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5 Tips for Buying a Used Excavator

5 Tips for Buying a Used Excavator

25 Jan 2022 Author: Dennis Howard Read time: 7 min

It’s dependable. It’s versatile. It’s already a staple on just about every construction jobsite and only growing in popularity.  
It’s the excavator. In EquipmentWatch’s State of the Construction Equipment Economy whitepaper, done in partnership with the Association of Equipment Management Professionals, excavators are noted as the top machine on fleet owners’ minds coming into 2022, with 63% of those surveyed saying they intend to purchase one.

Searching now for a used excavator? Browse RDO’s full inventory to find and buy a used excavator for sale.

The growing interest coupled with long equipment lead times means buying a used excavator is going to be a popular move this year, making it especially challenging to find quality used machines.

If you’re looking at buying a used excavator for sale, these five tips can help give you an edge on the search.

1. Finding a used excavator for sale
The three most common places to buy used equipment are from an equipment dealership, at an auction, or through a private seller. However, not all sellers offer the same experience or level of risk. Especially in a white-hot used equipment market, with high demand and low supply, buyers must be diligent in selecting a seller.

“My number one recommendation when looking for quality used machines is to eliminate any risk of the unknown,” Si Hanna, RDO General Manager of Remarketing advises. “It ultimately goes back to having trust in the seller and being able to get the full picture of the machine’s history.”

Buying a used excavator from an equipment dealer’s rental fleet comes with several advantages, one of the biggest being lowering risk. A reputable dealer will provide detailed service and maintenance records. Because the work has been done by skilled, certified service technicians, buyers can have peace of mind in knowing exactly what they’re getting into.

Related article: Looking to sell used equipment? Get tips to sell equipment at top value.

Additionally, a large inventory and potential for after-sale support are more good reasons to consider working with an equipment dealer. The opportunity to browse, thoroughly inspect, and buy equipment either online or on the lot offers an experience that meets varying preferences and further minimizes risk of the unknown.  

Auctions are another familiar source for used equipment seekers. They typically offer a large selection of machines, as well as different brands, all in one place. The biggest advantage of buying at auction is the opportunity to get a great price. It is important to keep an eye on pricing trends to keep this expectation in check.

For example, Ritchie Bros January Market Trends Report found that, in the last quarter of 2021, excavator auction prices were up 15% year over year. Ritchie Bros. also saw a record number of bidders in 2021 which contributed to the higher prices and also increasing the amount of competition for the same machines.

The risk of buying at an auction means taking the machine as-is. There are a lot of unknowns that come with the machine. Especially when the used equipment market is hot, auctions typically don’t see as large an inventory of high-quality machines and prices tend to be high. And there is no after-sale support provided.   

The third option, private sellers, can be vetted by asking for recommendations and reading online reviews. Si says, when it comes to risk management and eliminating unknowns, buyers working with a private seller could find themselves on either end of the trust spectrum.

“If you know the seller and have a relationship with him or her, that trust factor is high,” he explains. “That person will give you the real deal on the machine and you’ll know exactly what you’re buying.” Conversely, the opposite could happen if there isn’t a relationship and the seller is simply looking to unload a money pit.

That is an important note to keep in mind with private sellers. Their ultimate goal is to do just that – sell. An excavator might not be a good purchase for a particular buyer but a private seller typically isn’t concerned about the end-user’s needs, financial situation, or long-term plans. And he or she cannot support after the sale.

2. Timing a used excavator search   
The agriculture industry has seasonal factors that affect the best time to buy used farm equipment. While the construction industry doesn’t follow this same pattern, timing is a factor to consider when buying a used excavator.

Because of their popularity, excavators move fast when they hit the used market. It used to be that a business owner or fleet manager was advised to plan a purchase 30, maybe 60 days in advance.

“Now, I recommend looking ahead 90 days and starting the search process that far in advance,” Si says.

The 90-day timeline is especially smart for buyers looking to purchase at auction because it also ties into how a lot of auctions are timed.

This proactive approach and timeline also puts a company in best position if working with an equipment dealership. An excavator may be on schedule to come back from a rental agreement or a trade-in might be expected, offering an opportunity to purchase the used excavator immediately upon availability.

3. Used excavator history and condition  
An important part of buying a quality used excavator boils down to determining the machine’s condition.

To begin the assessment process, ask the seller for a detailed account of the machine’s previous applications. For example, excavators that have been used for demolition work may have more wear and tear than one used for digging and little else.

Ask about environments of operation as well. A unique scenario might be excavators that have spent time in trenches, swampy areas, or other jobsites with standing water. If not properly cared for, water can do significant damage to a machine, sometimes damage that can’t be seen at first glance.

Further digging into a machine’s history, ask for service records, including detailed info like service work, oil scans, and parts that have been replaced or re-lifed.

Check all the pressures and make sure the speeds are set to factory specifications. An immediate red flag is a machine that can’t meet the factory specifications.

Machine hours is a final trait worth looking at. Machine values start to drop off significantly after 6,000 hours. Consider the long-term potential of the excavator in a fleet to determine the impact its hours has on the purchase.

4. Inspecting a used excavator and machine walkaround
Beyond what’s on paper and a first glance, give the excavator a good, thorough walkaround inspection. If this can’t be done in person, some sellers provide detailed walkaround videos and photos. 

With any walkaround, pay special attention to the excavator’s undercarriage. An undercarriage rebuild is expensive. While an excavator’s undercarriage may not be as big a risk as buying a machine that’s more mobile, like a dozer, it is worthwhile to inspect it.

Watch to find out why an undercarriage inspection is so important and what to look for when inspecting an undercarriage.

Another area to get up close with is the bucket, and stick pins and bushings. Examine to ensure there isn’t excessive wear.

5. Excavator automation technology and other considerations
The remaining areas to consider when looking for a used excavator go back to the add-ons that are of interest. 

Like the used excavator itself, excavator automation technology is popular and gaining momentum. Excavator automation systems make a significant impact on operator performance and overall productivity on the jobsite.

Related article: 5 FAQs covering the basics of excavator technology

An advantage to used excavators is many can be outfitted with auto-excavator systems. While integrated excavator technology systems like John Deere’s SmartGrade™ are a great new option, a company doesn’t need to buy a brand-new machine to reap the benefits of auto-excavator technology. Better yet, look for a used machine already equipped with excavator automation or machine control guidance technology.

For users who need to run more attachments, high-flow attachments, and run them for several hours, auxiliary hydraulics are a must-have.

According to Fortune Business Insights’ report, “Excavators Market, 2019-2026” global excavator market size is expected to increase steadily until 2026, with a 43% growth predicted from 2018 to 2026. Expect used excavators to be tougher to find and come with a higher price tag for awhile. Those looking for one can follow these tips to be in best position to find and buy a quality used excavator for sale.


Browse all available used construction equipment from RDO Equipment Co. or find options by visiting your local RDO Equipment Co. store.

Dennis Howard

Dennis Howard has more than 25 years of experience with RDO Equipment Co. As a Senior Vice President of the Construction Equipment division, he focuses on all aspects of the company’s fleet management efforts. Used construction equipment values and heavy equipment sales are two of his key areas of expertise. Dennis is a member of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals (AEMP), a regular contributor to and host of The Track, a web series from RDO. Subscribe to The Track on YouTube or connect with Dennis personally on LinkedIn.

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