Jim and David Laughlin, owners of Laughlin Farm Equipment, buy most of their used equipment and tractors at various dealer auctions within a 300-mile radius of their lot in Butler, MO. Jim says that, when shopping at auction sales, it is “buyer beware.”

“Most tractors are sold ‘ride and drive’ the day of the sale, which means after you buy it you can drive it to make sure the block is solid, not cracked, the transmission works, and the differential is okay,” he explains. “If you find anything wrong with those three components, you don't have to take it. But if there's something wrong with anything else, you've bought it.”

To help you buy smart, Laughlin shares what to look for when sizing up a diesel tractor.

Check the engine

Start the tractor and see if the engine is slobbering. “Is it blowing oil or unburned fuel out the exhaust pipe? That tells you the motor is worn out,” Laughlin says. “You want the engine to be dry, start up well and sound good without knocks.”

Check the gears

Get on the tractor and drive it to check the gears. When the tractor is moving, apply the brakes to see if the differential locks are working. Make sure it is not jumping out of gear.

Check the PTO

Make sure the tractor PTO is working and will turn on and off. “A lot of these tractors will run pretty decent but will have a PTO clutch out, and that is why the sellers are moving them,” Laughlin says. “They don't want to split the tractor to work on them.” He says a clutch can run $500 and labor another $500. As a result, used-equipment dealers will typically bid $1,000 to $1,200 less than they normally would for these tractors.

Check hydraulic lift

Laughlin says the hydraulic lift is hard to judge because it may move up and down without showing any problems, until you put a load on the lift. If you find problems, you may need to buy a new hydraulic pump, which is not difficult to install but can cost $600.

“And then you still can't always tell if the hydraulics are good unless the tractor has remote hoses on it,” Laughlin says. If it does, activate the remote hose spools with the motor running to see if you can hear them lug down the motor, which indicates your pump is probably good.

“If you don't have remote hoses on the tractor, and all you have is a 3-pt. lift without a load on it, you can't tell if the pump is putting out 1,000 or 2,250 psi, which is what it needs,” Laughlin explains. “So you have to put a load on it. And often you don't find that out until you get it home.”

Trends in buying used

  • According to a dealer in South Dakota who hosts machinery auctions, today's best auction buys are high-ticket items because they are harder to sell right now. “Medium-price and lower-price stuff is as good as it has always been,” the dealer says.

  • Newer-model, high-horsepower tractors with high hours on them have lost their value almost completely, according to Jim Laughlin, Laughlin Farm Equipment, Butler, MO. The reason, he says, is that the cost of parts and labor to fix these tractors is high. “You can spend $10,000 just to put tires on them,” Laughlin says. “And then you may have an engine turning out 300 hp that might need overhauling, and that can cost 20 grand. So big farmers go up to the newer stuff on a lease purchase, and eventually those old big tractors get pretty cheap.”

  • The market for fair-quality intermediate-size tractors (75 to 130 hp) is good because of the high price of new, according to Laughlin.

  • He says that a few used tractors in the 25- to 75-hp range compare to old vintage Ford tractors, from the old 8Ns up to 1995 models. These tractors maintain their value because they can be overhauled for less than a third of the cost of a new 20- to 25-hp Asian import, selling for $12,000 to $18,000.

    “Farmers can bring in their 800 Ford, which is 48 hp and low profile, and spend $3,000 to $4,000 on it and get it back to new condition,” Laughlin says.

  • Hay and livestock trailers are in high demand in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, where farmers are cutting and baling their CRP acres, according to Walter Piehl, owner of Piehl Trailer Sales, Marion, ND.