Best Truck-Buying Tips for Owner-Operators

Jason Forrest

Buying a rig is one of the most important decisions you can make for your trucking business. For small companies and owner-operators, the right or wrong choice can literally make the difference between your company succeeding or failing. It can make the difference between taking home a lot of profit and being stuck paying unexpected maintenance and repair costs.

The decision is even more important for new owner-operators: those just going into business for themselves. These new operators don’t have the experience and don’t know the many factors to think about.

So it’s worth putting in the time and doing your homework before making such a big purchase. To help you with that process, we’ve put together this article with some of the most important factors to consider when buying a new truck. But don’t just take our word for it: do your research, ask around, and do all the due diligence you can before pulling the trigger!


It’s important to have a plan for what kind of work you’ll be doing. You need to buy your truck to match those future jobs. Some questions you should have answered before beginning to look at trucks:

  • What types of loads will you be carrying? How heavy?
  • What kind of runs will you be making? How long?
  • Will you be driving overnight very often? (This can influence cab comfort requirements.)
  • What states/regions will you be running through? Are there certain requirements (like emissions) you need to think about?
  • Are there certain standard heights of loading docks for the loads you’ll be handling?

It’s common for new truck owners to want to own the best truck: the most powerful and the prettiest. But maybe you don’t need all that power. Maybe you don’t need all those bells and whistles. For example, if you foresee overnights being fairly rare, then maybe you don’t need that truck with the huge super-comfortable sleeper. The smartest choice is probably to figure out the minimum of what you absolutely need to do your job well, and then to buy that truck.

Most importantly, what kind of income do you expect to make? This is a hard thing to estimate, but you have to put in the work to estimate it. So many new truckers don’t put in the work and end up buying too much or too little truck for what they need, which hurts you financially either way.

We actually have a free income estimate tool here for you to use.

New or used

When looking into getting a truck, you’ll have to confront the age-old question that has vexed mankind since the beginning of time: whether to buy new or used.

For most new owner-operators, buying used will make the most sense. There is a smaller upfront investment, making it lower-risk. Lightly-used trucks (in the 1-3 year range) can be very high-quality, potentially as good as new trucks, making them a smart choice for a significantly lower price.

A new truck might make sense for some owner-operators, though. A new truck might be a good choice if either of the following are true:

  • You are an experienced operator and know what you need and what you expect to make.
  • You have a good amount of money to invest in a truck, and are confident you will be in the business for a long time.

For more information on whether to buy new versus used trucks, here’s an article we wrote about it.

Looking at trucks

Once you have a good idea of what you need in a truck, and whether you want used or new, it’s time to start looking at trucks.

There are two ways to go about the process:

  1. Start with a specific make/model in mind and search for only those trucks.
  2. Have a set of specs that you know you want and search all available trucks for ones that match those specs.

Below we’ll give you some general tips and questions that are good to think about when looking at any truck, new or used. After that, we’ll give some more specific tips for checking out used trucks.

For all trucks

  • Can the truck you’re looking at be easily serviced in your area?
  • Take the truck for a test drive. See how you like driving it.
  • Research the model online. See if you find any common complaints about that model that might indicate a deal-breaker.
  • Ask experienced truckers what they’ve heard about that model.

For used trucks

Used trucks are obviously more of a risk, so it pays to do all you can to check them out and verify their quality. Below are a few recommendations for checking out trucks:

  • Research the truck’s history by checking the VIN and using Rigdig.
  • Ask for maintenance records.
  • Use a dynamometer to test the actual HP of the truck.
  • Check the tires to see if there is evidence of uneven wear.
  • Run an oil sample analysis (basically an engine health test).
  • Do a “bottle test” to test the head gasket function
  • Take a trusted mechanic with you to get his opinion on the truck.
  • Check the truck’s ECM (electronic control module): it can give you a history of error codes, which can tell you how well-maintained the truck was.
  • Are there any emission issues you might run into, considering the region you’ll be driving in? (Used trucks may be grandfathered in, depending on the state regulations.)
  • Before purchasing, check vehicle title to make sure the seller is the rightful owner, and there are no liens against the truck.

These are just a few of the many things you can do to check the quality of a used truck: this is not a complete list. When in doubt, do your research. Search online for common problems to check out for that model/type of truck. Ask experienced owner-operators and mechanics for help on verifying the quality. Buying the right truck is hugely important to your future success so you want to spend time and effort on it.

It’s recommended to deal with a reputable used truck dealer, versus buying straight from an owner who you know nothing about. The benefits of a used truck dealer are:

  • They’ll sometimes have financing options.
  • There’s less chance of information being hidden from you.
  • There may be a short-term warranty.

That’s it

Hopefully this article has been helpful in your truck-buying process. In future articles, we’ll discuss other more specific strategies for owner-operators.

If you have any comments or questions about this article, or want to learn more about how our software, Rigbooks, can help you with your owner-operator business, send us a message on our Contact Page.

You can also sign up for a free 30-day trial of Rigbooks here.

About Rigbooks

My name is Jason Forrest, and I’m the creator of Rigbooks. Rigbooks is a cloud-based software that makes it easier for small and medium-sized trucking companies run their business while keeping organized. We’ve been around since 2010.

A little about me: I grew up in a trucking family and from an early age I learned about the day-to-day problems that truck owner/operators have to deal with. I was into computers and programming as a kid so over the years I helped write small computer programs that helped my parents run their company better. Eventually that led to the idea of putting all those tools together in one package. And Rigbooks was born.