Buying a Skid Steer Loader at the Auction

The skid steer loader has become one of the most sought after pieces of construction equipment. Buying a skid steer loader at the auction can be an inexpensive way of acquiring a good machine at a discounted price. However, avoiding a machine with possibly hidden expensive repairs can be a difficult task. I have been buying heavy machinery at auctions for many years, most of the time not for my business inventory but for the dealers that I supply used inventory. I inspect machines and then let dealers know what they need in repairs to be retail ready. I then bid and possibly buy the machines for them. I have inspected thousands of machines, many that I never bid on or even thought of bidding on because the machine was showing too many signs of abuse or other issues that made me not want to be involved with it. Over the years I have inspected more skid steer loaders than any other type of heavy machinery, this is a compilation of the methods I use when trying to inspect the skid steer loader at the auction.

Ok, it starts with the decision being made that I am going to the auction to buy a skid steer loader. I have already exhausted other venues of purchasing a machine and this the option currently available. There are many preliminary points that must be considered before making an auction purchase. Such as, size, horsepower, lifting height needed, track or tire, brand and availability of attachments. It is important that the machine will not exceed my hauling capacity. I don’t want to buy a machine that makes me require a bigger truck and trailer to move it. I need to know the price range that the machine should be before it comes up for bidding. I do not want to buy a used machine at the auction for nearly the same as the cost of a new machine that will come with warranty and support. I also need to consider my repair cost and reduce my top bid price by that amount. For instance, if I buy a skid steer loader that is on bald tires that are foam filled then I need to know what a tire company is going to charge me to replace the tires including the cost of the new tires and cutting off the foam filled tires. It is also very important to know if the auction company is charging a premium over the cost that I bid on the machine. A winning bid of twenty thousand becomes twenty two thousand if there is a ten percent buyer’s premium. It is a good idea to make sure that there is a local dealer, offering service and parts for the brand of machinery that I may purchase at the auction.

Auction machinery is sold “as is”, meaning that once you have won the bid, it is your baby. There are no warranties unless stated at the time of the specific machine being auctioned off. It is important that the year of the machine is verified by a serial number plate or stamp on the machine. Sometimes calling the serial number into the local dealer may reveal the year of the machine or when it was sold. There may be some service history, that may help to verify if an hour meter is accurate, has been changed or not working. It helps to ask if the history shows any major component repairs.

Inspecting machinery is dangerous and should not be done by someone that is not familiar with machinery. It is nearly impossible to hear someone yelling when running a skid steer loader, kids need be watched at all times and many auction companies will ask that kids not be brought to the auction. Even the smallest skid steer loader can cut off a finger, arm, leg or head in seconds. A person needs to be familiar with the machinery that they are inspecting, in an effort to have an idea of what would feel like a normal operation.

There are many levels of machinery inspections, the most thorough would involve taking oil samples and pulling a service history on the machine in question. Taking a machinery mechanic along is a great idea. People do go to these lengths, especially with larger machinery with components that may cost many thousands of dollars. Many people take a used car to their personal mechanic to inspect it before a purchase.

This is a description of what I usually look for at the auction, in an attempt to be efficient and thorough at the same time.

I try to go to the auction site the day before the auction, because there are less obstacles around the machine that I want to inspect. Those obstacles are people, fences, electric wires, cables, other machines and cars or trucks being driven down the rows of machines. When I inspect machinery on the day of the auction the machines have people crawling around them like ants that discovered a piece of hard candy. When there are 5 people standing around the machine I am checking, I can not really concentrate on the machine when I am watching out for people. Going the day before the sale usually gives me more breathing room around the machine. Many times the machines are packed in a row like sardines with little room to actually move the machine. It is much easier to pull a machine out of the row and drive it with out hitting another machine on the day before the sale than on sale day. Whether I go sale day or before the day of the auction, I will check the auction website or call the auction company to make sure the machinery is there that I am interested in. It really burns me up when I drive a hundred miles to find out that the machine that I was most interested in didn’t even make it to the auction, a machine that was possibly even pictured in the brochure. There are legitimate reasons that a machine might not show up at the auction. There are not any easy ways to change the auction company’s advertisements that are already in circulation.

Everyone has their methods, I am sharing mine. I am not saying that my methods are safe (many machine checks are in fact quite dangerous), or even foolproof at determining a problem. I have however purchased hundreds of machines at auctions for other dealers and myself with very few complaints. This is a quick rundown of the checks that I make, I will not explain all the reasons for the test that I do. That might be another day’s article. Some people have a check list, and that is a good idea, I forget things too, I don’t use a check list. If I am not familiar with the controls or a certain type of machine, I will get someone who knows how it operates to help me out, or I won’t start it unless I have a lot of room around me for figuring it out. These methods are pertaining to the rubber tire skid steer loader, most of the checks would apply to the rubber track machines but there are more checks to go into on the rubber track machine, another article.

Actually inspecting the machine. Some auctions may have fifty or more skid steer loaders to avoid being overwhelmed some of the machines can be eliminated quickly. For instance, I tend to avoid machines that are not factory colors, I also have my guard up around machines that have been completely repainted. For various reasons that I will not go into now, I do not consider a machine that looks like it is a grey market machine. (A grey market machine is a machine that was not originally built for the US market, it may have been brought into the USA by someone other than the manufacturer). Machines that look like they were used in demolition, foundry, forestry, farming, chemical or factory work may require a lot more inspection time. Some of these applications may have around the clock running time, be extremely corrosive, and or a brutal environment that may rapidly age the machinery. Machines with over the tire tracks require a closer inspection, the traction and torques from over the tire tracks will create more stress on all components of the machine.

One of the first things that I do is walk around the machine. This way if I see what I consider major frame or loader arm weld repairs then I already know that I am done and don’t need to look any further at that machine. I inspect the bucket, the cutting edge, I prefer to see a bolt on cutting edge. I look for welds and or cracks, holes in the bottom of the bucket, if there are exposed shanks with no teeth on them they will probably not hold teeth and need to be replaced altogether. A worn out welded cutting edge can cost almost as much to repair as a new bucket, a bolt on cutting edge is easily replaced and protects the welded edge. The bucket must be as wide as or wider than the outside width of the machine at the tires. A bucket that is narrower than the tire width will need to be replaced with a proper bucket.

The universal quick attach plate system may be used industry wide by now, however it was not always that way. There may still be some machines that do not use the universal quick attach system. Also, older machines may be running a different kind of quick attach plate, if so, it will make it a lot harder to find attachments or to rent attachments that will quickly and easily mount up to the machine. I watch out for bent handles on the quick attach plate, I have taken the skin off my knuckles more than once trying to move a handle that was bent and had no clearance for my fingers. If a bucket is welded to the quick attach plate then it probably was falling off, not a good sign and an indication that the quick attach plate and bucket will need repaired or replaced.

I look for cracks, weld repaired loader arms, weld repaired quick attach plates, a weld repaired or damaged canopy or ROPS. (Roll Over Protection System). I avoid machines with extra plating welded to the loader arms, looking especially in the areas of the crossbars in front of the main frame. The bosses where the loader is pinned to the main frame frequently crack and gets welded or plated. Anywhere the linkage is pinned together for a vertical lift machine is prone to cracks and welds. I am not saying that the repair is not good, they could be good and even better than original factory fabrication. The fact that it broke or cracked is a sign that the machine may have been abused or crashed or has a lot of hours. I see many machines with grapple buckets or other attachments that cause more stress that caused the machine to have cracked and weld repaired loader arms. Some application require a very low ceiling height, the owner may chop the ROPS canopy down to make clearance then weld it back together, it may not meet the crush requirement that it originally was tested and approved for. I observe all the hydraulic cylinders for leaks or mounting pin wear. The tilt cylinders are more prone to leaking because the ram gets scratched by debris. Sometimes a scratched ram can be smoothed out enough to not leak, a deeply scratched ram will need replaced or re-chromed. I step back and align myself with the wheels, the front and rear wheels should be closely aligned and the same size. Stepping further back from the machine, I look to make sure the ROPS (cab or canopy) is vertically straight and not leaning to one side, a sign of a rollover. Bent ROPS post could seriously reduce the structural strength of the ROPS, the only thing protecting the operator in the event of a rollover.

I like to go early in the morning so that if I am lucky, I am the first person to start the machine. A lot is told by starting a cold diesel engine. It is a good idea to bring a rag and even a pocket flashlight. Before I start a machine however, I check the oil, I smell it to see if it smells burnt and then I wipe it on a paper towel to see if it spreads out. If the oil smells burnt then it is a sign that the engine may have had overheating in the past and is possibly going to be a problem. If it spreads out then it might have fuel mixed in with it. The oil might be black and that is ok, but if it is whitish or grey then it has mixed with antifreeze. The oil level could be overfull if it mixed with antifreeze or other fluids, antifreeze will sink to the bottom of the oil pan, raising the oil level. If antifreeze has mixed with the oil it could be an expensive issue as in a cracked block, head or blown head gasket. Another common reason for oil and antifreeze mixing could be an oil cooler leaking internally. I also try to see if I can see metal flecks floating in the oil from bearing material, an expensive repair sign. If the oil is golden and clear then it was very recently changed and won’t give up any clues. If the oil is not on the dipstick or the level is below the low mark and it is in the auction, then it is a sign of a poorly maintained machine or one that could have an oil consumption problem. I look for a blow by tube or an oil fill cap to know where it is so I can check for blow by when the engine is running. That little pocket flashlight comes in handy now by trying to see behind the engine in the areas of the drive pumps, look for oil laying in the belly pans, dirt and debris accumulated from years of not cleaning out the inner workings. These things can all lead to stiff linkages, rusty parts, blown hoses even holes in engine oil pans. A damaged rear grill or back door is a good reason to double check for damaged radiators or oil coolers. Opening up the back door will reveal the radiators and oil coolers, check for leaks around this area, it is prone to vibration cracks and debris damage. I have found many radiator upper tanks that had broken the solder joints and were no longer secure. I get down on my knees and look under the machine. I look for leaking from the belly pans, welds or braces on the lower chain cases, oil running down the inside of the wheels or axles. Oil leaking from an axle seal could be a larger repair than just a seal, bearings and axles could be damaged. Belly pans that are pushed up can cause major damage to hydraulic lines, pump housings or other components. All are signs of possible abuse or expensive repairs. Oil running out from the belly pan is a sign that there should be further checks for leaks internally and if there is a splitter box, (some larger skid steer loaders may have a splitter box) it could be overfilling from a hydraulic pump seal pushing oil into the splitter box. It is usually necessary to lift the seat to find a dipstick for a splitter box.

Now, I get in the machine and look for the throttle and make sure it is at the slowest speed setting. I observe if it is a suspension seat and the seat condition, a non suspension seat in a skid steer is a rough ride. There should be some form of a soft head liner as well, for a good reason, my head is softer than the steel top. People that shut off machines at full throttle have never been mechanics and never paid for a turbo charger. Unless it is a very old skid steer loader, there is a seat belt or pull down bar interlock system. The hydraulics and ignition should not operate without engaging the interlock mechanism which ever kind is used. I don’t start the machine unless I know how to turn it off! I don’t start the machine with anyone standing next to it or in the bucket, I try to make sure people near me know that I am going to start the machine, I have started enough machines that started moving instantly and could have hurt a bystander. I turn the key on and if it has an auto glow plug system it will do a count down automatically and when it hits zero I turn the key to start the engine. I read the hour meter and note the reading in the tenths, so that when I am done testing the machine I can tell if the meter has been logging time. If the engine starts instantly (and it is cold) that is a good sign. If it takes a lot of cranking before it starts then it could have issues that could be expensive. If it needs ether or a cold starting aid, it could be a sign of weak compression and an expensive repair. While the engine is cranking, I listen to the starter motor to see if it sounds like it has even pulses of compression dragging on it. A starter motor that has strange or uneven sounds is possibly letting you know if a cylinder of the engine has weak compression. A starter that emits a loud grinding sound and doesn’t spin the engine is exhibiting a bad Bendix gear on the starter and or possibly bad flywheel teeth on the engine, it could be a very expensive repair. If the hydrostatic drives are not centered, the machine may try to move while cranking. That can lead to a prematurely worn out starter and a clue to the fact that the machine may try to go as soon as the engine is started, watch out! If the drives are not centered then the parking brake will hold the machine unless it isn’t working. If the parking brake isn’t holding the machine then the machine can start driving in any direction once it has started. Once the engine has started I listen to it to see if it sounds smooth and even firing. I look for the exhaust smoke, a bluish smoke at start up is a sign of oil that has possibly slipped past the valve stems and is burning in the cylinders. If it clears up quickly then I don’t give it too much thought but if it stays smoky then I am concerned about the health of the internal engine components. There are chapters to write about engine smoke and what it means, this is a quick auction check so I will be brief. Heavy smoke is not a good sign. Blue smoke means the engine is burning oil, black smoke is excessive fuel and white smoke is steam from the coolant entering the combustion chambers. A healthy engine may emit a small amount of black smoke upon acceleration or a heavy load that should clear up without a load on the engine. Once the engine has started all dash idiot lights should go out or if there are gauges then the oil pressure should be in the normal zone even a little high if it is cold. I observe all gauges or idiot lights to make sure that they are working. Hydraulic charge pressure lights or codes coming up on the digital dash could be very important in determining possible expensive repairs.

Remember, people have been killed or severely injured testing machinery, I do all my testing from the operator’s seat with the seat belt on and the lap bar in place. Leaning out of the machine or operating the machine out of the driver’s seat to inspect loader arms has ended the lives of operators and mechanics. As I let the engine warm up, I do some hydraulic checks by raising and lowering the loader arms, and tilting the bucket. Before raising the loader I always make sure that the loader bucket is locked on and is not going to fall off. I have seen quick attach plates that were so worn out that the bucket fell off when I rolled it over while testing the tilt. That can make for a bad day if someone is under the bucket. The whole time that I am working with the hydraulics I am listening for hydraulic pump noises, worn pumps will make more of a whine when being utilized. I listen and watch to see that the loader arms stop evenly on the stops when they hit the bottom of the travel. Usually I can see where the arms meet the stops, if the left and right stops are not touching at the same time then the arms are twisted. A small gap at the stops is acceptable. If there is a large gap on one side and powering the arms down is the only way to make both sides hit the stops then the arms are twisted. Twisted arms can cause uneven bucket cutting edge wear, another clue to looking for twisted arms. With the arms lowered, I will slowly tilt the bucket down and power it down against the ground. Then the front wheels of the machine should rise easily. With the front wheels elevated a few inches I will leave the machine sitting in this position and see if it lowers on its own, a sign of a internal hydraulic leak. I raise the arms enough so that I can tilt the bucket down until the front edge of the cutting edge meets the ground, then I can watch the play in the quick attach plate where it meets the bucket, the play in the pins and bushings where the tilt cylinders attach to the quick attach plate and loader arms, then the pins and bushings where the lower pins of the arms attach to the quick attach plate. That’s a lot of checks that take about one minute! If that!

With the engine running I leave the parking brake engaged, I try to move the machine with the forward and reverse control levers to determine that the brake is holding the machine. If the parking brake is engaged and the machine moves then it could be a very expensive repair, some skid steers have adjustable brakes that could be worn and need an adjustment others have parking brakes that are tied into the drive motors. This later system could be very expensive even possibly requiring replacement of the drive motor to repair the brake. Most modern skid steer loaders have a pushbutton parking brake release that will not release the brake unless the safety bar or seatbelt is engaged. An inoperative parking brake can result in a very dangerous condition, combined with un-centered drives could lead to a disaster. With the brake applied (and working) I get out of the machine and with the engine idling I will go back to the engine area and observe the engine while it is running. (Some machines might shut off automatically when the seat belt is released and no weight is sensed in the seat). I listen to it to make sure it sounds smooth and not shaking. Diesel engines are loud when they are running so it isn’t easy to hear other things like bad alternator bearings. I try to listen for squealing sounds usually emitted by bad bearings in an alternator or air conditioning compressor. Loose belts will also make a chirpy squealing sound. A water pump bearing that is going bad will be possibly leaking antifreeze from a weep hole below the fan belt pulley. I am very careful to not put my fingers in a spinning fan blade or fan belt, I accidentally did that once, I have a scar to show for it. I look for blow by, by removing an oil fill cap and feeling if there is positive pressure blowing out of the engine. A small amount of pressure is not alarming but a lot of pressure could be a sign of worn piston rings. Lots of exhaust smoke along with heavy blow by pressure are sure signs of an engine that is worn internally. An engine that is covered with oil from leaking gaskets or blown seals is showing possible signs of internal blow by pressures. Some machines that have a blow by tube will have a lot of steamy smoke, in the engine area as a result of excessive blow by.

I carefully remove the pressure cap from the overflow tank of the radiator to see if the antifreeze looks clear and not loaded with oil and gunk from stop leak additives or bubbles from possible engine issues bleeding into the antifreeze. All are signs of possible expensive repairs. Remember a pressure cap could have a lot of pressure behind it and boiling hot liquids that can scald or blind. I squeeze a radiator hose to see if there is a lot of pressure built up, if the hose is firm and doesn’t give then there is a lot of pressure behind the pressure cap and it should not be removed.

I will get in the machine, and do my running checks after the engine has run for a few minutes. (Not a sufficient amount of time but this is an auction inspection!) The machine should sit in neutral without having to constantly correct the forward and reverse controls. The loader arm should sit in the lowered position and not move unless the controls are moved. The controls (of which there are several different styles) should be tight and not have a lot of free travel or free play. The most common controls in the past have been the Bobcat style with foot controls operating the bucket and the left and right handles controlling the drives respectively.

Remember this is an auction, this is the best that I can do, these drive test may not reveal a problem that shows up when the machine has been pushed to its limit and fully heated. Like test driving a used car, not all the issues will show up on a short test drive that might show up if taking a long trip. Lots of room is required to make these test. With the brake removed and at medium throttle I will move the controls (Bobcat Style controls), together to drive the machine forward, if one side takes off before the other or if one control doesn’t appear to meet the same resistance as the other then there is a problem. The controls should have the same resistance and operate each drive side the same speed forward. There could be simple adjustments to bring the controls in unison but at this time I don’t know if it is adjustment or a weak drive. I operate the controls to reverse the same way and look for the same reaction, just in reverse. Next I will counter rotate the machine, meaning, that I will forward one side and reverse the other side, this will tax the engine and drives more. A weak engine may stall out, a weak drive may stop turning the wheels, a sloppy drive chain may slap against the chain case. Then I will counter rotate the machine in the other direction to make the same test, listening and observing anything that sounds out of the ordinary. This is the only way that I can try to simulate driving the machine into a pile and stressing the drives. If the auction is in a field and they don’t mind the digging then I will dig, put he bucket cutting edge into the ground and dig, the wheels should never stall completely. (Now is when an auction official will drive up and stop me to ask what the heck am I doing digging in their field). Short movement of the drive levers provides high torque, long movement of the drive levers will provide high speed and low torque. As I dig with a skid steer, I use short movement of the levers to make sure the wheels keep turning, even as the resistance builds up against the bucket. Wheels that stall out before the engine are showing me signs of weak hydrostatic pumps, drive motors or both. If the machine is equipped with a two speed selector, I will check to see that it works. Lots of room is necessary, some two speed actuators are very abrupt and can make the machine suddenly lurch forward when hitting the button. If there is a two speed and it does not work, it could be expensive or possibly as simple as a fuse or a broken spring.

There are other types of controls that power the skid steer loader, I referenced the Bobcat style controls earlier. If a machine has pilot style controls then the controls should be firm and precise, a pilot handle that easily flops around with little feeling may be showing signs of high hours or internal wear in the pilot control valve. Replacing a pilot control valve may fix it but there are many variables with pilot controls. I avoid loose feeling pilot controls or at least figure the expense of trying to improve them. I have tested so many skid steer loaders that I can usually sense a drive problem by the sound and feel. The auction provides many machines side by side, by driving many machines quickly one after the other, it makes it easier to detect if a machine has a problem, compared to the others.

Hour meter verification is an important part of any machinery inspection. Over the years of inspecting machinery I have found that the hour meter is one of the most challenging parts of the inspection. Hour meters get changed, some for legitimate reasons and some for unethical reasons. Frequently hour meters are changed because the meter is part of another function that failed, like a printed circuit board with charging or seat belt circuitry that was burned out. There are some machines with hour meters that only carry four digits, the hours could have rolled over back to zero instead of moving on to ten thousand. Many electric meters don’t seem to stand up the environment of the construction site. Or, the meter happened to be smashed by a rock, or a hammer aimed directly at it. I try to weigh the condition of wear items against the registered hour meter reading. For instance if a hour meter reads four hundred fifty, (relatively low hours for an average skid steer loader), but the control handles are sloppy, the seat is loose, the quick attach pins and bushings are loose and the axle seals are leaking, I am suspicious of the meter. Repeating an earlier line, the auction is a good place to gauge one machine against another, many times I have gone from a tight operating machine that had more hours on the meter than a equal size machine that was showing many signs of excessive hours but had a newer looking lower registering hour meter.

As I am completing my inspection of the machine I have a couple of final steps. When done running the machine I want to idle the engine at the lowest possible speed, even slowing it more by stalling the hydraulics against the relief valve to see if any low oil pressure lights come on, or gauges drop into the danger zone. I stall the hydraulics by operating the bucket to the roll back position until it can not roll back any further and feathering the valve in the roll back position. If an oil light does come on it could be that when the machine is completely hot it may show that low oil pressure light sooner than with the hydraulics slowing the engine. I shut off the engine and restart it a couple of times to see that it will restart and that the starter Bendix has a good engagement to the flywheel. Then I recheck the hour meter to see if it logged time from when I started the inspection. If the meter did not log time then who knows when it quit logging time? After I am done with the inspection I will watch other people doing their inspections, to see what they may uncover, it is easier to see the exhaust smoke when another person is running the machine. I might hear noises that I couldn’t hear over the engine when I was running the machine.

I will usually be done an inspection in less time than it takes to read this article, many machines that are low hour and clean do not have issues to uncover. That makes for a quick and easy inspection, however, frequently the machines that are in the auction are the ones that may have the lurking expensive repair that hopefully one of my methods will uncover to help me to make a safe and efficient auction purchase.