Questions To Ask & Checklist For Buying A Used Excavator

April 6, 2021

Buying a used excavator is easier when you follow our short checklist and ask specific questions.

Used JCB JS260 Construction Excavator For Sale
Used JCB JS260 Construction Excavator For Sale

Buying used construction equipment can save you a lot of money relative to buying new equipment. Similar to used cars, used excavator prices decrease with time, wear and tear. You can find good value if you know what to look for and follow our simple inspection checklist.

Used machinery prices fluctuate given the season and economic environment. Also, material costs such as steel can impact the prices. Typically new excavators lose 20-40% of their value after the first year, which makes buying used excavators potentially much cheaper than buying a new excavator.

We have compiled a list of questions that you should ask yourself, as well as a 13 point inspection checklist. Following this simple guide can help you improve your chances of hitting a home run on your next purchase.

Questions To Ask

  • Why is this person or business selling? Every seller has a reason. Some owners only like machines covered by warranty, and they sell when that warranty expires. Another seller might be retiring. Find out the reason and see if it makes sense to you.
  • What is the maintenance history? Good machines have a well-documented service history. Check to see if there are diligent service records. Also, check to make sure that the machine was serviced at the recommended intervals. Look for any major or abnormal items that might indicate an excavator-specific issue that will require further work or attention down the road.
  • Was there prior damage? Look for any notable prior damage, and the steps taken to remedy the issue. Understand if prior issues could mean future liabilities in terms of more parts or service. If there was serious damage, figure out if it impaired the expected service life of the machine.
  • What parts or service are required near term? Check to see if any items require attention near-term. Will the seller address them, or will you have to do it? Make a list and calculate the time and cost. You can factor these items into the final sale price discussion.
  • What are the representations and warranties the seller is making? Keep a list of the items the seller guarantees, and have it in writing when you close the transaction. Remember, promises are only as good as the person or business making them — the seller needs to be around to honor the promises. As for references or prior customers to gain further confidence.
  • How does this machine compare to newer models? Over time technology and material science improve the performance and reliability of machines. Figure out if there have been any major improvements important to you between the used excavator's manufacture year and today's models.
  • Will this machine fit my needs? Machines come in different sizes and are capable of completing different jobs. Make sure that this machine will address all of the tasks for which you require it.

Excavator Inspection Checklist

#1 Buckets & Attachments

Look at the level of wear and tear. Check for scalloping. Take note of the integrity of the welds (check for fissures). Check for rust and excessive wear. Not all rust damage can be repaired or refurbished, so if an item is rusty try to understand if it can be fixed.

#2 Bucket Teeth

Are teeth loose, missing or worn out? Also, check for missing bolts. Bucket teeth are in the middle of all the action get worn down over time. Heavy use often results in teeth with a rounded half-moon shape — the teeth are still operational, but they lose their efficiency.

#3 Boom & Stick

Look for spillage, rewelds and major dents.

#4 Hydraulic System

Check hoses for breaks and scratches. Also, inspect cylinders to make sure they are in working order.

#5 Slew ring

Check the condition

#6 Engine & Its Components

Do a visual inspection of the exterior, and look for visible wear and tear. Check fluids and make sure they look like they have been maintained properly.

#7 Steering, Pedals & Controls

Check these components to make sure they all perform as expected.

#8 Tracks & Rollers

Look at the condition and any sort of wear and tear that will need to be addressed.

#9 Hour Meter

Does the hour meter work properly and reflect an accurate number? In the past hour meters could be manipulated.

#10 General Condition

What's the overall condition? Has it received TLC from its prior owners?

#11 Listen To It When It Is Running

Use your ears to check for abnormal sounds that might indicate hidden issues.

#12 Check Quality Of Documentation

Good documentation is a sign of a diligent owner. Check for original paperwork and detailed service records.

#13 Inspect Fluids

Often fluids can tell you the internal condition of the engine and other parts. Inspect transmission, engine oil, coolant and hydraulic liquids. Look for sediment buildup, note viscosity, check for leaks or worn-out pieces. Dirty fluids can be a sign of problems down the road.

Do A Test Run

Just like buying a car, it helps to have an operator present to take the excavator for a test run. This enables you to get a feel for how well it will handle, and also a chance to check for any issues that are not noticeable when the machine is idle.

Make sure you check the controls and full range of movements while the machine is running. Vary the operating speed and check the performance at full throttle. Test the range of movements and see if the machine is struggling to respond or keep up.

Hydraulics can be expensive to replace and repair. Listen for abnormal noises, and get a feel for their ability to keep up with the controls.

Observe the engine exhaust when the machine is running. The color of the smoke can give you hints on what is going on inside the engine:

  • White Smoke: This can be a sign of a blown gasket. Foreign fluids such as coolant and water can mix in the oil.
  • Black Smoke: This can be a sign of filter issues.
  • Blue Smoke: This can be a sign of a broken ring or valve seal.

Calculate Total Ownership Cost

When you purchase your machine you should think about the upfront acquisition cost, your operating cost, your maintenance cost and likelihood of downtime costs. A very cheap excavator could cost more than a mid-priced excavator if it has high repair and downtime costs.

Additional costs can include maintenance, fuel, insurance, transportation, oil, filters, hydraulics, etc. Maintenance and upkeep are required for all machines, so it helps to get an idea of what these costs will be before you purchase the equipment.

Downtime can be a major hidden cost. Mechanical failures that cause downtime reduce productivity, increase idle manhours and make customers upset. Further, mechanical failures have many uncertainties. Certain parts can take days or weeks to be fulfilled, and you may not be able to get a replacement machine to continue work near-term.


We hope these items help you with your next used excavator purchase. You can improve your odds of getting a great deal by doing your research and inspecting the item for sale ahead of time.


Inspecting a used excavator

Inspecting the undercarriage

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