Your first truck is an important milestone in your career as an owner-operator. On the business side of things, your first truck is the single largest investment you’ll have to make to get your company up and running.
The time and attention you put into selecting the best truck for your situation will affect your long-term success, for better or worse. So, what is the best truck for a new operator? It’s a simple question with a sophisticated answer. There are a lot of factors to consider, and what may work for one driver may not be an optimal choice for another driver because there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all truck.
Personal preferences also play a role. For example, some drivers swear by Peterbilts and will only purchase and operate Peterbilts, no matter the costs. Cosmetic differences are another example of personal preference. However, when it comes to running a successful trucking business, personal preference has to take a back seat to practical considerations.
We recommend approaching your first truck purchase with a business frame of mind and setting aside personal preference.
To that end, we have put together this guide for purchasing your first truck with a focus on the practical business considerations that go into the decision.
Decide How Much You Are Willing to Invest
Your start-up budget is going to be a key determining factor in the truck you choose. As with all decisions, consult your business plan and consider the following before you begin shopping for a truck:
- Research price ranges to answer the question: How much is a semi-truck worth?
- Decide how much of your budget you can allocate for a truck purchase.
- Weigh the pros and cons of leasing versus purchasing.
- Decide what type of trailer and types of cargo you intend to haul.
- Decide on your operating range. Local, regional, or national (OTR).
Once you’ve established the answers to these issues, it’s time to look at some finer details involved in making your purchase decision.
The equipment you buy should be in outstanding shape regardless of make, model, or year
When possible, we recommend enlisting the aid of a mechanic you trust to assist you with evaluating the condition of any truck you are planning to purchase. They have the training and experience to notice problematic issues that you may overlook.
Cheaper is typically not better when it comes to semi-trucks
That low upfront cost is usually accompanied by a maintenance expense nightmare that can start as early as your first load. Paying more upfront for a vehicle in excellent condition often translates to a reduction in breakdowns and unexpected maintenance fees. Keep in mind your first year on the road as an owner-operator is crucial for setting the stage for your future success. The fewer maintenance issues you have during that first year will allow you to set aside a good-sized repair and replacement fund for the years ahead. Regardless of price, make sure the equipment you purchase has a flawless maintenance record with up-to-date data.
Second-hand Trucks Could Be a Great Option
A used vehicle with a good record of reliable, safe operation and no damage may also offer the advantage of cheaper annual insurance prices. Certain makes and models may contribute to this advantage, making them a viable option for new companies.
Avoid trucks more than five years old or with more than 600,000 miles on them
They are past their mid-life cycle and will inevitably incur increased maintenance and repair problems. You’ll spend extra upfront for newer model equipment, but this will equate to an average of eight to ten years of worry-free running without costly maintenance.
The initial costs to purchase a truck varies from dealership to dealership
Look for dealerships with a good reputation and payment options that fit your budget. For a quality, reliable truck, plan on spending anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 for a down payment and $80,000 to $160,000 overall.
Decide What Type of Truck You Need
To decide on the best first semi-truck to buy when there are millions to choose from can seem like a daunting task at the outset. Fortunately, you can narrow the choices down by taking a needs-based approach to your purchase decision. A well-detailed business plan will go a long way in helping you to determine your needs.
What type of cargo do you intend to haul?
- If you’re planning on using a dry van or reefer trailer, look for trucks with a raised roof or a mid-roof with a roof-fairing. These will help minimize the drag caused by the nose of the trailer and improve your fuel efficiency.
- If you’re planning on using a flatbed trailer or other low-height configurations, look for trucks with a mid-roof or flat-roof. Many of the destinations for these types of loads are in areas where you will encounter overhead obstructions in the 11’ - 12’ height range. Since a raised roof is usually in the 13’ 5” range, they will be unable to reach these areas, thus reducing the number of loads you can potentially transport.
- If you’re planning on using a tanker, end-dump, or other types of trailer that requires tractor modifications, looking for a truck with these modifications already installed may save you some time and money in upfront costs to be road-ready.
- Take into account the weight of the tractor unit. Trucks manufactured by Western Star and Mack tend to be on the heavy side and may limit the number of heavy loads you can legally transport. Keep in mind the size of the sleeper berth too. A larger sleeper means a heavier truck. For example, a Freightliner Cascadia with a lightweight sleeper configuration can transport a 48,000 lbs. load, while a Freightliner Cascadia with a condo sleeper configuration can only transport around 42,000 - 44,000 lbs.
Determine your operational range
This is the big one, OTR, where you’re operating in 48 states and running coast to coast. You’ll be on the road for longer periods, so a comfortable sleeper berth will be more important. Try to balance the need for comfort with business needs and find a middle ground that works for you.
Better known as regional, where you’re operating in a specific region. You’ll be home more often, so the focus here is on weight. The lighter you can make your tractor, the bigger the loads you’ll be able to haul. Comfort is still important since you’ll be on the road for a week or two at a time. Again balance your need for comfort with business needs and find a middle ground that works for you. Specialty loads are more common than regional loads, so make sure the truck you’re considering has or can be cheaply modified for any specialized equipment it may need.
With local loads, you’ll be home daily in most instances. Therefore, you can do away with the need for a sleeper and focus on any special modifications you may need depending on the cargo type you intend to haul. Since local work usually consists of dense urban and metropolitan areas, fuel efficiency is a key consideration to minimize your operating costs.
Best Starter Truck Brand for a New Owner Operator
As we said earlier, when it comes to picking a truck, there’s not a one-size-fits-all option. It comes down to a variety of factors. In this section, we’ll consider the pertinent pros and cons of some of the most popular truck manufacturers.
Fuel efficient designs, cheaper replacement parts, well-distributed dealerships nationwide, making repairs and servicing more accessible. Detroit DDR15 and DDR13 are among the most fuel-efficient engines available.
The suspension system leaves a lot to be desired, meaning a less comfortable ride, and has contributed to truck drivers giving them the nickname “Freightshaker.” The routine maintenance costs for the Detroit DDR15 and DDR13 engines are marginally higher than average.
Fuel efficient designs, well-distributed dealerships nationwide, and access to Peterbilt dealerships as Kenworth and Peterbilt are sister companies and use the same parts usually, this results in lower downtime due to higher parts availability. Routine maintenance for Paccar engines is average to lower than average.
Replacement parts for the engine are higher than average. Sleeper berths are less comfortable and have poorly configured storage spaces.
Peterbilts have the same pros as the Kenworth as they are basically the same trucks with different names and a few variations in cabin design. Sleeper berths are typically more comfortable. The suspension system used by Peterbilt is considered by truckers to be the smoothest riding design.
Replacement part costs are average to higher than average. Overall operating costs may be more expensive than average.
Considered by those who’ve used them to have a higher than average level of comfort in the sleeper berth.
European manufactured coupled with poorly distributed dealerships mean lengthy delays on replacement parts and higher operating expenses. This make of semi-truck is rarely used by large companies outside of Swift and Ryder, leading to a smaller number of choices and reduced quality of used Volvos.
Good aerodynamics for fuel efficiency. Comfortable sleeper configurations. Well-distributed dealerships reduce downtime delays and average to lower than average routine maintenance costs.
Engine design flaws in the International and Cummins engines are associated with emissions controls. Engine reliability issues are more frequent.
Bonus: Additional Tips
- Keep in mind that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Pay close attention to your business needs and budget, and make those your first consideration when making a purchase decision.
- Inside of the parameters of needs and budgets, look for a truck that you’ll enjoy and that you’ll be comfortable living in while on the road.
- With a reliable, cost-effective, and comfortable truck, you'll experience fewer headaches and be more motivated to get out there and work.
- Avoid spending all of your money on a flashy truck that doesn’t fit your needs. It’s a deadly double-whammy that’ll knock your business goals in the dirt.
- Before you sign the paperwork, have a mechanic thoroughly inspect the truck. Make sure it is mechanically sound, with a flawless maintenance record, and no accidents. The goal here is to minimize your maintenance costs during your first year to two years as an owner-operator.
- Keep fuel efficiency in mind when making a purchase decision to further reduce your operating expenses.
- Custom trucks like stretched frames and oversized sleepers look cool, but they are more difficult to operate in confined areas and will reduce the number of loads you can take because of dimension and weight constraints.
Remember, you’re launching into the early years of your owner-operator career. It may not be flashy, and it may not be fun, but focusing on your business needs and cost considerations first will open the door to bigger and better truck options down the road.