Building a house, being able to pick up materials as we find good deals on them, and towing a trailer means that we needed a truck in our toolbox. We needed to buy a reliable farm truck for cash on Craigslist that wasn’t your typical “mechanic’s special”. Anything worth anything on Craigslist is bought up quick which means that we needed to put our war paint on. Challenge accepted!
Why We Needed A Truck
Our little work horse up till now has been our ever reliant Subaru Forester. It wasn’t purchased as a work truck, but it’s versatility couldn’t be ignored. Sure we could purchase a racking system or add a hitch to tow with, but there are just times when a truck is the only tool for the job.
Working Around the Property
Ultimately our goal to build, farm and ranch means lots of hauling, moving, cutting, storing, lifting, winching and towing. All truck like activities. A good older pickup with a sturdy bed, sold frame, strong engine and a proper transmission would do all of this with ease. If we could get it all we’d get a stump puller too (ya never know when you need to pull a stump!).
Towing Our Home to Our Property
With our temporary home being on wheels we needed something practical to tow it up to our land. This meant a full size pickup would be needed. Even the most valiant of smaller pickups was just too undersized for the job. Though my brother did put this Toyota to the task with a 24′ trailer once. He said he was doing 15 mph up a 9 mile long hill….for a VERY long time. This just wouldn’t do for us day in and day out. Too much strain on the truck and too much stress for us. So full size it was.
Towing Our Home To and From the Watering Hole (No, Not the Bar!)
Since our trailer is self contained we’ll need to add water and empty waste periodically. As it turns out our property is about 5 miles from the no-cost RV dump and community water source. It’s not far, not particularly steep, but the frequency of our visits means a smooth running, reliable rig was important.
Criteria To Look For in A Farm / Materials / Towing Vehicle
Above All else…Reliability
Some folks love to turn wrenches. Neither of us are those folks. I can do most repairs and thanks to hand me down tools we’re pretty well equipped if needed, but it’s just not how I want to spend my time. That said above all else reliability and condition was paramount in our truck selection.
Have you ever needed to do the simplest task and you can’t or it takes all day because you end up spending hours fixing things instead of getting work done? That just wouldn’t fly for us. Too much work to get done!
Proper Engine / Transmission / Frame Rating
With the heavy work (for a pickup mind you) we have planned we needed something with a strong engine. Not necessarily tons of power, but with good torque (torque is what puts you back in the seat when you stomp on the gas). Torque is important for towing and carrying heavy loads. For example Alyssa’s car she sold had nearly the same horsepower rating our pickup does. 170 hp. A lot for a car, not much for a pickup. However our pickup has several times more torque. This means Alyssa’s car couldn’t possibly tow or carry the same loads our pickup can, though the horsepower ratings are nearly the same.
With the heavy loads we wanted to be sure the frame and suspension are sufficiently equipped. This keeps the truck from sagging which can make driving more difficult and even dangerous. Despite going with a full size pickup we still had a near miss on the second day driving up to our land…perhaps more in a different post on what happened and how it could have ended our entire journey before it began. (A true OH S*&$ moment on a packed freeway!) Proper frame and suspension reduces overloading leading to premature wear and damage on things like tires and shocks. Heavy rated trucks usually means everything is rated for more abuse.
The transmission we ended up with was a classic 4 speed farm transmission with a granny low gear. This low gear is a very useful gear for farm work, but nearly useless on the highway. It’s like having a tractor around the property. Great for towing heavy things very slowly like trees, rocks, heavy things or going up very steep inclines. This transmission is not well suited to long highway use because it’s limited to about 60-65 mph max. This is okay because we don’t expect to do any cross country tours or use it for freeway use.
Because we expect to have to get off the beaten path often we also insisted on four wheel drive. For those times when you just don’t have enough traction (like pulling our trailer up our steep driveway). This isn’t for getting unstuck, its to help keep from getting stuck. Of course my dad always says four wheel drive just helps you get twice as stuck. 😛
Finding a worthy rig on Craigslist
I’ll be totally honest here, and anyone who has tried this already will agree, it’s a dice roll at best. We spent hours over the course of a couple weeks keeping a close eye on listings over 300 miles in radius from our home. There were hundreds of offerings, but nothing that had all the “must-haves”. If they had some, they were grossly missing the others. I was terribly afraid we may be forced to settle and was looking at contingency plans (think my brothers big-hearted Toyota. it did it once, it’ll do it again, right?).
What it came down to was finding a rough price range and getting a feel for what was available. This is a good barometer for what you can expect and gives you a baseline for comparison. In our case we could pretty easily find late 70’s to early 90’s Ford trucks with most everything we needed for a little more than our $1,500 budget. It seemed like anything worth considering was hovering in the $2000 range. So we tagged a few suspects and decided to watch them. Most had been listed for a few weeks at least which seemed odd to us, but we’d sit and watch for action. Nothing happened. None of the trucks we were watching were moving. With the deadline approaching I swallowed my pride and started calling, emailing and texting. Surprisingly to this day (nearly 3 weeks later) I’ve never heard from a single one of the people we contacted that day. Maybe this is why they aren’t sold yet?
In the interim I kept a close eye on listings several times a day with a saved search set up and BAM, a new listing popped up. Only 4 hours old. Made the call, gentlemen answered, said he had someone already on the way! WHAT??!!?? That fast? YEP! This listing did seem too good to be true. Right age, right motor, transmission, 4WD, clean, in a good part of town. We threw on our shoes and out the door we went. Nearly 100 miles away, but we were there first…with cash! I stopped by and grabbed my gracious brother for an extra set of eyes.
It was meant to be. Truck checked out great, was better than expected with some bells and whistles like power windows and locks, cruise control (though it’s really crude compared to today’s technology), fuel injection (which should mean easier starting when it’s cold out and for towing at high elevation), clean and complete interior, locking shell (which we needed for both moving our stuff and security on our property), decent tires, VERY good disc brakes and good service records with most all parts recently replaced.
One consistent lesson on our journey has been:
- List out exactly what you want and list “must-haves”
- Hold out for it until the very last minute if you have to
- When it becomes available, act FAST!
Red Flags to Look For
From a young age and most often against my will my father taught me about mechanical things. When we got home from church on Sunday he’d say, “Get out of your fancy duds, we’ve got work to do.” And away we’d go wrenching on something. At the time I’m sure I was snotty and threw fits. Now of course I’m very thankful for his instruction. We’d be unable to take this journey without it.
When buying an aged truck in the $1,500 range there are MANY things which can spell disaster. You’ll even see ads which read, “Great truck, just needs….(INSERT MASSIVE LIST OF REPAIRS)”. That said we thought for those who are looking for a pickup we’d provide our checklist to help you buy a solid vehicle instead of a disaster.
Is the person a mechanic, or do they THINK they are a mechanic?
It’s a bit of an irony and not a hard and fast rule, but so often mechanics drive rigs that are broken and don’t run properly. It’s the “I fix other peoples cars, but no my own” gig. When we look for a rig we try to avoid cars owned by actual or wannabe mechanics. They’ll always have a “All you need to do is…” line about all the repairs they have mentally logged. Best to just keep looking.
Look over things that wear out. Neglecting this inspection could make your purchase price escalate quickly after the sale by needing to complete costly repairs or replace end of life parts.
Here is a pretty solid list of things to inspect for wear, age and proper function.
- Tires – How is the tread? If it’s been sitting, are the sidewalls cracking? If so, the tires might be no good.
- Brakes – Does it have disc brakes? If you’ll be towing this is important. How is their wear? Does the emergency/parking brake work and release properly?
- If manual transmission – Clutch – Does the clutch disengage fully? Engage smoothly? Have good pedal throw and pressure?
- Windshield wipers – Are they cracked, damaged or missing?
- Lighting – Check headlamps both HIGH and low, blinkers, marker lights, brake and reverse lights.
- Rust – Look over body panels, frame rails etc for heavy rust. It can be hard to find minimal rust, but it’s worth trying and settling if you can’t find anything else.
- Trailer hitch – If you’ll be towing is there a hitch? If not, they can be $50-$300 or more. If there is, is it properly installed? Operational? Or all rusted up?
- Shocks / Struts – Is there oil leaking down the shaft or a lot of dirt on the shock tube? Could be blown.
- Steering linkages – Look well greased? If you shake the linkage is there movement at the ball joints? If so, could be worn out.
- U-Joints / Drive Axles – Joints look clean? If you shake the axle / driveline is there play in the joints? If so, they could need replaced.
Under the Hood
- Battery – When was it replaced? Under warranty still? We fried our battery the first day we had our truck. It was 6 months old and replaced free under warranty. Otherwise it would have been a $90 cost.
- Engine oil – Are there records of changes? Is the oil clean? Is it sludge or very dark? Could be poor maintenance. Is it milky? Does it smell like antifreeze? Could be blown head gasket. Does it have bubbles in it? Could be blown rings/piston.
- Transmission fluids – Are they clean? Do they smell burnt? If so could be old or near death transmission. Most older transmissions call for fluid changes every 6 months because they absorb moisture from the air which causes corrosion whether they are driven or not.
- Brake fluid – Is the reservoir full? clean? Is it covered in dust, dirt and fluid? Could be leaky master or slave cylinder needing replaced.
- Power steering fluid – Is it full? clean? If its not full, look at the pump for leaks or on the ground below the rig for dripping.
- Belts – Check all belts of checking and cracks. belts are cheap, but the things that blow up when they break are spendy.
- Ignition system – Things like spark plugs, plug wires, distributor cap, rotor etc. The plugs age and don’t spark as good as new, wires can crack and check from age, distributor rotor’s wear out and cause improper spark which makes for poor efficiency, poor performance and excessive engine strain.
- Window seals
- Power windows and locks – Use all locks and window controls on EVERY door.
- Cruise control – When you drive it, be sure to go up to highway speed and test all functions.
- Air conditioning – Does it blow cold?
- Heater controls – Check both hot and cold, each zone setting and fan through each speed.
- Glass – Check that all windows and mirrors are operation, not cracks, chips etc. Even a small chip if it sits in the sun can suddenly crack a window/windshield.
- Gauges – Are all gauges operational? Speed, battery, oil pressure, temperature, odometer, tachometer and fuel? Our truck has dual fuel tanks, each tank has it’s own gauge, but one of the gauges isn’t operational, so we keep a few gallons in it and use it as a backup tank.
If You’re Fortunate Enough…
- Heated seats
- Power seats
- Power mirrors
- Does it start easily?
- Is the clutch strong?
- Does it shift properly through all gears including reverse?
- Are the brakes firm or is the peddle squishy (could mean a myriad of issues)?
- Does it stop straight under heavy braking? (IMPORTANT!)
- Does it idle smooth and rev smoothly through the RPM range?
- Does it accelerate smoothly? Have good power?
- If you plan to register it, are the tags expiring? Could cost a few $$ to renew
Towing Ability / Capacity
If you’ll be towing check to see if it has the proper wiring harness. At least make sure it has one you can work with. We used an adapter we purchased from an RV dealer to connect a 6 prong plug (on the truck) to the now standard 7 prong plug (on the trailer). It was about $20 and worked great once we fixed a weak grounding wire on the pickup.
Thanks for letting us share our hunt for the ultimate farm / homestead pickup. What rig can’t you live without? Everyone has different needs so it’ll be fun to see what works well for you and why you chose it!
If you’re in the market for a rig don’t forget to give a look to our inspection checklist!
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