Buying a Used 4x4 - Tips for Buying a New-to-You RigPosted in How To: Tech Qa on January 25, 2016
Call it what you will—hoarding, junk collecting, a serious 4x4 addiction—we’ve got it and we’ve got it bad. Buying a new-to-you used 4x4 is always a fun time for those of us with this affliction. The process must release endorphins in our otherwise scattered brains. The truth is we, the editorial staff of Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road, have bought way more used 4x4s and dirt-bound rigs than we have any right to have bought. The downside is we are broke, but happy (although delusional). On the plus side, since we can write (although many argue, just barely) and take pictures (that some say suck) we can share our good and bad experiences with you. With any luck, you will do what we struggle with, and learn from our mistakes the next time you head out the door with cash in hand looking for a new-to-you major project or daily driver/weekend wheeler.
Know what you want. If you have an idea of what kind of vehicle you want educate yourself about available options and common problems that these vehicles have. Let’s say you want an older Toyota 4Runner or 4x4 pickup. You need to know the difference between a 3.0L V-6 and a 22RE I-4 and which one is right for you. (Here’s a hint: It’s not the 3.0L V-6.)
If a vehicle doesn’t have a title we usually walk away. Even though a good story to explain the lack of a title might entertain you, you are also going to have to deal with a headache if you buy. That is, unless you are only interested in buying the vehicle for parts. In that case be sure you can get rid of the rest of the vehicle without a title (some salvage yards can’t and won’t accept vehicles or parts without titles). Some states allow you to jump through enough hoops to get a title with only a bill of sale. We’ve succeeded at this a few times, but it takes patience, dealing with government bureaucracy, and paperwork, and it doesn’t always have a happy ending. If you go the bill of sale route, make sure the vehicle has proper VIN plates and check with your state’s Division of Motor Vehicle or your private insurance company to make sure the VIN doesn’t come back as stolen before you exchange money.
Ask the seller if he or she has any extra spare parts. Often people don’t want to keep the parts and you might need them in the future (if you don’t need them right away). In this case we bought an old Jeep and the seller mentioned having an extra carburetor.
We’ve been known to use parts we don’t like as negotiating points. If the rig you’re thinking of buying has ugly aftermarket wheels and the boring stock wheels you prefer are in the garage, ask if the seller would like to keep his or her fancy wheels/tires in exchange for some cash off the top. Fancy wheels you don’t like are worthless unless you can sell them. That takes time.
We like to buy vehicles that are close to stock. Vehicles that have already been modified might be fine, and often you can save money if the 4x4 already has what you want, but you should be wondering who did the modifications to any rig and whether they were done correctly.
For many, buying a vehicle with a salvage title is a huge no-no. Vehicles can be salvaged for a number of reasons that may not be that bad, but as a rule insurance companies are not in the business of losing money, so you should be suspicious if they don’t think it’s worth fixing. A project like this JK Unlimited is not an impossible task to undertake, but all the little parts that are missing or damaged are going to add up quickly if you want to return it to stock. Also, the title will always have a stigma attached to it, which can affect future sales. At the same time, if you are building a race car or beater trail rig, who cares if it’s got a few dents, is missing the dash, or won’t fetch a premium price?
Like it or not, buying an old Jeep, an Early Bronco, or a Toyota FJ-40 means you are treading where others have gone before. Finding a specialty restorer or specialty online retailer means that you can get the parts that are available as new replacements or maybe from their salvage yard out back. Specialty restorers for all cool old 4x4s are all over the country. Close to us is Driven Auto Parts, an Early Bronco (and fullsize Bronco) specialty place. Driven Auto Parts keeps a few restorable Early Broncos on hand for people who want to start a project. These guys know what they have and what they are worth, so don’t bother haggling much. But hey, you already know where to get parts, and rest assured that they will want to keep you as a customer.
Hanging out at a place like Driven Auto Parts also helps you absorb information about what problems are common, how to fix them, and where to look at a new (to you) project to learn whether it’s worth buying. Like, does that Early Bronco have a Dana 44 front axle or a Dana 30? People who have done this before know, and chances are they are going to be willing to help you with your project.
There are several late-model 4x4s with special off-road packages installed right from the factory. Finding one at a used car lot may be a great score if you’re planning on making the 4x4 a wheeler. Z71, FX4, TRD, and Pro-4X are names for special off-road packages that garner you deeper gearing, a locking (or limited slip) differential, larger tires, tuned suspension, and sometimes a beefier drivetrain or skidplates. Be forewarned: Stickers can be added to base vehicles that lack these desirable features, so you might not get what you think you are getting. Also, there are two-wheel-drive TRD “Prerunner” Tacomas and two-wheel-drive Jeep Wranglers that lack front drive components and a transfer case. This sticker was stuck on a fake Nismo Frontier 4x4 without a rear locker and rear Dana axle. Be wary.