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My heart was beating through my chest. The 30-horse John Deere tractor I had been eyeing just sold for a price too high. A newer but suspect New Holland was on the block, and my number one choice, a 45-horse Kubota L3750 DT with loader and backhoe was up next.

Fifty-five farmers and assorted country folk clustered around the auctioneer. Bidding on the New Holland was fast and fierce. Then, the Kubota was up. “$15,000, can I get $15,000,” the auctioneer sang through a megaphone. “How about 10? Can I get 10? $10,000?” My buddy Kyle had told me never to bid first. They always start high, so wait for the drop and let someone else kick it off. “Nice Kubota, backhoe, good machine, how about 7, can I get 7?” A card went up. A guy in overalls near the front had bid. “We have 7, how about 7-5, 7-5.” Shaking like baby deer, I raised my card. “7-5, in the back. Can I get 8, 8, 8?” Overalls raised his card. “8-5, 8-5.”

I waited. “8-5, in the back, can I get 8-5?” I raised my card. “9, 9, can I get 9?” Overalls was on the ropes. “8-7-5, $8,750, what do you say? Nice Kubota. Very nice Kubota. 8-7-5.” Overalls bid, that son of a gun. “9, can I get a –” I shot my card up. “$9,500, up front, what do you say?” Overalls was shaking his head no. “With the backhoe, a great deal at 9-5, 9-5,” Overalls kept shaking no. He was out. “In the back, $9,000, going once, going twice, SOLD!”

I had just bought a tractor. Buying used farm equipment at auctions can be dangerous, especially for a guy like me without any real tractor experience, but with some research and knowledgeable friends, you can get a helluva deal if you know what to look for.

Do Your Homework

I bought my Kubota L3750 in August 2016, at Empire Farm Days. It’s the largest agricultural trade show in the Northeast. This happens to be an hour or so from our new homestead and start-up chicken farm in upstate New York. We had owned our property almost a year, and soon as we moved in I starting thinking about tractors. My aim was something big enough to manage food plots, handle firewood, and clear brush. In the L3750 I have that, and I hope what I learned along the way can help other greenhorn farmers and homesteaders make that first tractor purchase.

Auctions work like this: they advertise the sale weeks, months and sometimes even a year in advance, but a list of all the actual items on the block usually isn’t available until a day or two before the big day. I got the list online the night before the auction, and went to work, Googling every make and model available.

Knowing how much tractor you need is a separate problem all together. The answer depends on the work you intend to do. What implements will it pull? Is the main job brush hogging an established pasture or finish-cutting a lawn? Do you need tires that won’t trash the yard or more aggressive treads and 4-wheel drive so it won’t get bogged down in the woods? I was after a 30-to 50-horse machine with 4-wheel drive, and a frontend loader. Because much of my land is forest that I’m clearing for food plots and pasture, I wanted something heavy enough to take a beating and pull an 8-foot tiller or brush hog.

Narrow It Down

With my ideal tractor in mind, I was able to cut the list of 60 or 70 tractors for sale down to 20 or so. Before I got into seeing what those 20 fetched online, I dug into tractor forums looking for hands-on reviews. The New Hollands in the size class I was after, I found, were actually rebranded LS tractors, made in South Korea. A neighbor loaned me an LS awhile back and I wasn’t in love with it. The old Allis-Chalmers was a great machine, but parts were hard to find. A couple of the John Deeres had really positive chatter, as did the L3750, which a couple of guys on the Kubota forum said might be the best tractor Big Orange ever made. Before I started pricing the tractors out, that list of 20 or so was cut in half.

At that point, I hit tractorhouse.com and tractordata.com to see what the specific models had sold for recently with similar hours. (Hours on tractors are like miles on a car, and are noted with the make and model on most auction listings.) I ran the makes and models through Craigslist, too, and did a general Google search with the terms “for sale” tacked on. A 2015 post on the L3750 on tractorbynet.com without the backhoe and fewer hours went for $13,900. Other posts said $10,000-plus in decent condition and an ad from Pennsylvania with nearly identical hours and no backhoe listed for $13,500. I made a mental note that, if there weren’t any problems with the actual machine, I wouldn’t spend more than $11,000.

Hands-On Evaluation

Knowing the tractor you want, and the market for it is a start, but it can all go out the window after a little hands-on time with the actual machine. It may have lived a hard life, and be worth half as much, or it may be a barn queen in mint condition and justifiably cost a pile more. For the rookie tractor buyer or the mechanically disinclined, this is where knowledgeable friends come into play.

I called my pal, Kyle, who runs Van Galder Family Farms in Alpine, New York, and my friend and mechanic Bill Phelps, of Phelps Auto in Lansing, New York. I told them what I was up to and they gave me a punch list of things to look at. Kyle, I found out, would be at the auction and could kick tires with me. That night before the auction, I typed out the accompanying checklist of things to look at before the bidding started.

With these questions answered, you can start to piece together a story. “If there’s 180 hours on it, and the tires are bald, you know the meter was rolled back, or someone replaced the good tires with junk,” Bill Phelps told me. “If it’s old, but repainted, pretty, it might be a cover up.”

The Kubota was definitely not pretty. It had clearly spent its life sleeping outside. I tried to start it and nothing happened. But when Kyle brought over a jump pack it started right up. Right away it would need a battery. We started to make a list: battery, leaky swing arm on the backhoe, the filters were all old – one of them dated 2010 – two hydraulic hoses needed replacement … I Googled parts and prices on my cell phone before the bidding started. Those replacements, plus all new fluids I figured would take another $1,000 ballpark to get the machine back to level.

Figure the Cost

“Anything that needs to be replaced, that should deduct from what you’ll pay for it,” Kyle said. “You don’t need an exact cost, but if you need to replace back tires, you want to know if that’ll cost $500 or $1,000 or $1,500. And it will always be more expensive than you think.”

There’s also a cost in getting a tractor home. If you own a big trailer, this isn’t a concern, but if you don’t – and live far away from the auction yard – that bill can run a few hundred dollars. Kyle volunteered to haul whatever I bought the hour south to my place. So, with the repairs plus transport, I wagered the Kubota would cost $1,000 above what I bought it for. My new high price was $10,000 and, frankly, I thought it would go for a lot more than that.

Buyer Beware     

I was happy with my $9,000 purchase price, if not a little stunned. Except for our house, which was only possible thanks to a big mortgage, this was the largest single purchase I’d ever made. More than my truck. More than my wife’s car. But auction houses charge additional fees that you need to be mindful of. At the auction I attended, the buyer’s fee was 10 percent for total sales under $1,000 and 1 percent for sales above $1,000. Credit card payments were an additional 2 percent, which I was OK with because I got the equivalent of 3 percent cash back in points and had the dinero to pay it right off – thanks to months of tight living.

Tractor paid for, and loaded on to Kyle’s trailer, I called my wife. After a brief “conversation” about the home renovations all that cash could cover, the tractor was dropped off at Phelps’ garage. Rather than me figuring the machine out, I had Bill give it a once over, replace all the fluids, the few bad hoses, straighten the bent loader bucket, and re-pack that leaky swing arm cylinder. There was a new battery, too, and a few other things, which rung up to $1,500 or $500 more than I had anticipated before I started bidding.

The Fix

The Kubota ran tip-top for three months when a short blew the ignition switch. Horsing around with it I blew the starter. That was an easy fix, but another $250 in the hole. When the backhoe came off, I needed to buy 3-point arms, another $250. A year later, with all the other miscellaneous purchases, most not really needed, I probably have about $11,500 in the Kubota, which for a 45-horse with backhoe, really isn’t bad at all. If I ever need to sell it, I wouldn’t take much less than $15,000. Not that that’s going to happen anytime soon. I haven’t found much on our small property the tractor won’t do: snow removal, firewood, food plots, our big garden, cutting trails in the woods, dragging logs to be milled into lumber.

If you’re shopping for a tractor at auction, and do your research, and know enough for a thorough in-person inspection, that could be your story, too. Knowledgeable friends are worth their weight in gold, too. Me, I have a whole new list of things for the next big ag sale: a tiller, a brush hog, a spreader, grader blade, forks and on and on and on.

A Tractor Checklist

Before you bid on a used tractor, get answers these questions. They will help you determine what the machine is worth and if it’s right for you.

  • How many hours on the meter?
  • Does the tractor start? Right away or do you have to crank it?
  • Does it blow smoke and if so what color? Black smoke = normal for a diesel. Blue smoke means it’s burning oil. White smoke could be coolant.
  • Do the gears shift smoothly or do they grind?
  • Does the PTO spin?
  • Do the hydraulics work? If so, is the loader sluggish and jumpy or fast and smooth?
  • Has it been freshly painted?
  • Any rust?
  • How worn are the tires? Any dry rot?
  • How’s the oil level?
  • How does the oil look? Gray oil means water got in and could be very bad. A burnt smell means it hasn’t been changed enough. Brand new oil could be a sign of a cover up.
  • Is there any white on the underside of the oil cap? That’s a sign of moisture.
  • Check under the machine for oil leaks or other drips.
  • Check the hydraulic lines. Any dry rot, leaks or missing hoses? Any signs of drips on the hoses, which look like discolored streaks running toward the lowest point of the hose.
  • Check the hitch pins and holes. Are they rusted in place? Are holes sloppy and oblong – a sign of hard use?
  • Look at the cylinders on the loaders. Are they leaking or show signs of leaks?
  • Do the lights work?
  • Are the ignition and other switches crisp or mushy?
  • Does it have the 3-point arms? If so, what shape are they in?
  • Any exposed wiring? If you can get in the panel, is the wire patched up with tape or exposed and frayed?
  • Any signs of fire or flood damage?

This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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