January 7

Buying Used Excavators: 5 Tips for Finding the Best at the Lowest Cost


Buying a used excavator can be a costly endeavor. Contractors need to take the right steps to safeguard they are getting exactly what they believe they are getting and to ensure they are getting a good price.

Excavators are workhorses and you don’t want your workhorse failing in the field; the loss in productivity can cost you more than the value gained by purchasing a lesser cost used excavator.

If you put in extra time during the purchase process, it yields significant benefits for the entire time you own the machine. Here are five tips to improving your equipment search and getting a better return on your investment.

1. Identify your needs

Before you even begin searching for a used excavator, you need to consider what your needs are. In which applications will you use the machine? How deep do you need to dig? Will you be working in tight areas? You may need a zero-radius or tight-radius excavator. Could you benefit from any backfill or light grading capabilities? If so, you will need a backfill blade. You may also benefit from an angled blade if you need more precise soil or stone placement.  

What sized machine do you need? How much reach do you need? Is the machine’s PSI (pound per square inch) important to you? Do you need steel or rubber tracks?

Safety and controls

Then you need to consider what you want in a machine. How important is safety to you? You may want a machine with a rear-view camera or a machine to which one can easily be added.

Is it important to you that the excavator is capable of machine control or grade control? Some machines have a plug-and-play set up for installation of aftermarket grade control or machine control systems.

Transportation and service

Also, think about how you will support the machine. How will you transport it? If you have your own trailer, you may want to stay within the legal hauling limits of your trailer. For regular servicing, do have the tools and capacity to do it? Do you have your own technicians and which brand excavators are they familiar with?

If you are replacing a machine on your fleet, a lot of these questions will be answered already. However, you should definitely review the expected applications in which you will put the new machine. The applications in which you use your current excavator may have changed over the years.


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However, even if you know what model machine you want, you still need to identify when you need it. This will determine which sales channels are best for you.

2. Do your homework

Now that you know what you need in an excavator and you have your excavator checklist, it’s time to find out what is available.

Just as contractors “do their homework” when gathering data for creating bids and take-offs, they must also “do their homework” when it comes to purchasing a used excavator.

User feedback

What do your operators think? Getting operator input is quite valuable. User feedback is preferable to sales speak, and your operators can present you with equipment performance feedback based on applications in which your company operates. Ask them which machines they like to operate and why they like them. Then treat that information as valuable. This process will not only give you valuable information regarding which machines to research, but it will make your operators feel valued.

Research and reviews

Research the manufacturers who build excavators in the size that you need. How are they rated? Is there anyone you know you can ask about what they use? You can visit heavy equipment forums and search discussions for relevant information for your search or post a question of your own. Read reviews of the equipment in print or digital magazines.

Of the features that are important to you, which are available on which excavators?

Parts and maintenance

Talk to dealerships; demo machines if possible. Does the dealership service equipment? How robust and customer-service oriented is their service department?

Also, how long does it take to get replacement parts? If the local dealership doesn’t have a fully stocked warehouse and the manufacturer doesn’t have one or more parts warehouses located within the country, expect days or weeks of downtime when you unexpectantly need a new part.

Check as much of the machine’s documentation as possible. Begin with the machine’s service history. If a machine’s service history isn’t available, it could be a sign that the machine wasn’t properly maintained.

3. Use an excavator inspection checklist

Now, it’s time to take your excavator inspection checklist and walk around the machine.

Check every part of the machine for signs of excess wear and damage (cracks, bends and dents). Inspect the machine’s arm and boom. Check the superstructure, swing frame, undercarriage. Look inside the engine compartment and cab.

The undercarriage

Inspecting the undercarriage takes a lot of steps. In what condition are the tracks? Are any track pads missing? If they’re rubber tracks, is the steel inside of them exposed or torn? Inspect the track chain to ensure it doesn’t appear excessively worn. Individually check each roller by grabbing each one and shaking them. If they make a clickity clack or jingle bell sound, they need to be replaced. Does the sprocket have sharp points? If so, it will need to be replaced soon. How far forward is the track idler positioned? The farther forward it’s moved, the longer the chain is stretched and the sooner it will need to be replaced.

Past uses and future repairs

A machine that needs parts replaced isn’t necessarily a bad purchase; you just need to be aware of the cost of those repairs when calculating whether the machine is good value or not.

And don’t forget to ask questions about how the machine’s history. Rental? Production? How many hours? In which applications? Any major repairs and replacements?

Get fluid samples for the most accurate picture of the machine’s engine health. There is a small cost to getting fluids analyzed and it takes more than a few days, but it provides vital information regarding whether the machine is healthy or will soon need an overhaul.

4. Demo the machine

If possible, run the machine. You want the engine to run for about 20 minutes to get the best results.

Ideally, you want to use all the functions of the machine—swing, lift, dump, travel, etc., as well as any technologies and attachments sold with it, such as grade control or various power modes. Operate the machine in forward and reverse. Operate the machine while carrying a load. If possible, operate it with the attachment(s) you plan to use with it.

The engine

Listen to the engine. If you hear any anomalies, something is wrong. If you hear grinding, the final drives on the machine need to be replaced. Listen also to the movements made when swinging the machine and when swinging the attachment. If you hear unusual noises, something is probably wrong with one of the components. 

The boom

Lift the boom of the excavator until the attachment reaches two feet above the ground. Then, go to the attachment and try to move it with your upper body strength. Try to move it up and down and side to side. If you can barely move the attachment, then the pins and bushings in the excavator’s arm are good. If you can move it, then they need to be replaced.

Exhaust and fluids

Check the excavator’s exhaust for excessive smoke or dark smoke; this is a sign of a dirty engine.

The longer the engine runs, the warmer it gets, the less viscous the fluids become. This is great for identifying leaks, since less viscous fluids will escape through smaller holes. Check along all hoses, under the slew ring, in the undercarriage and in the engine compartment.

Check the dipstick to ensure there is sufficient oil. A dipstick with a white end is an indication of the presence of water in the engine, which is very damaging.

Open up the top plug of the final drive and inspect it. It should be moist from oil. If you find metal shavings, the drives need replacement.

Make note of everything on your excavator inspection checklist.

5. It’s NOT all about the money

The final point of consideration when evaluating used excavators is the purchase price.

Heavy equipment hold their value very well over the years if they are well maintained. Compared to cars, they often depreciate at much lesser rates. However, how one operates an excavator often has a greater influence on the resale price of the machine compared to how one drives a car. This will lead to great variance in price for the same model excavator.

This variance truly underscores the importance of investing the appropriate amount of time and taking the necessary steps to purchase a used excavator that fits your operational and budgetary needs.

Since the purchase price vary so widely, it’s not the most influential factor in determining whether you are getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to buying a used excavator.

Instead, treat the purchase price as just one variable in calculating the total cost of ownership of the machine. The total cost of ownership considers purchase price, productivity and efficiency gains, the cost of maintenance over the years you expect to own the machine, the cost of insuring the used excavator, and resale value.

Buying an excavator

You don’t need to feel overwhelmed when buying an excavator. With these five tips, you know you will be buying a used excavator for fair value and that is as advertised. Start your search with Municibid—the most convenient and easy-to-use online auction website for surplus equipment from government agencies, schools, authorities and utilities.


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