What to Look for When Buying a Used Tractor – With Checklist

If you’re looking in the market for a used utility farm tractor whether it’s your first tractor or you’re second or third, it’s always a good idea to have a list of questions formulated to ask and a list of items to inspect on the tractor so you can stay focused.

We all know what it’s like when we are in front of a tractor and our tractor addiction takes over – we are like kids in a candy shop and have a hard time remembering the important stuff. We just want to ride the tractor!

“Check out the list of things we wish we’d known when

we bought our first tractor.”

Christy

When it comes to buying anything used, it’s important to look for wear and tear on the item. The more money you’re spending, the more important this is. Especially when buying an item like a farm tractor that has completed a multitude of heavy projects and has been driven on a ton of different terrains.

Below is a thoughtful inspection list and tips I’ve expanded on from a tractor forum  and a knowledgeable video by Stoney Ridge Farmer. Check out the video, he dissects and inspects key parts on an older model tractor he bought. It’s informative and good to watch so I’ve included it below.

video credit -YouTube Channel of: Stoney Ridge Farmer

Use our inspection checklist and tips as a general guideline. Also, please feel free to email us at howdy@tractoraddict.com  with any suggested additions or edits to this inspection list, as we’d like this to be a helpful tool for new buyers. We definitely would have benefited from having a tool like this – that we could download and bring with us while we shopped around for a used tractor.

It’s worth noting that we found common elements among tractors that were sometimes badly neglected. We found that they had one or several of the following features:

  • peeling paint,
  • cracked tires,
  • bulging tires,
  • dents,
  • loose fixtures,
  • signs of welding,
  • mismatched parts, and
  • an overall appearance and feel of being weathered.

Therefore, you might what to be a bit more cautious of used tractors with these types of characteristics and ask a lot more questions.  

On the other hand, we found that farm tractors (regardless of their age) that looked well maintained – were well maintained and had their historical records well organized too.

Downloadable Inspection Checklist and Useful Tips for Buying a Used Tractor

Download our inspection checklist below. And remember to print off a few blank copies when you go out shopping for a used tractor. It’s helpful to take notes on a separate inspection list for each tractor you view. Happy hunting!

Total Hours of Operation

Hop inside the cab and see how many hours of operation the tractor has performed. It was mentioned in a credible forum that if considering engines in general, anything above 5,000 hours on a gasoline engine may be considered high and might need an overhaul. 

Whereas diesel engines can go for much longer. In general, diesel engines are considered still good at 6,000 to 10,000 hours of hard work. If they are well maintained. And some newer tractor models can exceed 12,000 hours and still operate like new.

It really depends on the model and maintenance of the tractor. Do your homework and don’t be afraid of a bit larger number of operating hours, as the tractor may still be in very good shape because the previous owner or owners have cared for and maintained it really well.  

However, having said that, it’s good to be a bit more cautious and thorough on your inspection if the tractor has an excess number of operating hours.

Good Maintenance Logs and Supporting Documents

Review the maintenance logs, inspection lists, work orders, receipts and any other supporting documents you can get your hands on.

These documents combined with detailed questions to the seller, provide valuable insight into the history of the tractor, how often and what types repairs were performed. It could also uncover potential or current issues that haven’t been addressed by the owner yet.

Good Liquid Levels and No Leaks or Broken Hoses

ENGINE OIL (check this PRIOR to starting the engine)

Before you start the tractor, check the oil level, as a cold engine provides the most accurate reading. You’ll also want to ensure the tractor is on level ground as well. The engine oil level should be between the “Full” and the “Add” mark level on the dipstick. Too low of engine oil level may indicate signs of neglect.  

Oil levels should be checked twice in one day if your running the tractor for more than 4 hours in a day.

GOOD TIP

It is also important to inspect the engine oil condition, as this is the lifeblood of your engine. As a rule of thumb, it should be checked every day you use the tractor. The color and consistency of the oil is indicative of its age.

Oil will slowly change in color from a golden color to brown, and finally to black as particulates from the engine get into the oil. Engine oil that is in good condition will look fairly clear like golden honey. Dark brown to black oil indicates the engine oil and oil filter need to be replaced.

It is important to inspect the oil for any evidence of contamination and also for any metal particles, foam or water in the oil which would indicate serious and expensive repairs.

If engine oil changes have been neglected, there is a good chance deposits and sludge have built up in the engine. An easy way to look for this is to remove the engine oil filler cap and use a flashlight to look into the engine.

The Color of Your Engine Oil Says A Lot – So Pay Attention

If the internal engine parts you can see are covered with thick black deposits and sludge, this is an indication the engine oil has not been replaced regularly. If you can see the thick black sludge on top of the engine, it most likely exists in the entire engine.

If the tractor you are checking is one you are considering buying it would be advisable to avoid this tractor if it shows signs of neglect regarding oil changes. Unless, of course, you know the exact issue and can fix it within your budget.

HYDRAULIC FLUID

Look for leaks and poor seals when inspecting hydraulics, possible signs that damage to the outlets or hydraulic tank may exist.  Check the fluid levels – the fluid should be at the maximum mark. Sufficient quantity and quality of hydraulic oil is very important, as it contributes to movement and functions of several critical parts of a tractor.

RADIATOR COOLANT

Open up the radiator, if there are no leaks and the coolant and radiator cab is clean and a nice dark green in color, it’s likely good. Ensure there isn’t any white scum or bubbles in the radiator, or moisture at the bottom of the radiator, as this could indicate serious and expensive repairs.

POWER STEERING

Ensure the oil is at the maximum mark and free of debris or build-up.

FRONT AXLE OIL

Park the tractor on level ground, remove the fill plug, remove the check plug and that’s about where the fluid level should be – at the maximum mark. Also, make sure the fill plug and surrounding parts are free of build-up and/or debris.

Functioning, Clean and Well-Maintained Hydraulic System with the Right Number of Outlets

It’s a good idea to conduct a pressure test on the hydraulics system to ensure it is functioning at the correct psi capacity indicated on the manufacture’s spec sheet for the make and model of tractor you’re looking at.

One way to test the hydraulics, is to check the full range of the rams by extending them while supporting a heavy load. Keep the load in a holding position to check that there are no leaks.

If there are chattering noises coming from the pump when lifting the load, it could indicate that the pump is getting insufficient flow of hydraulic fluid.

If run this way for long periods of time, the pump will have experienced excessive wear and could be ready to fail.

Another way to efficiently test the hydraulics system would be to use a hydraulic pressure test gauge. Below is a good video showing how to use a test gauge. I’m not endorsing the sale of their product at all – just the knowledge in the video, as it is simply explained with a few helpful tips.

video credit – YouTube Channel of: Ken Deckleman

In addition, it is also good to consider what types of attachments you will be running prior to purchasing a tractor. When inspecting the hydraulic outlets and auxiliary/return lines you’ll want to ensure you have enough capacity to operate the attachments you will use. 

For example, some implements need a minimum of three hydraulic outlets and one auxiliary line with 38 GPM of hydraulic power. And others may need up to five hydraulic outlets and three auxiliary lines with 98 GPM of hydraulic power.

Therefore, it may be a good idea to research your attachments and note the hydraulic power and outlet requirements for each prior to looking around at used tractors. It would be a shame to purchase a tractor and not have the proper number of outlets and/or lines for the jobs you’d like to complete.

Clean Filters

A clogged filter will affect the performance of the tractor’s engine. It will also make the tractor work harder than it needs to. As a result, this will speed up the wear and tear and drastically shortening the tractor’s lifespan. Plus, it could also reduce its resale value too.  

It is a good idea to check these filters based on the usage or according to the recommended hours for your tractor, which are noted in the user’s manual. Most tractor manuals can be downloaded online once you’ve searched the correct make, year and model number.

Write the hours down directly on both the oil and air filters. It’s a good reminder for when the next replacement should be.

GOOD TIP

When the tractor’s engine is OFF, inspect the following:

AIR FILTER

These filters are commonly replaced every 100 – 200 hours and, therefore, should not look dirty.  Colin Campbell offers this tip: “Look through your air filter from the inside and hold up a light to the outside. If you see a good amount of light, your air filter is okay. If the light is dim or you can’t see it at all, replace the filter immediately.” 

In his years of experience as a dealer and mechanic, he’s seen some filters get clogged up in as little as 9 hours, and others that can go up to 250 hours before needing a change. He suggests, “As a rule of thumb, plan on checking the air filter every eight hours; more often if you’re working in very dirty conditions.”

photo credit: parker

OIL FILTER

Most folks that maintain their tractors well write dates on their oil filter indicating what date and at how many hours the last oil change was, what type of oil was used, and when the last oil filter was changed.  You should also consider doing this, as it’s an easy quick reference when maintaining your own tractor.

On some tractors you might be able to easily remove the oil pan to check for sludge or metal flakes. But I think this may be only be the case for older tractors.

A Running and Smooth Rotating Power Take Off Shaft

Turn on the tractor’s engine and then turn on the power take off (PTO) shaft. Ensure that the power take off’s shaft movement is rotating smoothly. Listen for any unusual sounds like knocking coming from the output shaft. You don’t want to end up with a used tractor that requires repairs to the power take off shaft, as this could be very costly.

It’s also worth noting that the less-is-more rule doesn’t apply to tractors. PTO horsepower is just as important as the engine horsepower when considering a new or used tractor.

The power take power take off is the amount of horsepower available to run the various implements or attachments you want to use on your tractor. The power take off shaft is what connects to your attachments to power them up.

A larger power take off number is also important when driving your tractor on hilly or weeded terrain. The engine’s horsepower diminishes on steeper terrains and PTO horsepower is what helps your tractor navigate over and up rough terrain.

We’ve found a good rule of thumb when considering how much PTO horsepower and engine horsepower, is to buy a tractor with 10-20% more on each of these.  

The end result will be better fuel economy in the field and the potential to handle any large jobs that could come up as your operation expands and you get more confident and comfortable performing larger and more technical jobs. You don’t want to outgrow your tractor.

Buy 10-20% more engine horsepower and PTO horsepower than you think you need. Or you may outgrow your tractor.

GOOD TIP

Life Left on the Tires

Bring a tire tread depth gauge with you so you can measure the tread depth left on the tractor tires. Compare this measurement with the tread depth measurement on the tire manufacturer’s website to get a good idea of how much life is left in the tractor tires.

Honestly, this isn’t a step to skip. Depending on the type of tractor tires, they can cost you a few thousand dollars to tens-of-thousands of dollars to replace. CLICK HERE for a simple and more in-depth explanation on how to use a tire tread depth gauge.

It is also good to inspect the overall condition of the tires by answering some of these additional questions below.

  • Are there any cracks in the tires?
  • Are there any signs of bulging?
  • Do they have any issues with holding air?
  • Are all the valve stems on the tires strong, sturdy, and have no signs of rust or crusty stuff?

Tread Type of Tires

Confirm the type of tire tread on the tractor you are considering buying to the type of tire tread you require. You may need R1 or bar-tread or R2 or turf-treads.  CLICK HERE to check out another article where we briefly talk about the 3 R’s of tractor tires and their differences.

Ballast or Non-Ballast Tires

Determine if the tires on the tractor are filled with ballast. It’s common practice to only ballast the rear wheels but some also ballast the front too. Ballast, essentially means giving stability to an object (like a farm tractor) by putting a heavy substance in its tires or on its frame.  

CLICK HERE to learn how to check if a tractor tire is loaded or has ballast in it.

Once you’ve determined if the tires have ballast, you’ll need to determine with what type of fluid or substance. This information is essential in helping you maintain the tires, as well as extend the life of your tires.  

Healthy Battery

Ensure all connections to the battery are wired tightly. Colin Campbell, a tractor mechanic and dealer, explains that  “The biggest problem is buildup of corrosion on the battery cables, which can cause your battery to go dead,”

“So, keep your batteries clean—especially where the battery post meets the inside of the terminal—and make sure the connection is tight. If you can twist the cable, it is too loose.”

Colin also suggests checking the fluid level in each cell. And test the battery with a voltage meter—a reading below nine volts means you need a new battery. Damaged cables and defective or poorly adjusted lights can mean the tractor was treated rough.

A battery with a reading below 9 volts means you need a new battery.

GOOD TIP

Comfortable, Clean and Well Looked After Operator Station

After seating in a tractor for several hours you’ll appreciate as many comfortable and convenient features as possible. And the only way to truly tell is to get in and take the tractor for a test drive and inspect the items listed below.

SEAT INSPECTION LIST:

  • Inspect the condition and comfort of the seat.
  • Ensure the seat-belt is working.
  • Ensure the seat operation is also working – is the range of adjustment work for you? Does the engine turn off when you dismount from the seat?

CAB INSPECTION LIST:

  • Is the overall cab body been well maintained?
  • If an enclosed cab body, are all mounting pieces working?

CONTROLS INSPECTION LIST:

  • Are the controls within easy reach or are they difficult for you to reach?
  • Do the amp and hour meter, fuel, temperature, and oil pressure gauge work? Are all the meter and gauge reading within a healthy and acceptable level? You don’t want a tractor that overheats, as this could be costly to fix.
  • If the cab includes a guidance system, check that all displays, receivers and other electronic components are in working order. Guidance systems can be costly to replace or repair.
  • If it has air conditioning and heating, ensure both are working. 
  • Check that the lights and signals are working and in good condition.

VISIBILITY INSPECTION LIST:

Overall good visibility on a tractor means more efficient and more comfort to you. Especially, after a long day riding the tractor.

  • How is your visibility at the front of the tractor?
  • Turnaround and access your visibility at the back of the tractor.
That’s me! 🙂

Sufficient Horsepower for Your Heaviest Job

The size of your tractor depends largely on the jobs you want to accomplish. We’ve found that it is best to get 10 -20% more engine horsepower than you actually require. You don’t want to outgrow your tractor.

I promise you, once you get more comfortable and confident in operating your tractor, you will find that you’ll want to take on other projects you didn’t think you could do at the time of purchase. If you buy the bare minimum in engine horsepower, you may find your tractor is always been strained or working over its designated capacity.

Stable and Strong Articulation Points

Conduct both a visual and operational inspection of the articulation points on the tractor. The major moving part on the tractor should always be greased. Inspect the surface area and articulation points for any metal shards. Metal shards are sometimes a sign of wear and tear. And sometimes most likely a result of neglect and improper maintenance of the tractor.

Check the pedals too. Ensure they are tight, stable and strong. You don’t want to fix wobbly pedals that jiggle side-to-side.

Consider the Cost and Convenience of Maintenance

Before you buy a tractor, you’ll want to know the frequency, type, and total annual costs to maintain the tractor to ensure it fits within your budget. This could costs like: fuel, fluids, repairs, and scheduled services, as outlined in the owner’s manual.

Ease of maintenance should also be a factor to consider. You’ll want to ensure you have a mechanic and brand dealer nearby.

When it comes to basic or beginners maintenance, like me, you will need to know how to check the hydraulic and engine oils levels. And how to locate the air filter and oil filter, as well as how to local or get access to the battery.

Functioning and Smooth Gears, Steering and Brakes

If possible, take the tractor for a test drive. Check the steering, gears and brakes. Drive the tractor back and forth. If you feel a knock when moving, a transmission slip could be the culprit. Be aware of any gear slippage or chattering, and make sure the tires are operating as they should when steering.

Let go of the steering wheel while driving, does it pull hard to the left or hard to the right? Any wandering or looseness in the steering could mean that the main pin may be bent or damaged and needs to be replaced. Tight or difficult steering could signify that the pins need to be greased or that the hydraulic cylinders might not be in proper working order.

Determine if You Need 2WD or Four-Wheel Drive

If you’re going to be doing a lot of front loading or using front implements, four-wheel drive may be a better option than 2WD.  Four-wheel drive is one way to increase your tractor’s capabilities without opting to purchase a more powerful and more costly tractor. It’s also worth noting that four-wheel drive tractors have a higher resale value than a 2WD tractors.

Four-wheel drive tractors have a higher resale value than a 2WD tractors.

GOOD TIP

Consider Models and Brands that have a Strong Resale Value

Determine which models and brands best retain their value. Below is a list of a few websites we found that could be helpful when doing some research on resale values. Some of the sites allow you to compare models side-by-side, which is useful.

Items to Remember to Bring Along with You When Viewing a Tractor

  • Volt meter to check the charge of the battery. Reminder – a reading below nine volts means you will need a new battery.
  • Depending on how many tractors you are going to view, bring the appropriate amount of cardboard. The pieces of cardboard should be large enough to fit under the engine of the tractor to capture evidence of any oil, coolant, or other leaks.
  • A tire tread gauge.
  • An old white cloth or paper towel to wipe the engine oil dipstick on.
  • 2 – 4 clean copies of the downloadable tractor inspection checklist and tips.

“Going back to the basic foundation, strength and structure of an older tractor is never a bad idea. “

Christy

Christy Louth

Christy is a wife, writer, artist and hobby farmer with an addiction to tractors.

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