10 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Pickup Truck

Military truck
Military truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

All those trucks we saw at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show were pretty badass, weren’t they? All glistening and decked-out with every bolt-on imaginable, looking like freedom on four wheels, and making us want to stand up and salute because those diesel fumes aren’t toxic, they’re addicting.

To us, there’s nothing better than tailgating in a classic pickup; last we heard, it was getting penciled into the Constitution or something like that. And with such a demand out there for new haulers, there are plenty of people on the hunt for used and classic trucks too.

Chevy Apache fleetside
Chevy Apache fleetside | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Trucks may not be for everyone, but there really is a truck out there for everyone. If you’re looking for anything from an itty-bitty 1980s Toyota to an all-terrain Ram 3500 Cummins dually, you’re focused on getting one of the coolest and most practical creations ever concocted, and we want to help.

Of course, due diligence like checking the engine for usual signs of abuse, and that it doesn’t belch white smoke from the tailpipe, is a must. But trucks have their own little quirks, and after speaking to off-road experts All-Terrain Outfitters, we came up with 10 cheats to keep you from picking up a POS pickup.

1. If they “brake it,” should you buy it?

Classic Chevy truck
Classic Chevy truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

If it’s big enough to tow a couple of Sea-Doos, and has an engine with ample amounts of torque, take a look inside the cabin for a brake controller. If you find one, chances are the truck has done some heavy hauling in its lifetime. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; most trucks are engineered to tow, but it will let you know the kind of life this truck has led. Remember, extended periods of strain on a drivetrain and a trailer hitch can do all sorts of unseen damage, so just be cautious of any brake controller-equipped trucks.

2. Search for skid marks

Rat rod truck
Rat rod truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you’re looking at a lifted or slammed truck, remember that both are prone to bottoming out. If it’s an off-road-ready truck, get under there and see if it’s been off road lately, and be sure to check on top of the skid plates for signs of mud. Be equally meticulous with slammed trucks because skid plates, frame rails, and bump stops don’t hide scratches all that well. If the underside looks recently repainted, undercoated, or has fresh skid plates, something might be up.

3. Overspray means walk away

Chevy C-10 truck
Chevy C-10 truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Accidents happen, especially when you’re hauling lumber, livestock, or jugs of moonshine all at once. Check tell-tale places (like where the fenders meet the hood) for a line of overspray to see if a truck has been in a collision. The same goes for the space between the bed and cab and the fender wells.

4. Don’t be indifferent to differentials

Lifted Ram truck
Lifted Ram truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Since full-size trucks have differentials designed to handle heavy loads, a close inspection is important. Check for any noise or visible leaks coming from the front and rear differentials, and always put the truck in every gear several times in order to detect any inconsistencies. Also, if you can take it to a trusted mechanic for further inspection we strongly recommend spending the dough to do so.

5. Driveshaft issues? Reach for tissues

Dodge hauler
Dodge hauler | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you’re looking at a heavy-duty truck for towing, always check to make sure the driveshaft hasn’t been compromised. Hell, you’re already down there checking the rear differential anyways, you might as well look to see if it’s warped, crimped, or twisted in some fashion.

6. Use your head, check that bed

Chevy Apache pickup truck
Chevy Apache pickup truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Always check the couplings in order to see if the bed has ever been damaged, removed, wrenched on, repainted, or even cleaned. The last thing you want to see in your rearview mirror is the bed of your new baby bouncing down the interstate and into oncoming traffic.

7. If a frame is busted, don’t trust it

Old truck
Old truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Bent frames are bad news. Inspect the entire frame of a truck to guarantee that it’s straight and rock solid, especially if the vehicle has ever plowed snow, hauled heavy loads, or was used off-road. Also, check the frame rails for rust, large dents, or anything suspicious like fresh undercoating.

8. Dead leaves are a disease

Volkswagen truck
Volkswagen truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

If a truck has leaf springs (and many of them do), make sure they aren’t corroded or compromised in any way. Check the bolts where they attach, and pay close attention to how they react under load. Sometimes all it takes is someone hopping up and down in the bed for a truck’s springs to reveal significant issues.

9. Got rot? We hope not

Rat rod truck
Rat rod truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This is especially important on older trucks up north, where road salt can eat vehicles alive like cancer. Be sure to check between the bed and behind the seats inside the cab for any noticeable rot, as trucks like old Chevy C-10s are notorious for rusting back there.

10. Mud huggers eat hubs

Lifted Chevy truck
Lifted Chevy truck | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Lifted trucks with over-sized tires tend to have different kinds of maintenance issues. If a truck has big-ass mud huggers on it, be wary of any axle and hub-related maladies. Big tires and wheels eat hubs like Skittles, so even if a truck is lifted but doesn’t have massive rubber under it, check out those hubs, because chances are it did at one point.