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How To Buy A Used Jeep

Well-maintained Jeeps can run forever, but not every used unit is a winner. Be prepared to conduct a thorough inspection to be sure the seller isn’t trying to palm off a problem child.
By: Rob Rose

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How To Buy A Used Jeep

This is the first in a series of articles that will document the search for and customization of a used Jeep that will then be raffled off at an upcoming event. 

So you decided you would like to purchase a Jeep, but the purchase price and payments for a new one exceed your budget range. That puts you in the market for a good used one. If you have owned Jeeps before, you probably have a specific idea of what you want and what to look for. If you are new to the world of Jeep, you may find yourself lost in a sea of choices. Let’s review the FAQs.

1. Which Model Do I Choose?

Since World War II, the name “Jeep” has been synonymous with the Wrangler model, even though there are many different models of Jeeps to choose from. There really is a Jeep model out there for almost everyone, so only you can determine which model suits your intended purpose and your budget.

Although our list of factors to consider will generally apply to almost all used vehicles, due to its popularity, we will be focusing on the Jeep Wrangler model in this article.

2. What’s Available in My Price Range?

Set a maximum dollar amount for your purchase. You will most likely find Jeeps that are in your price range that have had some upgrades done to them, and some that are mostly (or all) factory stock. While the total costs to upgrade a stock Jeep to your liking will be much higher, a stock Jeep is a blank canvas and a great way to go if you want to make sure that all upgrades are done properly and to your own standards.

If you are in the market for a “turnkey” Jeep, one that is already modified is the obvious choice. Buyers beware: A modified Jeep may come with hidden headaches that are not instantly obvious at the time of purchase. The optimal choice is buying a modified Jeep that you are very familiar with from a friend or acquaintance.

3. How Can I Find a Bargain?  

For the most part, Jeep owners know what they have, and they know what it’s worth. Trying to negotiate the price down will usually be a tough battle. However, price can also be a subtle indicator to the overall shape and condition of a Jeep.

If you find a Jeep that appears to be in great shape on the outside but is priced significantly lower than what the market commands, it should be an instant alarm bell. There is a very good chance that there is something wrong with it and someone is trying to unload their problem onto you.

Inspect the vehicle thoroughly, and remember: “Putty and paint make what ain’t.” In other words, just because it has fresh paint and it looks good, that doesn’t make it a mechanically sound vehicle. Dents and rust are easily covered up. High-volume oil pumps and thicker engine oil mask low-oil-pressure issues. “Stop-leak” products may temporarily stop a leak long enough to sell the vehicle, but ultimately makes all seals swell and creates more leaks down the road.

Finally, pull a Carfax report or have your auto insurance agent run the vehicle identification number (VIN) through their database to check the vehicle’s title status and accident history.

4. What Are My Options?

You will find Wranglers classified as CJ (built in 1944–’85), YJ (1986–’95), TJ or TJU, a.k.a. LJ (1996–2006) or the current model, JK/JKU. Each model has different trim packages available that drastically affect the resale price.

The Rubicon package is going to be the top price point, but will also be the most off-road capable without any modifications, so there is a benefit to the premium resale price. Any Jeeps equipped with the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine are going to cost less than the same model that is equipped with a six-cylinder, but it may cost more to upgrade in the long run, depending on your intended level of modification.

Almost all Wrangler models, except for earlier CJ models, were offered with manual or automatic transmissions. The majority of Wranglers are four-wheel drive, but they were also offered in two-wheel drive, and you will find them at the bottom of the price point range. It’s really just up to you to choose the best Jeep and trim package that is suited for your planned use of the vehicle.

5. What Inspection Tools Will I Need?

When inspecting a used Jeep, I strongly recommend wearing clothes that you don’t mind ruining, because to thoroughly check one out, you will definitely be getting dirty, oily and greasy. The first and most important tool is safety goggles that are form fitted to your face. The last thing you want is a piece of rusted metal in your eye. Been there, done that. It’s extremely unpleasant.

A 3/8-inch drive ratchet is a must to check the differential fluid levels and conditions. Bring a good flashlight or droplight, a good quantity of rags, and mechanic’s waterless hand cleaner.

6. What Do I Check?

Jeeps are known for their longevity — as long as they are properly maintained. Engine overheats, rust and lack of maintenance are the three biggest Jeep killers. It is my personal experience and opinion that any seller that is not willing to allow you to do a thorough inspection of the Jeep they are selling is probably trying to hide something. For a complete list, check out the sidebar.

7. How Do I Make the Right Decision?

There are a lot of factors to weigh before you make the decision to purchase a Jeep. Small issues that can be easily repaired shouldn’t kill the deal. They can give you leverage to negotiate the purchase price.

The best advice I can offer you is this: Make an educated purchase after you have thoroughly inspected the vehicle. Don’t let someone make their problem child yours. Don’t be afraid to walk away and pass on it if it needs costly repairs. Don’t buy on impulse because you fell in love with the look of a particular Jeep even though it needs extensive repairs.

You can turn any Jeep into the Jeep of your dreams. There are too many Jeeps out there for sale that are in great shape within your price range to settle on a pile of junk. You will find the right Jeep for you. You just have to take your time, do your research, thoroughly inspect it, and have enough patience to find it.

Inspect Your Gadget

• Check Engine Light

Make sure the check engine light has not been disabled by the seller. Verify the light illuminates briefly when you first turn the key to the run position, and check to see if it stays illuminated while the engine is running. An illuminated check engine light can mean too many things to list here. It is something to be wary of, but not a trigger to walk away from the vehicle, unless it is accompanied by a poor engine running condition.

• Coolant Stains

Look for coolant stains on the underside of the hood. They are usually found near the front of the engine compartment, above the radiator. This is a sure sign of a past overheat condition or a leaking radiator or water pump.

If you find this kind of stain, check the radiator, water pump and fan clutch to see if they have recently been replaced. If there are any obvious leaks, let the engine cool off, then take off the radiator cap and check the coolant’s condition. If there is rusty coolant in the radiator, it’s a sure sign that the vehicle has (or had) a severe overheating problem.

Please note that JKs get H.O.A.T. (pink) or O.A.T. (orange) coolant from the factory, and those colors make it nearly impossible to detect rust in the cooling system. If you own or buy one of these models, the factory coolant should never be mixed with any other type! It will turn to an acidic gel and clog up the cooling system.

Once a cast-iron engine block has severely overheated, it will continue to rust from the inside out until it is removed from service and is sent to a machine shop to be rebuilt and chemically treated. Even if the overheat condition has been corrected, a severely overheated, non-rebuilt block will have rusty coolant, even after a recent coolant change.

• Oil/Coolant Mixtures

Look for signs of oil in the cooling system and vice versa. Grayish oily sludge on the inside of the radiator cap, gray sludge in the oil cap, chocolate milk-colored oil on the oil dipstick, or a rainbow-colored film floating on top of the coolant, and oil residue in the coolant overflow bottle are signs that the integrity of the oil/cooling systems are or have been compromised.

This could mean that the cylinder head is (or was) warped or the head gasket blew. Leaving the radiator cap off, start the vehicle and allow it to come up to operating temperature. Go back to the front of the vehicle and observe the coolant in the radiator. If you see a continuous slow stream of bubbles in the coolant, with the engine running, it means that exhaust gases are present in the coolant. This is a worst-case scenario, and you should walk away.

• Weak Oil Pressure

Anytime oil pressure is below 20 psi, or is fluctuating at steady RPMs, it’s a warning that the engine is worn out, and may need to be rebuilt or replaced. If the oil pressure sending unit is reading at all, it is most likely not bad, regardless of what the seller tells you. Low oil pressure is another walk-away condition.

• Leaks

Time to get your safety glasses on, get under the vehicle, and start inspecting. Personally, I have never seen an older Jeep that didn’t have at least a slight oil leak. Pinion seals, front inner axle seals, valve cover gaskets, and the rear main engine seal are the most common sources of oil leaks in Jeeps.

If the pinion seals or axle tubes are leaking, pull the differential (a.k.a. “diff”) fill plugs and insert a finger into the oil. If it is black and smells burnt, it is indicative of lack of regular maintenance. Grayish/brown, chocolate milk-colored diff fluid means that the diffs have water in them. Oil leaking out of the front axle tubes means the differential has to be removed to replace the inner axle seals.

You should also check the pinion yokes for play. Leaking pinion seals are indicative of bad bearings or grooved pinion yokes from high mileage. If there is play, the differential will need to be rebuilt. This condition can go either way, and is up to the buyer. It is a very expensive repair, but if you were planning to increase tire size, and to regear anyway, it would not be a walk-away situation, because all the bad components would be replaced during the differential regearing.

• Bad Transmission Fluid

You should also pull the fill plugs for the transfer case and the manual transmission, or check the dipstick on an automatic transmission for dark, burnt fluid. If you find strawberry milk-colored fluid in the automatic transmission or transfer case, it means it has water in it. Water in an automatic transmission is a walk-away situation. Manual transmissions have gear oil in them, so look for dark fluid or chocolate milk.

• Bad Brakes

While under the Jeep, inspect the visible portions of the brake rotors for grooves or metal on metal conditions. Check all hydraulic brake lines for rot, leaks, and cracks in the rubber sections of lines. If the vehicle is equipped with drum brakes on the rear, the rear wheels and brake drums will have to be removed in order to inspect the rear brake shoes, wheel cylinders and axle seals for leaks.

• Rust and Rot

Inspect the frame and tub for rust, especially on older CJs and YJs. Be sure to check the frame on the inside of the belly pan where the three (per side) belly pan bolts go into the frame, at all of the lowest points of the frame where water can collect, where the roll bar bolts to the floor pan, and all of the body mount locations.

This is especially important if it was a Northern Jeep. Salt and calcium chloride are used to de-ice roads. They are extremely caustic to metal and rubber components and can cause extreme rust on non-undercoated parts like the exhaust and suspension.

Excessive rust or rot is a walk-away situation. If there is rot on the frame of the Jeep, don’t walk away. Run!

You will also want to check on the inside of the tub for rust and rot. Check the quarter panels in front of the lower door hinges, where the seat brackets bolt to the tub and where the factory roll bar bolts to the floor. Any place you see a cluster of small drilled holes with hardened putty oozed through them is a place in the body where a dent has been repaired.

Finally, inspect the steering and suspension components. Look for any rotted bushings, play in steering joints, elongated bolt holes, irregular tire wear and oil leaking from shocks.

• Deathwobble

Take the Jeep on a long test drive. Steer the front tires over any potholes or bumps you see at 30 miles per hour or above to attempt to trigger the dreaded “deathwobble.” If you do, apply the brakes hard until it stops. Deathwobble can be extremely scary and dangerous at highway speeds. It is indicative of loose or worn steering components that are not easily visible without specific component testing.

Bad steering stabilizers do not cause deathwobble, regardless of what anyone tells you. While on the test drive, listen for any irregular brake and drivetrain noises. Check if the Jeep pulls to one side or the other during hard braking, or if the steering wheel shakes on hard braking situations.

• Not So Clutch

Even if the Jeep runs and drives well, shut the engine off and check how it restarts when hot. Check to see if the emergency brake will hold on an incline. If it has a manual transmission, with the engine running at idle, apply the emergency brake, depress the brake and clutch pedals, shift into third gear and slowly release the clutch pedal until the engine stalls.

Take note of how high the pedal got before the engine stalled. Now try the same procedure in all gears. This will give you a general idea of the health of the clutch. As a general rule, the closer to full release the pedal gets before a stall, the more worn out the clutch is. Clutch replacement is also a costly repair, but not necessarily a walk-away condition. Use it as a price negotiation point.

• Air Leak

If equipped, be sure to test the four-wheel drive functionality. If it is an earlier Rubicon model with air lockers or has aftermarket air lockers, verify the air pump comes on and does not run continuously. If the air compressor runs every few seconds as pressure drops and then shuts off when the system comes up to pressure, then repeats as soon as pressure drops, that means there is an air leak.

The cost to repair a locker system air leak is dependent upon where the leak is, i.e. inside or outside of the differential housing. If the air pump does not come on at all, it can be a costly repair if the pump itself is bad.

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jeepin' Central Florida or any employee thereof.

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