access to the rear, like in many sports coupes. Ford calls this “Super Cab.” Toyota dubs it “Access Cab.” GM names it “Double Cab.”  This configuration works well if you occasionally need to carry four people, but most adults aren’t comfortable in the back of an extended cab truck for long.
  • Crew Cab: This configuration offers four doors and seating for three passengers in the second row. Ford calls this “Super Crew.” Toyota calls it “Double Cab.” Ram calls it “Quad Cab.” This configuration is the most comfortable if you routinely need the seats. But it’s also the priciest.

Towing and Payload Capacity 

If you’re shopping for a used truck, you probably expect to haul or tow loads regularly. Both are complicated topics. See our payload and towing guides for a thorough understanding.

But it’s worth clearing up a few common points of confusion early. Remember that most trucks can’t haul or tow the heavy loads you see in advertisements — those figures apply to specially equipped trucks with tow packages. Also, remember that when you calculate payload, don’t forget to count yourself in the total. The truck’s payload capacity includes all the weight in the cabin. When loading 2,000 pounds in the bed of a truck with a 2,000-pound payload capacity, you need to factor in the driver and any passengers.

Since drivers often misunderstand towing and payload capacity, many owners overload their trucks. A third-party inspection at a dealership or local car repair shop can tell you if the frame or suspension shows weakness from overloading.

Drivetrain 

Manufacturers offer a greater variety of powertrains in trucks than in cars or SUVs. For instance, Ford offered its 2019 F-150 with four different V6 engines, a hybrid powertrain, a turbodiesel engine, and a V8. Five or six engine choices are not unusual.

However, virtually all come only with automatic transmissions. In 2022, only the midsize Jeep Gladiator offers a manual setup.

When choosing a powertrain, think carefully about the work you’ll be asking your truck to do. Many truck buyers overspend and pay more at the gas station for power they never need.

Where to Find a Used Truck 

You’ll find used trucks for sale everywhere, from new car dealerships to the side of the highway with a handwritten price taped to the window. The buying considerations will be different based on where you shop.

Online 

We’re big fans of going online when it comes to truck shopping. Online shopping lets you see hundreds of options near you and easily find the right combination of traits. As of this writing, Autotrader lists more than 300,000 trucks for sale in the United States.

Autotrader lets you sort by distance from you, price, mileage, cab size, bed length, and more than a dozen other considerations — even color.

Are you looking for a hauler to tow your horse trailer? Look for options, including a 2017 Ram 3500 Laramie, and better yet, find one prepped with a gooseneck towing package and dual rear wheels to get the job done.

Want a truck you can commute in that stands out from the crowd? Try a 2016 GMC Canyon with the handsome Nightfall Edition.

Need a hard worker on a budget? Consider a 2016 Ram 1500 Tradesman with its long bed. You’re likely to find it’s still under the factory warranty and can be yours for usually less than $19,000.

Just be aware that when buying online, you still have the right to ask for a third-party inspection on a used truck.

Dealership 

Some buyers still prefer the convenience of shopping at a dealership. A dealership can show you several used trucks in your price range in the same afternoon of shopping and establish a business relationship with you in a way that private-party sellers can’t.

Going to a dealership gives you access to Certified Pre-Owned trucks. They combine the low price of a used truck and the peace of mind of a truck typically under warranty.

Inspect the Used Truck Before Buying 

We’ll give parental advice here about inspections. Because it’s even more critical when truck shopping than it is when car shopping — and it’s vital when car shopping.

Have a third-party mechanic inspect any truck you’re considering before making an offer.

Ask the owner for service records (especially if the truck remains under warranty — you may need to prove that the vehicle got serviced properly to win any warranty claim). Then take it to a third-party mechanic and have them perform a used car exam. They’ll know the term and have done it before.

Among other things, a mechanic should check the condition of the:

  • Air conditioning
  • Alternator
  • Axles, including checking for the presence of towing enhancements
  • Brake systems
  • Emissions, including the state of the catalytic converter — an expensive replacement on many trucks
  • Engine
  • Frame, looking for signs of misuse or overloading
  • Fuel injection system
  • Fuel pump
  • Radiator
  • Steering system, including checking the quality of any modifications
  • Suspension
  • Transmission
  • Water pump

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Sean Tucker
Sean Tucker is an author, reporter, and reviewer covering the automotive and energy industries. His work has appeared in print and online through U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo Autos, MSN, Dub Magazine, and more. He has been an expert guest on cable television discussing the car industry, and has served as reporter and managing editor for energy and insurance industry publications, covering... Read More about Sean Tucker

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