April 21, 2014
material handling update | Lift Trucks

The dos and don'ts of buying used lift trucks

The dos and don'ts of buying used lift trucks

Previously owned lift trucks can be a great choice for some buyers. Three dealers offer advice on when to go that route and how to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.

By Toby Gooley

A showroom full of shiny new lift trucks is alluring. It's hard to resist the display models' sleek designs, high-tech features, and glossy paint jobs. For some buyers, though, a brand-new truck is more than they need; the latest model may be too expensive or "overqualified" for the particular job at hand. In those circumstances, a used lift truck might be a better choice.

When should you consider buying a used truck rather than a new one? And how do you make sure you're getting what you need at the right price? We asked three lift truck dealers who do a big business in used vehicles for some guidelines and advice. Here's what they had to say.

The most obvious reason to purchase a used piece of equipment, naturally, is price. A used lift truck generally is priced at around 50 percent less than a comparable brand-new unit, but it varies considerably with the truck and the seller, says Steve Sponza, president of Servicemax, a Bolingbrook, Ill., dealer that represents Mitsubishi and Jungheinrich. "If you buy used, you're conserving quite a bit of capital," he says. "If a new unit costs $30,000 and you spend $15,000, that leaves $15,000 you can use some other way."

If a truck will be used only intermittently—say, a couple hours a day or just a few times a week—then it probably doesn't make economic sense to buy new. Small companies operating a single shift and growing startups that can't yet justify the cost of new trucks often buy used equipment, says Allen C. Rawson, president and CEO of Atlas Companies, a Toyota dealer based in Schiller Park, Ill. In addition to selling new and used lift trucks to end users, Atlas has a separate division that wholesales used equipment throughout North and South America. Even large fleets that don't want to rely on short-term rentals to handle peak seasonal needs can benefit from purchasing used equipment, Rawson notes.

Companies that require specialized equipment on an intermittent but regular basis should look at buying used lift trucks, says Gary Hansen, vice president and owner of Capital Equipment & Handling, a Milwaukee-area dealer with locations throughout Wisconsin. Capital represents Nissan by Unicarriers and Clark lift trucks.

"Instead of purchasing a specialty machine that could potentially cost $250,000 or higher, a company that only needs a specific piece of equipment to do a certain task, like lifting very high or lifting very heavy loads, [might] look for something used that may cost half that amount," Hansen says. Many companies rent specialty trucks, but buying used has advantages, he says. For one thing, a specific piece of rental equipment won't always be available when you want it. And even if you choose to buy new, the leadtime for some heavy equipment orders can be six months or more. Buyers of specialty trucks sometimes can find what they need faster in the used market.

There are several different sources of used trucks for sale, some of them riskier than others. It's no surprise that manufacturers and dealers recommend buying directly from them. They have a vested interest in the matter, of course, but they also have some critical elements working in their favor. Most of the used trucks that dealers sell are former rentals or lease equipment that they purchased new and have been servicing all along. In addition, the manufacturers they represent usually have mandatory protocols for reconditioning and certifying used vehicles. As a result, dealers know the history of each of the used trucks they sell, have the parts and the expertise to repair them if needed, and will stand behind the truck and their work if there's a problem. "It's important for us to make that 'used' experience as good as the new truck experience," Rawson says.

Dealers aren't the only ones selling used equipment. There are plenty of independent equipment brokers, wholesalers, and auction houses, as well as owners who want to sell directly to a buyer. You can also find used lift trucks through a number of online markets. One example is Australia-based Forkliftaction.com, which offers lift trucks for sale worldwide. There are even listings for used equipment on Craigslist.

"If a buyer is looking for a specific brand, they will go to an OEM dealer, but if they're just looking at price, then they might go to an independent [dealer or broker]," says Rawson. Price-conscious buyers may also seek out auctions, which are usually advertised online and in weekly "for sale" flyers and newspapers.

But there are drawbacks to buying through such venues, the dealers say. Auctions sell "as is, where is," so it's hard to know whether a truck meets safety standards or has some other major flaw, Rawson says. "You don't know where that truck has been or what its history is. And once you leave with it, there's no going back or recourse or guarantee." For that reason, he says, buying at auction "is probably the riskiest thing for an end user to do." Furthermore, as Sponza points out, you may end up having to bring the truck to a dealer for unanticipated but costly repairs.

The Internet has certainly made locating well-priced used equipment faster and easier. "An individual buyer can literally scan the globe online," says Hansen. "They can potentially buy the same piece of equipment as we can for the same wholesale price." But that approach also has greatly raised the risk level for buyers, he cautions. One concern is that very rarely, if ever, do online sellers have local representation. And although most online sellers probably are honest, it's all too easy to make a truck look better online than it actually is. "You can't tell how well taken care of it is," Hansen says. "I've seen people put up a stock photo online but the actual vehicle is in completely different condition."

In short, Sponza says, any time you purchase used equipment from a party with whom you do not have a long-term business relationship, you're taking a risk. "If you can't see it, touch it, or feel it, it's a concern. You have to make sure you have the real article and that it is worth buying."

Ready to go out and shop for a used lift truck? Here are some pointers from the dealers on how to make sure you're getting not just a good truck but also the right truck.

  • If the price is unusually low, beware. Compare pricing for the same model with similar specs to get an idea of average prices. "When you deal with reputable wholesalers and dealers, you typically don't see huge swings in price," Hansen says. "If you do see a truck that's very low, go with common sense. Most likely, there are some deficiencies they're trying to cover up by offering a lower price."
  • Check the truck's age and hour meter. Write down the serial number and ask the manufacturer or a dealer to tell you when it was made. It's possible to reset meters on some older models, so make sure the hours on the meter are realistic for a truck of its age and condition. That's another reason to buy from an OEM dealer, Rawson says: "We can show you the hour-meter reading for that specific truck from day one."
  • Inspect every used truck in person. Look under the hood for wear, cleanliness, brake condition, cylinder scoring, and other indicators of usage. Look for leaks, and make sure major components are there. If possible, start it and drive it around. "Don't focus on the aesthetics; concentrate on the mechanics," Hansen recommends. If you buy online, consider hiring a local lift truck dealer to do an evaluation before you take delivery.
  • Find out what kind of environment the truck came from. "A lot of environments are very abusive," Sponza says. A truck from a consumer goods warehouse with a regular vehicle replacement policy will probably be clean and in good condition, he says, but a truck that spent years in a foundry or sawmill could need a lot of work.
  • When buying from a dealer, ask for the vehicle's maintenance and repair history, and what work was done to prepare it for resale. You might also ask for a "before and after" evaluation. "We actually prefer that customers see a truck before it's reconditioned so we can show them the quality of the reconditioning, and they can see it's not just a paint job," Rawson says.
  • Make sure the truck meets your actual needs. For safety's sake, dealers need to know the type of load, weight, lift height, application, and so forth for used trucks, just as they do for new ones. But buyers who are interested only in price sometimes fail to provide accurate information, Hansen says. As a result, they may purchase a truck that fits their budget but is not safe or suitable for the intended application. If you buy at auction or in other nondealer venues, you're on your own to determine whether the truck meets the relevant safety standards.
  • If the seller insists that you pay up front before delivery, be cautious. "A reputable seller should be happy with taking 50 percent and giving the buyer a few days or a week to test out the truck before paying the balance," Hansen says.
  • Insist on a guarantee of some sort. "Ask for 30, 60, or 90 days. At least if something catastrophic happens, you're covered," Sponza suggests. "Ask the seller, what can you do to protect me? You should have the right to refuse it or send it back."

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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