Off-roading in a 4×4 can be exhilarating, but often purchasing a brand new one is out of reach. Used 4x4s allow you to get into the sport without the hefty price tag, if you can find a solid vehicle to purchase.

Buying any used vehicle comes with a risk of unexpected, high cost repairs. Because 4x4s are often used for hauling, snow plowing, and of course off-roading, they take more abuse and have a higher risk of exhibiting problems. When searching for a quality used 4×4 for off-roading you should keep the following in mind.

Establish Your Requirements

The first thing you need to do when searching for a used 4×4 is determine how much you are willing to spend on the vehicle total, not just the purchase price. The estimated cost of any repairs or enhancements that you will need to do should be added to the purchase price when determining if your wallet can handle the 4×4.

Next, be aware of what you must have, and what you can live without. Does the car have to be in excellent cosmetic shape, or would a beat up truck in excellent mechanical shape work for you? If a truck meets everything on your list, but it doesn’t have the lift kit you find essential don’t dismiss it. Check how much it would cost to add the kit after purchase, and if it falls within your budget, then you have found your perfect 4×4.

Checking Listings

Looking for cars in your local paper, craigslist, or other venues is one of the easiest ways to find a used 4×4, but you have to know what to watch out for in the listings. Ads often try to mask problems with the truck or give signs that the 4×4 in question might not be all it is made out to be.

If the ad lists off numerous new parts you should consider why they were replaced. It could have been due to accident, the car falling apart, or undue stress and wear being put on the vehicle. In the same vein, if you see that the 4×4 has had all kinds of off-roading parts installed in it then you know it has likely been used for such, and the wear and tear will have been a lot higher.

Finally, if the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. If a car is listed for way below its value, there is usually a reason why.

After you have gathered a list of things to check out, grab a friend or relative to help check them out. Having someone with you is always safer, and if you don’t know a lot about the mechanics of 4x4s, you can bring along someone who does to help you inspect the vehicle.

Checking the Car History

One of the first things you should ask after arriving to inspect a vehicle are the service records. They will tell you if the car has had any parts replaced, and if it was well maintained. A lack of service records does not mean the car was not well maintained, especially since the owner could have done the work himself, but it should signal you to look a little closer when inspecting the 4×4.

You should also ask after who owned the car (if not the person you are speaking with), what it was used for, and who the previous owners were, if any. If you have a better idea about who used the car, and for what, you can form a better picture of the driving conditions it was subjected to, and the amount of wear and tear you should expect.

Inspecting the Exterior

If you are looking for a vehicle that looks great as well as performs great, than the body is obviously an important factor. Even if you are just looking for something mechanically sound, and the shape the car’s exterior in is a secondary concern, it may still give you warning signs that something is not right.

The first thing you should check for is signs that the 4×4 has been in a collision. Large dents are body damage point to this right away, but there are also signs you may miss that point to the same thing. If a door does not quite line up correctly it may have been replaced due to collision damage. If a door or other part of the body is a slightly different color than the rest of the vehicle it could be a sign that it was damaged and replaced. Fresh paint over the entire car should make you curious, as well, because the owner may be trying to hide some of these things, or others like rust and corrosion.

After checking the body, the chassis is the next to be inspected. Check for large amounts of dirt or grime cake don the bottom, as they may hide substantial amounts of rust and corrosion. If there is rust and corrosion in the chassis, or dents and damage, then you should walk away from the car unless you are willing to put in a lot of money, or a lot of time welding.

The final exterior elements to check are the Wheels. Make sure that the rims are straight and undamaged, and that there is a good amount of tread on the tires. If the tread is sufficient, you should still check for an uneven wear pattern, as that could point to a couple different problems that would need repair. Finally, make sure that the tires are off-road tires, or that you have the money in your budget to purchase them if that is not the case.

Checking Parts and Suspension

After determining that the exterior is up to snuff, checking the suspension and visible parts of the vehicle should be next up on your list. You can test the shocks by standing at each corner of the 4×4 and pushing down on it hard, then releasing. If the vehicle bounces more than once, then the shocks will need to be replaced.

Next you should stand about ten feet away from the front of the vehicle, and check if the car leans to one side or the other. If it does, that means the springs will need to be replaced.

When inspecting the car, you should also look for any aftermarket parts that are installed, and the condition they are in. You should pay particular attention to whether the parts are installed correctly or not, as many people attempt to install these themselves and do a poor job.

Finally, you should start the 4×4 up and have your friend watch the exhaust. If the exhaust is blue, then that is a sign that the vehicle is burning oil, if the exhaust is black, there is a problem with the fuel system, and if it is white, then there is coolant leaking into the cylinders.

You can also check for problems by running your finger along the inside of the exhaust pipe. If there is moisture then it points to the car burning oil. If there is soft soot then it could point to periodic cylinder misfires, fuel mixture issues, or spark ignition system problems. If the substance that rubs of is dry then the vehicle passes the test.

Checking Under the Hood

When you first pop the hood the first thing to look for is the general cleanliness and condition of the components. If the interior is covered in oil and grime then it is a sign the 4×4 has been poorly maintained, and is likely to have problems.

The various fluid levels in the vehicle should then be checked, to ensure that they are all at proper levels and do not contain any particles, or discoloration. Oil should be tan or brown, transmission fluid should be red, and coolant should be yellow or green.

If the owner allows you, check the condition of the spark plugs as well. You are looking for clean porcelain and deposit free terminals. If the spark plugs have a slight tan coloring then you can rest assured that the engine is well tuned. Small metal deposits on the spark plug, however, point to engine knock, which is a certified car killer.

The last thing to check requires the help of your friend. Open the cap to the coolant, stand to the side of the 4×4, and have your friend hop in and start the vehicle. Watch the coolant reservoir, and if you see any bubbles that could be a sign of damage to the gaskets or cracks in the block.

The Test Drive

If the vehicle passes all of these tests, then it is time to take it for a test drive. Keep the radio and cooling systems off so that you can listen for any problems the vehicle may have.

Listen and feel for delays when shifting and also violent or hard shifting. These could point to transmission problems, which are often extremely pricey. Make sure that the engine accelerates properly, and without any delays or knocks.

Take the vehicle on rougher roads, and listen for squeaks or other noises when going over bumps. This can point to a damaged or failing suspension system, which will need to be replaced. When on flat roads, you should listen and feel for friction and whining from the wheels, which could indicate failing bearing. If there is a wobble or pull to the vehicle, this can point to a number of front end and wheel problems as well.

Finally, check to make sure that the 4WD engages smoothly and properly, without any unusual noises. After you have completed your test drive, let the car idle for ten to fifteen minutes to see if it idles roughly, or if it overheats.

Final Steps

If the car seems on the up and up, then you have only a few things left to do. You should run a auto history check on it, such as a carfax, and consider taking it in to a mechanic you trust for a once-over. A little bit of money on a mechanic now could save a lot of money down the road.

If everything checks out, then make an offer, negotiate, and head home with your new 4×4.


Featured image from Tours and Truck exterior image from Dave_7 Engine image from The Tire Zoo

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