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34 Experts Reveal the Top Things to Look for When Buying a Used Tractor

Introduction

For the part-time or small farmer purchasing a used tractor might be the most economical and practical way of getting the power you need without having to spend lots of money.  But how can you make the best purchase and know what to buy?  The first thing that you need to know is what your requirements are for a tractor so that you can figure out what to begin searching for.  

Tractors that were built since the mid 1950s can be a decent all-purpose utility tractor.  Although older tractors can still do plenty of hard work, most likely they will be limited to being able to pull something that is hooked up the drawbar and then utilizing the power takeoff (PTO) for powering a mower or other piece of equipment.  Newer tractors come with more advanced systems, so before purchasing anything consider the kind of work you are planning to do as well as the type of attachments you are going to need.  Then search for a tractor that meets your requirements.   

Identify Your Needs

Those who are experienced with buying used tractors will understand this already, but for those who are getting ready to buy their first tractor, it is very important to be aware that there are a number of different kinds to choose from in today's marketplace.  So before doing anything else, you should first narrow it down to which category of tractor will suit your specific needs the best.  The most common kinds of tractors include the following:  

Compact Utility Tractors - Smaller tractors that have been design for use in many daily grounds maintenance and landscaping applications.

Utility Tractors - General-use utility tractors that are versatile in their capability.  They are frequently used for hay production, wagon pulling, and grounds maintenance.

Row Crop Tractors - More specialized tractors in terms of the task they have been designed to perform.  These tractors are well suited to work with various field-use applications and implements.

Articulated 4WD Tractors - Used normally in grain operations for handling seeding and tillage work.  Frequently used for dirt transportation and land leveling as well.   

Various accessories and implements are available for all kinds of used tractors - to broaden the range of their versatility quite successfully.

Consider Price Range

With any major purchase, one very important consideration is understanding and then determining a price range.  There are quality pre-owned tractors that are available on even tight budgets.  By determining an amount and then sticking with your decision, you can narrow your options down even further - which allows you to focus on the used tractors that are most relevant to your needs and requirements.  

What to check when buying a tractor

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What to Check

Votes

Engine

16

Tires

12

Overall state

11

Fluid Levels

7

Hydraulics

5

Transmission

4

Sheet metal corrosion and dents

2

Paddles and hitches

2

Tires

Depending on what kind of tractor you get, replacing the tires could cost as much as $30,000.  Before making a decision, take out a tire gauge and measure the remaining tread depth on the tires and then compare this with the tire manufacturer's tread depth measure that you should be able to find on their website in order to get a good sense of how much life is remaining on the tires.   

You should also make sure that the tires are the correct size and that all of them match. Check for cracks since they usually are the biggest expense when restoring a tractor.

Engine

Like with any piece of equipment, start up the tractor, lift the hood, allow it to run and then check for any signs of leaking from the hydraulics, hoses or engine.  Check for any worn or cracked fuel, coolant or hydraulic lines.  Locate the engine plate and see what the horsepower and ensure that the engine meets your jurisdiction's emission standards.  

Use a mechanic's stethoscope, although we have seen some buyer using a screwdriver, and hold it on the engine block.  Find out if there are any scratching or knocking sounds coming out of the engine cylinders.

Take out the air filter after the machine is turned off.  The air filters need to be replaced every 100 to 200 hours and for cab filters every 300 to 400 hours.  Check the owner's manual to find the manufacturer's recommendations.  The air filter shouldn't look dirty if it has been replaced on a regular basis.

Does the tractor easily start on a cold engine?  That might eliminate several candidates all at once.   

Does the tractor run well when it is hot?  Plan to spend half an hour running it.  Then after it is running check for leaks, on both the antifreeze and oil.  Finally, after it is warm, turn it off to see how it starts back up.

It there clunking sounds coming from inside of the engine?  If there simple ticking coming from the top part of the engine that might just need a basic valve adjustment.  However, a deep thunk coming from the middle or bottom of the engine might indicate very expensive and serious repairs.  The clunking should be much more pronounced when under load. That might be an indication of issues with the piston rods, bearings or crankshaft.

Check the crankshaft's o-rings.  A cold engine should be able to pick the speed up immediately.  It is fine if there is black smoke billow from a diesel engine on start-up.  If it is anything but black or doesn't clear, then there is a problem with the engine.  Check the ventilation on the engine by using the palm or your hand or piece of paper to close the end of the pipe to collect any of the oil that comes out.

Make sure it is firing on all cylinders and not smoking and not too noisy. Start the tractor up and listen for any knocks or scratching sounds. Some folks use a screwdriver or mechanic's stethoscope to do this. Check for signs of leaks from the engine, hoses and hydraulics. Take note of low idle smoothness to give a hint as to whether the engine has any valve issues.

Hydraulics

When inspecting the hydraulics, check for poor seals and leaks for potential signs that there may be damage to the hydraulic tank or outlets.  Consider what kinds of attachments you are going to run when you are inspecting the auxiliary/return lines and hydraulic outlets.  For example, a majority of air drills need to have at least three hydraulic outlets as well as one auxiliary line that has 38 GPM worth of hydraulic power.  However, some might need as many as three auxiliary lines and five hydraulic outlets with 98 GPM worth of hydraulic power,  Make sure the tractor has the right amount of lines and outlets for what you need for running it now as well as one year from now.  

Conduct both an operational and visual inspect of the tractor's articulation point.  It needs to be greased at all times given that it is the tractor's major moving part.  Check for metal shards.  Shards are an indication of wear and most likely have been caused by improper maintenance.   

To perform an operational inspection, start the tractor up and drive back and forth.  If there is a knock while you are moving, it could be due to a transmission slip.  Next, turn the steering right and then left. Check for nay looseness or wandering in the steering.  That might mean that the main pin is damaged or bent and needs to be replaced.  Difficult or tight steering could be a sign that the hydraulic cylinders are not working properly or the pins might need to be greased.   

When it says "Live PTO and hydraulics" what that means is that the transmission clutch does not affect the hydraulics or power take-off shaft.  So you can stop and start the PTO or lower and raise the hydraulics whether or not the clutch is in.  A standard three-point hitch allows you to hook it up to many different attachments regardless of what manufacturer it is.  Hydraulics let you lower and raise implements through attaching hoses connected to the hydraulic cylinder that is mounted to the tractor implement.  

Are the brakes working well?  It is fairly inexpensive to replace the brakes themselves.  The part that is expensive is the extensive tear down to get the new ones.  The way you can test the brakes is through locking one wheel and then turning towards that side.  The wheel shouldn't rotate and the tractor should spin.  

Work the hydraulics  To check the Rams' full range extend them with a load.  Allow the load to sit in a hold position for an extended amount of time to ensure there isn't any leak down.  If there are any chattering noise coming from the pump when lifting that could be an indication that the pump isn't getting enough hydraulic fluid flow.  The pump will have had had excessive wear if it was run that way for extended periods of time and might be about ready to fail in the near future.

Overall condition and evaluation appearance and of the care/servicing it has received in the past

The tractor's overall appearance does matter.  Does it look like it has been cared for and is it clean?  Look a bit closer to ensure it hasn't been spot-painted in order to cover up any rust.  Ask where the tractor was kept.  If a tractor was kept in a garage or shed it will always in better shape compared to one that was exposed constantly to harsh weather conditions.  Bulging, cracked or weathered tires, dents, and peeling paint are all signs that a tractor might have been abused and was stored outside.

Open the door of the tractor's cab and check out the inside.  Mud and dirt on the inside of the cab may be signs of poor or improper maintenance.  Get inside of the cab to check the number of operating hours that the tractor has done.  Keep in mind that some tractors might have as many as 4,000 to 5,000 operating hours but might be in very good shape still due to being well taken care of.  If there is a guidance system included in the cab, check to make sure that all of the electronic components, receivers and displays are all in good working order.  It can be expensive to repair or replace a guidance system.

Tire and cab wear should be consistent with the tractor hours.  If there are low hours there should be the little wear on the mats and carpets around the pedals as well as the petals.  Newness or age of the tires should also be consistent with the hours of operation.

If the tractor looks well-maintained, it usually matches that on the inside. Peeling paint, rust, dents, cracked tires, etc. likely mean this tractor hasn't had great maintenance over the years and may need a bunch of repairs. Has the tractor been welded on? How rusty is the tractor?

If possible, ask for maintenance logs, work orders and anything to support that the tractor has been well maintained. Another important fact to consider is how easy or difficult it will be to get parts and service on a timely basis for this model.

Look at overall physical appearance  for signs of abuse, wear to drawbar, hydraulic leaks, oil leaks, broken and/or welded castings, wear to tires, evidence of poor patch job repairs, etc.

Sheet metal parts (hood, fenders, seat, etc.) must be there and in good shape. Mechanical components are more likely to break and they are still available easily to find on market but this is not the case for sheet metal parts.

Check fluid levels

Check for any signs of leaks.  Any type of leak - water, oil or gas - is an indication of a potentially serious problem.

Does the tractor smoke?  Blue smoke is an indication that oil is being burned by the engine.  Black or white smoke can often be fixed with ignition or carburetor change but still takes some work.

Take the dipstick out.  The oil will indicate whether timely fills have been made or not.  A burnt smell or dark black suggests that the oil didn't change at the right time intervals. Tiny water bubbles or a gray tinge on the dipstick indicates that there is water mixed with the oil. If more than a usual amount of oil spits out when you pull out the dipstick, that probably means that the rings are bad and oil has gotten into the oil pan.  That could mean that the engine might need to be overhauled.

Oil film in the antifreeze and radiator is an indication of problems.

Check paddles and hitches to see if they are worn or not

Clutch and brake pedals are a good indicator of what the machine's real operating time is (better than the hour's meters that might have been changed).  Worn pedals frequently mean the machine has been used for over 10,000 hours.

Sheet metal corrosion and dents

Check for structural cracks.  It can take some time but it is definitely worth it.  Go over the steel and cast components checking for hairline cracks. It isn't expensive to fix but very time consuming and it is not a good idea to work a tractor in that state until the problems have been fixed.

Radiator

Make sure to check the radiator to make sure that the fins are not damaged and see what kind of coolant has been used as well.

Look for rust and make sure there is no back pressure.

Other Issues to look for

  • Is the tractor original with all components intact?

  • Radiator: You should also check the radiator for any damage to the fins and check to see what type of coolant is used. Look for rust and make sure there is no back pressure.

  • How much power it produces when under a load

  • Potential resale

  • Drive train: should not show a lot of wear

  • How long has it sat

  • How long has it been in the family

  • Age

  • Parts availability

  • Capacity/Use

  • Uniqueness and rarity

Conclusion

Purchasing a used tractor is often a hazardous job.  Older tractors do have a tendency to not be as reliable as newer models.  However, if you follow the above recommendations you can minimize these hazards.  Always purchase from a reputable source.  Learn all you can about the tractor's repair, performance and service history.  Don't overrate new paint.  See what it is covering up.  Contact more than just one source and look at several tractors.  Plan ahead, so that you will have enough time for shopping around. If possible, make arrangements to use the tractor on a trial basis for a couple of days, with the option of purchasing it if you are happy with its performance.  Whatever you end up buying, insisting on getting the Owner's Manual along with the tractor.  Also, make sure that you read it!  Get any promised guarantee or warranty in writing.

Resources:

We would like to thank the following, excellent resources for sourcing this invaluable information. 

Empire Tractor Owners Club

Heritage Truck Association Australia

The DAVID BROWN Club of New Zealand

Randolph County Antique Club

Strathcona Vintage Tractor Association

Saskatchewan Lawn & Garden Tractor Collectors

Green Collectors

Massey Collectors Association

Miller's Tractor Pulling Sled Rental

1st Ontario Two-Cylinder Club

Southern Illinois Green Iron Club

Western Pennsylvania Garden Tractor Association

International Farmall Tractors

cwapmtc

VJ Oldtimer GmbH

Branch 15 of the Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association

Central Illinois Farm Heritage Tractor Club

MID MICHIGAN OLD GAS TRACTOR ASSOCIATION

Old Time Plowboys Club

Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association

Lone Star Antique Tractor & Engine Association

Peach State Antique Tractor and Engine Club

International Harvester Collectors

Ford-Fordson

County Down Traction Engine Club

Hobby3D

AG OF THE PAST

Granite State Gas and Steam Engine Association

Friends of Ferguson Heritage

INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER COLLECTORS of NORTH CAROLINA

Early Day Tractor & Iron

Kossuth County Agriculture & Motorsports Museum

Cedar Valley Engine Club

Waterloo Farm Museum