In the grand scheme of things, not everyone can afford to drop $50k – $60k on a new 4-Runner TRD or Jeep Gladiator Rubicon. Thankfully, the used rig market is quite healthy with a lot of vehicles for sale at a huge variety of price points. Still, even used rigs can be quite pricey, $20k and up is not uncommon these days. So, for those of us where this whole “overland” fad is just car-camping and not a career, choosing the right vehicle at the right price can be daunting, but it need not be.
Patience is a Virtue
Before we talk any specifics, one idea is critical, patience. With so many rigs available online, I see many people get so wrapped up in a single one because they feel if they don’t buy it now it will be gone forever, that they make poor decisions. Understand this, there are vehicles bought and sold every day, and what you are looking for is likely out there.
Don’t disregard common sense and your wallet just to get a rig you think will never be available like the deal you have in front of you. Odds are almost 100% that given patience, you will be able to find exactly what you are looking for, at the price you think is fair, and come out of the process a winner. I know it is tough, we all have seen rigs we love and absolutely need, but be patient and make sure the deal is something you can live with long-term.
And watch for flippers. There are a ton of folks buying low and selling high, hoping to cash in on demand. Many of the rigs are not in great shape, but are made to look pretty with some fresh paint and some undercoat. Buyer beware, do your research on the rig and seller before putting down any money at all.
The first thing that one needs to determine is how much can I really afford. The cost of the rig is only one part though. By definition, used rigs require maintenance, some more than others. Sometimes the cost to restore basic reliability, not even a “base-lining” level, can run into the hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. Add to this all the accessories you NEED and the vehicle purchase price may not even be the majority of your total cost.
Base-lining refers to going through a rig to ensure all specs are up to 100% against factory and often includes:
New Fluids – The term “liquid gold” comes to mind as I replaced fluids in the FZJ80 with synthetic fluids. This can be a very pricey endeavor, but is perhaps the best money you can spend. But remember, while synthetic-based fluids tend to be very resistant to thermal breakdown, contaminants are still the enemy and due to the longer change intervals, can actually do more damage then with cheaper fluids.
Bushings/Suspension – Often, handling and articulation issues, not to mention crazy noises, need nothing more than some new bushings or joints to fix. Never underestimate how much you can accomplish by just changing out these generally simple items.
Brakes – Driving an overland rig like an F1 race car is all too common, and the brakes in particular pay the price. New rotors, calipers, pads, soft lines, and brake fluid can make a huge difference in safety and performance, especially if you are one of the folks with a trailer and 1,000 lbs of glamping gear. Don’t be one of the folks complaining how bad the OEM brakes are on a 20 year old, 6500lb truck, that has not been properly maintained.
Axle Rebuilds – Remember that gear swap the previous owner did in the garage? Yeah, not a professional. Again, fluids, mud and water are the enemy of axle seals and bearings so just go ahead and do it. And do not forget to check the breather tubes and relocate as necessary. A blocked breather is a quick way to blow your axle seals and a disconnected one is a great way to let water and mud directly into your axle.
Engine Overhaul – Sometimes engines just get tired. Rebuild versus replacement really depends on the vehicle and the state of your wallet. But there aren’t many things worse than getting stranded with a motor that decided your trip was over in spectacular fashion.
Transmission & Transfer Case Work – The overall drivetrain may need some work. Thankfully, in many cases, simply buying another known-good unit can solve your issues for not much money. Without a doubt though, new fluids are money well spent because these are often forgotten maintenance items, going 100k or more miles without a change.
Various Other Auxiliary System Revamps – Systems like A/C, power steering, electrical, etc. all need attention. Seems most 4wd owners figure themselves to be electrical wizards and often the state of the wiring in a vehicle can be an absolute train wreck. But if A/C is a must have item, be aware revamping a 20 year old system can add up pretty fast in terms of parts and labor.
Bringing a rig up to usable condition can be done for much less, it really depends on what your intention is and how reliable you need it. If 2,000 mile trips across the country are in the cards, base-lining is probably money well spent. Just for local use though, often an oil change and some new brake pads can get it done.
Tires/Wheels – While not exactly maintenance item, perhaps on of the most important selections you can make when choosing a vehicle, or modifying one you have bought are the tires and wheels. I won’t get into which ones are “best”, just realize that depending on your needs and desires, putting $1,200 – $2,200 into a good wheel and tire combination is quite common. Your $2,800 vehicle just became a $4,000 vehicle before you ever left your driveway!
Ok, so now you have decided the magical amount you want to spend, what can you get for that? This is mainly personal preference. Brand is not a topic that needs to be touched, everyone has their own ideas on that one. But what is your intended purpose for this rig? What you intend to do with it should be the most important factor in determining what you buy and how much you are willing to spend to make it happen.
Lower End (Up to $5k) – A perfectly viable rig can be gotten in the $3k – $5k neighborhood. It won’t be perfect, but it can be a solid platform. Jeep XJ’s come to mind in particular with upgraded examples that have been decently maintained running in the $2k – $3k price range. Believe it or not, basically stock FZJ80’s can also be found in this range if you are patient. If high mileage doesn’t scare you, these are a heck of a deal. Land Rovers sit here as well, often needing engine work, but not a huge deal if you realize what you are getting in to. This is the area where the maintenance costs can surprise you, and end up being a real nightmare. Be very careful because that awesome deal you find may nickle and dime you to the poorhouse and leave your new rig collecting leaves in the yard.
Middle Range ($5k – $12k) – Yes, this is a big range, but here is where the ready to go vehicles can be found. Another consideration is that many vehicles in this range do not depreciate if taken care of. One vehicle that comes to mind are Land Cruisers, 80 series specifically.
Solid Jeep Wranglers, Land Rovers, FZJ80, and various other rigs can be found for this kind of money. They often just need basic maintenance and are already very reliable. At the higher end you can find rigs already kitted out with things like bumpers, armor, storage and electrical upgrades, etc. It is almost a given we will all spend a couple thousand on these upgrades so if you can find a rig already modded to you liking, huge savings may be achieved versus buying new/used and installing it yourself.
Maintenance costs can be manageable, especially if you find a well taken care of rig with records available. Generally, the fewer previous owners the better off you will be in this regard.
High End ($12k – $50k+) – We still aren’t talking about an Icon FJ40 or G-Wagen. If you have to ask what they cost, you can’t afford it. A reasonably solid FJ40 or FJ60/62 lands in this range these days. Rigs in this range are often an investment and will hold their value well, if not continue to appreciate. These are often partial or complete frame-off restorations with all systems having been restored to original or better condition.
For this kind of money expect to get a lot of attention at all the events you participate in, and shed a tear when the first branches pinstripe the side of your cherry paint job. These tend to be the ultimate rigs offering unmatched capabilities with immaculate looks and condition. If someone had a fully restored FZJ80 for $22k and i had the money, I would buy it in a heartbeat. These rigs can often expect to run another 100k – 200k miles before needing any serious work. Lucky you, I am jealous!
Be aware, this is also the rice range where a lot of shady things are happening. Flippers trying to pawn off less than good rigs with some cheap polish and shine, and a few gear extras, are abundant in this range. Also, shiny diamond plate anywhere on a vehicle is the best place to find absolute rot and bondo, be warned.
Knowledge & Parts Base – A big factor one should consider is what is the available knowledge and parts base for whatever vehicle I pick? With the advent of the Internet, so much information is available it can be overwhelming. But, if you break down out on the trail in the mountains of WV, can you get parts? We all know Jeep parts are everywhere but what about for your awesome new Pinzgauer? Break something that might be an easy fix for other vehicles and you could be left stranded with huge repair costs, and an extended repair timeframe.
Plan for these contingencies in your purchase. Jeep, Toyota, and other US-based vehicles tend to be the best in this regard, Land Rovers and Unimog somewhere in the middle due to their devoted but somewhat limited following, and true specialty vehicles like Pinzgauer and others can be a real challenge for both knowledge and parts. Just realize what you are getting into and don’t be surprised whatever you encounter.
Internet Research – Let’s face it, many many people like to document their rig builds. Places like Expedition Portal, IH8MUD, and others can be invaluable in finding out about the history of the vehicle you want to buy. Not only can you determine how many owners it has had and what has been done to it, more importantly you can reveal any lingering issues that may be a factor in the selling of the vehicle now. Do not underestimate the unsolvable electrical or ABS issue that has been dogging the current owner for the past 2 years.
Personal Preference – I love Toyota’s and particularly my 80 Series Land Cruiser. Why? Hard to put into words, but I do. Buy what you want and listen to your gut. Having a vehicle you love can make so many issues manageable rather than headaches.