If you’re shopping for a used tractor, if you’ve never owned a tractor before, and if you’re reading the pages of Homestead.org, then I’m going to assume that you’re in the market of a pretty cheap tractor; a VERY used tractor.
This is not such a bad position to be in, because unlike when you’re looking to purchase a car, the mere fact that the tractor you buy may be older than you are doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll wind up with either a museum piece or a pile of junk.
Tractors are tools. They’re built like tools, and the older they are, the more so. In this age when you have to buy a whole box of screws at your hardware store, just to get the one you want, you can still buy just the tractor parts that you need rather than a whole assembly or worse yet, the dreaded rebuild kit. Not only that, but in my state, you don’t even have to pay sales tax on tractor parts.
In fact, you’ll find that as often as not, quite a few of your tractor repair parts might even be considered cheap. After all, they’ve been making head-bolts for your 9N for the last 58 years. If you harbor a few vague notions about how the internal combustion engine works, you can probably fix your tractor yourself with simple hand tools.
Try that with a new car.
Probably the preeminent cheap-and-easy-to-repair older tractor is the Ford 9N-2N-8N series (see top of the page photo) but you can also still find parts readily available for other older-model domestic makes such as Case, International-Harvester, Massey-Ferguson, John Deere, Oliver and Allis-Chalmers, although you’ll probably be dealing with differently-named companies. (John Deere is the only one of those mentioned doing business under the same name.)
So relax, you don’t have to be a mechanical engineer to buy a used tractor, you just need to know what you want to do with your new-old machine and look for a few particular things.
How to Buy a Used Tractor
When it comes to older tractors, the most important thing to look for is a hydraulic system, otherwise known as a three-point hitch. This consists of three arms extending from the back of the tractor which are hydraulically operated to lift and hold in place whatever attachments you want to use. In the center of this linkage is a power-take-off or PTO, which is a rotating shaft that connects to and drives such attachments as a mower or tiller.
The first three-point hitch was introduced on the Ford 9N in 1939, so you’ll find plenty of old tractors so equipped to choose from. While there are still tractors sold that don’t have hydraulics, notably the older Farmalls and John Deeres, these are mostly used as glorified lawnmowers. You get so much more functionality with the three-point hitch system that you really shouldn’t consider anything that doesn’t have one.
The next thing to assess when buying an older tractor is the age of the machine. This isn’t as easy to determine as one might suppose. First of all, most tractors look pretty much the same from one year to another and have only seen distinct model changes every decade or so, if that often. The best way to determine the exact age in years is to find the serial number of the tractor you’re interested in, and look it up on the internet. You’ll find no shortage of web sites listing dates of manufacture by serial number for all the major makes, but a good place to start is the Yesterday’s Tractors Registry online.
Looking up the year of manufacture may not be convenient or practical if you’ve just found a tractor that otherwise looks very interesting at a dealer or auction, so you may want to cross your fingers and hope that the current owner has the correct information.
Besides the date of manufacture gives you an indication as to what technology the tractor in question has, but it doesn’t tell you much about the amount of use it’s seen in its lifetime. That’s why it’s nice if the machine you’re looking at has a working tachometer with an hour-meter. An hour meter is also pretty handy to have when calculating your service intervals, but the chances are the machine in question won’t have one, or if it does, that it won’t be working. So you’ll need to make an educated guess.
A good way to do this is to examine the metal foot pedals, which are likely to have originally had a tread, grid or some sort of design that will now be showing wear. If these are inconclusive, then a more important criterion would be the overall condition of the machine. Oil leaks and lots of play in the steering and pedal travel are not good signs.
Of course, you also need to remember that quite possibly someone has gone to some trouble to make the tractor appear newer than it is with a paint job. That in itself is no bad thing since it amounts to protecting your soon-to-be investment, but if the tractor you’re looking at has shiny new paint, you should try to imagine what it looked like before. Also, while professionals will tell you that a re-paint can actually be harder and more durable than the original, don’t count on it. That shine may be chipping or peeling within a year, so while a new paint job has its benefits, once it’s been applied, it’s hard to tell how long it will last.
When you’re buying a pretty low-priced tractor, don’t forget that replacing a set of tires may cost you $400 to $800, so look at the tires carefully. Just because they have a lot of tread doesn’t mean that they’ll last a long time if they are severely weather-cracked, or if they have deep cuts. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to assume that you’ll be wanting a new set of tires early on and bear that in mind when setting your budget.
Next, you want to start up the engine. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t be reading this if you were an expert at engine diagnosis, and I’m not one either, but I can tell you some basic things to watch for that don’t take a lot of knowledge.
First of all, does it start right up? If not, it’s only going to be worse once you get it home, especially after the weather turns colder. An engine can be in pretty poor condition and still start easily in warm weather, likewise, just because it doesn’t start easily doesn’t mean that it’s worn out, but if you have any reason to believe the seller has more mechanical capabilities than yourself, hard starting should be viewed with suspicion. There are always lots of tractors on the market. For our purposes here, if getting the engine started in the first place requires any special skills or procedures, just move on to the next one.
Assuming it turns over quickly and fires right up, does it idle smoothly and is there any excessive smoking from the exhaust? Again, either condition is not a sure sign of trouble, but since we’re not mechanics, maybe we’ll want to pass on anything that looks questionable.
Also, don’t forget to look for are oil leaks, which can come from simply not having a bolt tightened enough or something more sinister like main bearings about to fail. If the tractor has been recently cleaned or repainted, this might be harder to determine, so leaving it to idle for a while might not be a bad idea.
Generally speaking, you can’t expect to pay a really low price and not have a few things wrong with the tractor, but like many things, if you’ll investigate four or five in your price range, you’ll probably see one that stands above the rest.
The best way to assure that you’ve found at least a fair deal is to be familiar with the market and that’s a lot easier than it used to be. Once you’ve decided on the make and model you want to buy, I recommend you spend a few hours looking over the selection at TractorHouse.com. You’ll find several examples of most any popular model you want to consider, and you can compare the prices and conditions there until you’re a near-expert. You may even find the tractor you’re looking for within a reasonable distance of your home.
You can also find a selection of used attachments there.
Things may be different in your area, but In my neck of the woods, where the vegetation is lush and the rains are frequent, most everyone who buys a small tractor usually also purchases a brush-cutter of some kind, and a grading blade of some kind. I’d like to say a word about these.
First, the brush-cutter, what’s generically called a bush-hog. For $500-or $600 you can get a new brush-cutter made with a sheet metal body. Don’t buy one of these unless all you really want is to mow grass (in which case you’re better off with a finish mower). Real bush-hogging requires something with heavy steel plate, like the brand-name Bush-hog cutters, if you’re looking for equipment that will last more than a season or two. These cost more in the neighborhood of $1500 and up new, but since they’ll last for decades, you’re better off buying a used one than a new model of the lighter version.
As for grading blades, a straight blade does a poor job of most of the things you want to do with a blade. If you want to smooth your driveway, a box-blade is much, much more effective. Even a rock-rake does a better job of smoothing roads than a straight blade (although the straight blade will do a barely-adequate job if you turn it around backwards).
Straight blades are probably best for moving snow, but if you want to grade or move rocks, you’re better off with either a box blade or a rock rake.
A very good companion piece to a tractor is a utility trailer that you can haul it on. Besides giving you the capacity to attempt jobs at a distance from your home, a trailer is the only practical and affordable way to get your machine to the shop should that be required.
Finally, safety should be a major concern when you’re shopping for an older tractor. Even a small tractor can kill you if you wind up under it or entangled in the PTO, and roll-over protection and PTO guards were virtually unheard of prior to the 1970’s. Many of the older tractors have the row-crop or tricycle configuration which is just simply not as stable no matter what anyone tells you. I’d avoid these. Most tractors, even the older models, have wheels and axles that will allow you to widen the tread and this an important safety feature that you should have.
Don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to jump clear of an overturning tractor.
When you get your new-to-you tractor home, always remember to avoid driving along the edge of streams or ditches that can undercut their banks and if you’re not certain that you can drive across a side-hill safely drive up and down it perpendicular to the slope.
If you’re pulling anything with a chain or nylon strap attached to the tractor, connect the chain to the draw-bar or something else as low to the ground as possible, so as to avoid turning the machine over backwards.
When you’re mowing near overhanging tree branches, have your wits about you, as a stout limb can sweep you off of the seat and into the path of the mower.
Also, avoid letting your clothing or hair ever get anywhere near the power-take-off when it’s running. It can pull you in and wrap you around the shaft more quickly than it takes to tell about it.
Remember that farming has always been one of the most dangerous professions, and that largely because of tractors. All you need to do to avoid death (or worse) is to follow a few common-sense precautions.