Buying Your First Semi Truck 5 Key Research Questions

Buying Your First Semi Truck: 5 Key Research Questions

Buying your first semi truck is a bit like buying a car and a bit like buying a home. It is a vehicle, after all, and you’ll want to compare manufacturers, engines, transmissions, and more. The price tag is more like a home, though. A brand new cab will run you at least $100,000 on the low end—and if you drive over-the-road routes, your rig is a sort of residence.

But a semi truck isn’t just a vehicle or a shelter. It’s also a business investment. The best way to think about buying a semi truck for business is as an asset—machinery you buy now that will provide a financial return (and then some) through years of use. Manufacturers do a lot of research before buying new factory equipment. Truckers should do the same for their trucks.

So, where do you start with the research? The answer is with a list of questions. Here are the top five questions to ask as you begin planning for your first semi truck purchase, whether you’re an owner-operator just setting up shop or an experienced fleet owner making the leap from leasing to owning.

(PS: if you’re starting your own trucking business, check out our interactive checklist by clicking below! It’ll help organize all the steps and documents you need.)

Checklist for starting a trucking business

5 Decisions To Make Before Buying Your First Semi Truck

1. Should you lease or buy?

Leasing outsources many of the responsibilities of ownership; your leasing company may handle maintenance, DOT compliance, vehicle registration, and even roadside assistance. It’s what some business owners call a “turnkey solution.”

However, there are also advantages to owning. There’s the asset value, for one thing. If you want to take out a loan, banks may require collateral. Your own trucks pack a lot more value into your business and can open up more funding opportunities.

Plus, when you own your truck, you have the freedom to use and modify it as you see fit. Ultimately, ownership gives you more control over your business—but also adds a lot of responsibility. Leasing may be the safer bet for a new operator.

All that said, you are reading an article about buying a semi truck for your business. From this point forward, we’ll assume you’ve rejected the option to lease. Here’s what to look for when buying a semi truck.

2. Should you buy new or used?

The next high-level decision to make is whether to go for a brand-new unit or pick up something used. There are advantages to each option:

Advantages Of Buying A New Truck

  • Reliability. Needless to say, mechanical systems weaken as they age. When you buy new, you can be more confident that your rig will stay on the road, with a lower risk of costly breakdowns. New trucks usually include factory warranties, too, so even if something goes wrong, you’ll know it’s covered.
  • Fewer maintenance requirements. Similarly, new trucks usually require far less scheduled maintenance than used ones. That adds up to less downtime and lower operating costs—at least for a few years.
  • More potential business opportunities. Some brokers and shippers require carriers to have newer equipment. Even if your 20-year-old rig is shipshape, running used vehicles may knock you out of the running on certain bids.
  • High-tech perks. Looking for advanced telematics built into your cab? What about pre-installed auxiliary power units or digital safety features? The newer the truck, the more likely it’ll come with these features ready to go.

Advantages Of Buying A Used Truck

  • Lower cost. This is the big one. Many first-time truck buyers simply can’t afford a new rig. You’ll face lower initial and monthly truck payments when you buy used.
  • Availability. We’re publishing this article in the midst of global supply chain disruptions. Even if you order a new truck, the manufacturer may not be able to deliver immediately. Used vehicles are already sitting on the lot, ready to go.
  • Matching driver experience. A more mechanically inclined owner-operator may be comfortable handling maintenance—or even breakdowns—on their own. That could make the lower cost of a used vehicle more attractive.

3. What about a day cab vs. sleeper?

Sleeper cabs tend to be more expensive. Is the extra cost worth it for your trucking business? That depends on a few details about how you operate:

  • Do you offer (or want to be able to offer) over-the-road trucking services? If you operate local routes and your drivers are home every night, a sleeper’s probably not necessary. But if you plan to drive coast-to-coast, you’ll get a return on your investment in hotel savings alone.
  • Do you offer both local and over-the-road hauling? If you operate a fleet that travels both locally and over the road, you might consider sticking with sleeper cabs. That way, you won’t have to worry about getting the right truck to the right driver; your whole fleet will be capable of any route.
  • Do you run team drivers? If you offer team trucking, where two drivers take turns driving to keep freight moving 24/7, not only will you need a sleeper—you’ll need a sleeper with dual bunks.

4. What technical specifications does your business require?

There’s no one perfect truck for every situation. Start by considering your routes: Are you running light loads through the flat Midwest? Look for a fast, nimble rig. If you operate in mountainous terrain, however, you’ll need to focus on torque and towing power. Here are just a few of the technical features to consider when comparing semi trucks:

  • Engine.Are you a Detroit Diesel fan or a Cummins partisan? Both have proven reliable, depending on use. More important than the engine’s manufacturer, perhaps, are its power ratings. We’ll discuss those in our horsepower and torque entry below.
  • Transmission. While the industry continues to move toward automatic transmissions, experienced truckers may still prefer the feel of a manual gearbox. Many new drivers train on automatic transmissions. If you operate a fleet and plan to hire, this may be your safest bet. As an owner-operator, however, you might simply prefer the greater control of a manual transmission.
  • Year, make, and model. Leading manufacturers include Volvo, Freightliner, International, and Mack; ask around for preferences, and you’ll find champions for them all. Maybe don’t get hung up on the manufacturer, then. If you’re buying used, definitely do research the reputations of various model years. You may find there are plenty of 2013 such-and-suches available in the used lots; that could be because that year’s model ends up in the shop more often than not, and no one wants them. You don’t either.
  • Horsepower and torque. Horsepower measures the power of the engine, while torque, a measure of twisting force, determines how quickly you can take the rig from a full stop to full motion. Higher torque will help you move smoothly up steep grades, while higher horsepower will help you move those heavy loads at speed. Most of today’s semi trucks put out between 400 and 600 foot-pounds per minute and torque in the 1,450 to 2,000 pound-foot range. Choose to match your routes and loads.
Average Miles Per Gallon: A Key Consideration In Buying Your First Semi TruckIn 2019, fuel made up 24% of carrier cost per mile. That’s second only to driver wages. To keep fuel costs down, look for a truck that offers the best average miles per gallon during operation. Of course, the engine, transmission, and fuel economy features in your rig are only part of the equation, but they’re an important part.Establish a goal for average MPGs and reject trucks that can’t match it. That could influence your decision on which model years to consider. If you know you want at least 7 MPGs, you’re probably cutting out 2010 models. As a rule of thumb, look for a rig that can promise at least 7 to 11 MPGs on average.

5. When should you replace semi trucks?

You’re considering buying a semi truck; it may feel a bit early to think about replacement. In fact, large fleet owners rotate their stock on a regular basis, and it’s never too early to put a plan into place. Most leasing deals operate on six-year terms. That’s a good starting place for thinking about truck replacement. Of course, if you buy a new vehicle, and you stay on top of maintenance, you may run that rig for 10 or 15 or 20 years—but you’ll face more costs and headaches along the way.

Another way to phrase this question is: How long do semi trucks last? While the answer varies widely, consider that you’ll probably put 100,000 to 120,000 miles on an engine every year. Well-maintained diesel engines can still perform admirably up to 700,000 miles and up—but with increasing downtime. To keep things simple, you may want to start thinking about replacing trucks after five years of ownership.

Cash Flow For Financing Semi Trucks

You may be buying your first semi truck, but it won’t be your last. Replacing trucks is part of running a fleet. You may get financing through a bank, through the dealer, or—with enough capital—you may buy outright. All of these scenarios require reliable cash flow. That can be a challenge when brokers and shippers may not pay invoices for 30 or 60 days.

The key cash flow solution in this industry is factoring, and there’s no better way to factor an invoice than Bobtail. Download the app, upload rate confirmation and a bill of ladings, and get your invoices paid within a day—all without contracts, reserves, volume requirements, or hidden fees of any kind. Try out our factoring service by signing up here.

Factor with Bobtail