7 Proven Questions For Buying A Used Hotshot Pickup

After trucking well over 2 decades, I know a thing or two about buying a hotshot pickup.  Nearly 7 of those years were spent on the hotshot side. Through the years, I’ve been involved in selecting several trucks. One of the trucks was mine, and several were company trucks.

Running many of these trucks harder than most, I’ve experienced everything from transmission failures to a broken crankshaft. Also giving me first hand experience were turbo problems, blown main bearings and a myriad of engine codes and power-downs.

On rare occasions, I’ve even had hub and axle failures resulting in wheels leaving the truck or trailer while driving at highway speeds. Trust me, there’s nothing quite like coming to a stop, only to watch one of your own wheels roll past you and through an intersection.

With all this in mind, here are 7 questions you really need to ask yourself before buying a used hot shot pickup.

1. Know Exactly What Are You Going To Haul

It’s important to know what you’re going to be hauling and what percentage of your miles will be spent loaded, empty and deadheading. Knowing these will help you decide on weight ratings and gear ratios. Numerically lower gear ratios return the best fuel economy, but at a cost. These taller gears will lower your performance when climbing hills. Another issue is they may well lower your GVWR and GCWR ratings.

Let’s take a look at the 2 hotshot trucking niches I’ve worked in and selected trucks for. These are real world examples, and totally different tow vehicle requirements to maximize profit.

RV Delivery

When shopping for a used pickup for an RV hauler, I looked at the details of the job. Having a friend in the industry, I was able to get a realistic outline of what I should expect.

  • My most profitable lane would be Indiana to western Canada.  Add to that, the industry is busiest during the winter.
  • Backhauls would be uncommon. That meant I’d be deadheading up to 50% of the time.
  • I needed the ability to tow 5th wheel trailers weighing up to 14,000 pounds, and bumper pulls up to 10,000 pounds, but those hauls would be rare.
  • The lion’s share of the work would be 4,000 to 7,000 pound travel trailers.
  • I was never going to be pushed for delivery times.
  • I didn’t need a lot of creature comforts.

Taking all this into account, I landed on a used Dodge 2500 HD 4×4 with the 5.9 Cummins, 5 speed and 3.52 gears. That truck served me well as far as mileage was concerned, even when I was hauling that 14,000 pound 5th wheel across northern Montana and Idaho on my way to British Columbia.

Hotshotting Livestock

I helped spec several trucks for livestock hauling. The requirements were completely different.

  • The most important thing is getting there, the quicker the better.
  • Deadheading is rare. The truck would always be hauling a 32-foot gooseneck trailer, loaded or empty.
  • Loaded weight would easily be over 32,000 lbs. That’s truck, trailer and animals, including several animals in the nose over the gooseneck.
  • There’s no stopping to wait out a snowstorm or other bad weather. If you’re loaded, you roll.
  • I’d be expected to get into some tough places.

Fuel economy was way down on the list when selecting trucks. We were more concerned about numerically higher gear ratios for heavy loads, keeping drivers comfortable on the trip and dependability.

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Fully loaded Chevrolet and GMC 3500 dually trucks were the easiest to buy. The dealer was closest to our location and the trucks ran relatively trouble free for the time we kept them, about 225,000 miles.

As big of a Dodge/Ram fan as I am, those trucks had a few drawbacks when compared to the GM competitors, at least for this application.

  1. The GM trucks had a considerably better ride quality, loaded and empty.
  2. On the road or close to home, Chevrolet/GMC dealerships are more plentiful.
  3. Quite honestly, our hometown Chevy dealer was the most willing to make the best deal.

Side Note: We had such poor experiences with Ford’s 6.0 and 6.4 Powerstroke diesels that we just stopped considering them. I’ve yet to form an opinion on the new Ford 6.7. 

2. Where Are You Going To Sleep?

Sleeping in the back seat of a dually pickup was a grey area for years. For now, it’s legal. I’m no lawyer, but it’s more of a loophole than anything. With the introduction of the 30-minute break, a driver was given the option of taking a break in his truck. That includes your 10-hour break. That rule could be modified at any time.

The down side of this plan is that you can’t take advantage of any split-sleep provisions without a legal sleeper. As of this writing, sleeper berth rules are being rewritten for more flexibility. It may be worth the investment to have a compliant sleeper in your truck.

The good news is that you can install a compliant sleeper within the confines of most newer 4-door cabs. Sadly, you,ll give up your front passenger seat to meet full compliance. In Uncle Sam’s infinite wisdom, they’ve decided you’ll sleep better without having to get out of the truck and re-enter through the back door.

3. What Kind Of Miles Does That Truck Have?

There’s an old saying, “miles are like oats. There are oats that have been through the horse, and those that haven’t.” That’s especially true with used trucks.

Of course we have the usual used car condition reports at our disposal. Dealer inspections, CarFax reports and test drives will tell a lot. But there are other signs to check.

  • Is there a gooseneck hitch in the bed? Lift that bedliner and look. Better yet, crawl underneath and look for holes or welds on the frame.
  • Even though the previous licence plates are no longer there, is the plate number available? What kind of weight was the truck plated for?
  • Has the truck been used for snow removal?
  • Are service records available?
  • Those tires may have plenty of tread, but are they rated for what you’re going to haul?
  • Have any previous owners reprogrammed the ECM?

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Your budget may only allow a truck with over 250,000 miles. That’s fine, as long as you go into the deal knowing you’re going to spend more servicing and maintaining the truck. But Grandpa’s 5th wheel hauler always trumps something that’s spent it’s life hauling freight, RVs or otherwise.

The point is to be well aware of how much life has been taken out of the truck from the previous work it’s performed. You may find that killer deal from someone getting out of the business. As long as you know what you’re getting into, and the price reflects the harder use, you’re fine.

4. Who’s Going To Work On Your Truck?

This is big.  I could easily go with my second choice of brand because I have a great mechanic who knows and loves something different. Assuming you’re out of factory warranty, you’ll probably want an independent mechanic who charges less than new truck dealerships for their shop work.

As I mentioned above, choosing trucks for the livestock operation was a great example. The Dodge/Ram store was 0ver 25 miles away. The Chevy/GMC dealer was less than 8. Since keeping the wheels rolling was priority, this was important.

In my case, I had a local tire and suspension guy and a diesel shop for my Cummins engine. Also, I had my own garage and tools for things like u-joints, oil changes and light mechanical work.

5. What Do You Need To Add?

You’ve just cherry picked Grandpa’s weekend 5th wheel hauler. Now it’s time to set it up for work, and that’s going to add to the cost. Depending on how you’re going to use the truck, you may need most of the following:

  • Auxiliary fuel tank.
  • Gooseneck hitch.
  • 5th wheel hitch.
  • Receiver hitch and sway bars.
  • Pintle hitch.
  • Electric brake controller.
  • Tools and tool box.
  • Triangles and fire extinguisher.
  • Extra lighting like cargo lights or emergency strobe lights.
  • Alarm system, security locks and hitch locks.
  • Sleeper conversion.

6. Will You Drive It Faster Than You Pay For It? 

A common issue with buying a hotshot truck, new or used, is the length of the loan. A 72 or 84-month loan is pretty common on a new truck, but not very smart when you’re putting 125,000 or more miles on the truck every year.

Hotshotters often buy a new truck because of the warranty that comes with the purchase. The problems arise when you’re trying to make maintain the truck after 250,000 miles or more, while maintaining that big payment.

If you’re going to buy a used truck, can you afford to pay it off over 36 or 42 months? Should you find you can’t afford it, walk away. You could keep searching for a less expensive truck. It may be that you’re not ready to jump in.

Learn to be more disciplined with your budget. Go ahead and take the 5-year loan, but make the 36-month payment. This still leaves you the option to make that lower payment for a month or two when you’re faced with a big repair bill or some other emergency.

7. Learn From My Mistakes

I made more than one mistake going into hotshotting. Here are a few of my biggest.

Not buying a dually. I stuck with a Dodge 2500HD for 2 reasons, lower tire cost and better fuel mileage. Although the truck was rated to tow what I was hauling, I wish I’d bought a dually.

Tire Cost

Friends with duallies were able to get 120,000 miles out of 6 tires. I was only able to get 80,000 out of my 4. Do the math. Tire cost is a wash.

While we’re on the tire topic, I would not have run the “commercial truck” tires we all ran if I was doing it again. Instead, I’d pay more for a tire that would provide better performance on wet, icy or snowy roads, and a lower rolling resistance for economy.

The tires may have ended up costing more, but they would’ve returned better mileage and a safer driving experience. I also question the safety of running those rear tires down to the legal limit.

Fuel economy

Most hotshotters keep copious notes regarding fuel economy. My choice of rear-end gears was genius. I was definitely more fuel efficient than most. But a dually lost little when it came to miles per gallon.

Had I chosen a comparably equipped dually and a higher quality tire, I would have certainly seen even better fuel mileage than I was getting with the 2500 HD.  I also would have had the added stability of the duals.

That Gooseneck Hitch

Although the ball was missing and a new bed liner was installed, I lifted it to find a hole in the box where the gooseneck ball came through the bed. I should’ve investigated the truck’s prior use before I pulled the trigger and bought the truck.

That 5-speed manual transmission went out at around 300,000 miles. Could it have gone another 100k without the previous heavy use? I’ll never know.

A Few Other Things To Consider

  • 2014 and newer trucks tend to have less emissions issues and higher tow ratings.
  • Could a new cab and chassis with less equipment be close enough to the price of that used truck?
  • Commercial vehicles and dealer lies can get you into trouble. I’m not a fan of service contracts or extended warranties. You might be, but they rarely cover commercial vehicles. If it isn’t in writing, assume you’re not covered.
  • Ask for dealer inspections, Carfax reports, service records, even the previous owner’s contact information.
  • Look for warning signs. Are there holes in the bed or frame from a gooseneck hitch? Has it been used for plowing snow?
  • Custom truck beds may be cool and convenient, but they add cost and weight. Chose the wrong one and it will limit what you can tow or damage a trailer.
  • Know the total length of the truck and trailer. If you’re hitting the 65 foot mark, you’ll create issues.
  • Short beds and Mega-Cabs come at a cost. Gooseneck and 5th wheel hitches may not be able to be properly located. Turning radius and your ability to maneuver in tight places could also be seriously affected. Do your homework.

Let Don and I know what other things you’re looking for in that used hotshot pickup. We would love to hear from you. And may just add it to the list.

Side Note: If you’re going out on your own, you may want to read 7 Tools For Finding Higher Paying Truckloads. Big truck or hotshot, these tools will help you.

Other Show Notes

Big Rolling Turd – Lincoln Blackwood