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How to buy a good used ute for under $20K

Although Falcons and Commodores have ceased production, there’ll be a plentiful supply of spare parts for years to come.

If you’re in the market for a ute, what does $20K buy you these days? Well, if you’re not fussed about the badge or which country it comes from, you can get drive-away deals on a brand-new dual cab petrol 4x2 ute made in (you guessed it) China.

However, if you’d prefer a ute made by one of the more mainstream brands, then $20K is not going to get you far in any of their new vehicle showrooms.

There is a solution though and it’s to be found in the used car market. Buying a pre-owned ute has its advantages, not the least being that the dreaded new vehicle depreciation has been amortised.  And in most cases any ‘new car’ owner complaints, from minor niggles to replacement of faulty components, have been resolved under the new vehicle warranty.

4x2 or 4x4?

4x4s have greater mechanical complexity, resulting in more working parts that can potentially fail. 4x4s have greater mechanical complexity, resulting in more working parts that can potentially fail.

Sales figures confirm that the majority of new ute buyers prefer 4x4s to 4x2s. However, you need to ask yourself if you really need off-road ability because you’ll pay for it - literally - in more ways than one.

4x4s have greater mechanical complexity, resulting in higher servicing costs and more working parts that can potentially fail and need replacement. They’re also heavier, which can increase both fuel consumption and their appetite for pricey consumables like brakes and tyres.

4x4s can also have harder lives because of their off-road capabilities and are generally more expensive to insure. And in many cases a 4x2 variant of a 4x4 model will have a higher payload capacity, which is important to know if your ute will be required to regularly carry loads.

Most important for those on a budget, though, is that 4x4 utes command much higher prices than their 4x2 siblings. Scan the used car classifieds and you’ll soon discover how much more affordable a 4x2 version of a popular 4x4 dual-cab ute can be.

For example, the price range for a 2012 Ford Ranger XL 4x2 ute is around $9K to $18K, which falls comfortably within our $20K cap. However, the 4x4 version of the same model ranges from $12K up to $34K which blows the budget. A similar disparity can be seen in Toyota Hilux pricing, with a 2012 Workmate 4x2 ute between $8K to $20K while 4x4 versions command $16K to $27K and so on.

Be Australian. Buy Australian.

Ford vs Holden will always exist. Ford vs Holden will always exist.

Ford Australia invented the coupe ute in 1934. And until the demise of local car manufacturing in 2017, Ford and Holden utes derived from Falcon and Commodore sedans were a mainstay of Aussie worksites and rural life for decades.

As a result, there’s a vast number available in the used car market. Although Falcons and Commodores have ceased production, there’ll be a plentiful supply of spare parts for years to come and $20K or less can get you into a good one.

For example, 2012 Falcon XR6 and Commodore SV6 manual utes fall comfortably within this price bracket (depending on condition) and less sporty base models are even cheaper. Or if you’re hankering for an Aussie V8, Falcon XR8 and Commodore SS utes of similar vintage can also be found for less than $20K.

Buying an Aussie ute could pay off in other ways too. With the rising prices being achieved at collectable car auctions these days for vehicles unique to Australian car manufacturing, including classic Ford and Holden utes, a well-maintained example will become a collectable if you look after it.

Know what they’re really worth

Pricing for a 2012 Hilux ranges between $8K-$27K. Pricing for a 2012 Hilux ranges between $8K-$27K.

So let’s assume you’ve created a short-list of utes you’d like to own. The next step is to establish an accurate guiding range of how much you should be paying for specific years and model grades.

The best way to do this is by using free online valuation tools and those provided by CarsGuide and Autotrader are good places to start. By simply entering key details of the ute you’re interested in, you’ll instantly get a detailed breakdown of the most recent prices advertised in the used car market.

This data is continually updated to equip car buyers with the most up-to-date knowledge they need to decide if the price is right.

Read expert and owner reviews

It literally does pay to be ‘in the know’ before you part with your hard-earned. You should know each vehicle’s good and bad points, long-term reliability issues if any, running costs etc to determine if your dream purchase could become a nightmare.

Again, this valuable buyer information is available free online through expert used vehicle reviews provided by CarsGuide along with countless forums in which ownership experiences of specific makes and models are openly discussed, which can be of great benefit to other owners and potential buyers.

Dealer, Auction or Private?

Buying privately is usually cheaper than buying through a dealer. Buying privately is usually cheaper than buying through a dealer.

It’s usually more expensive to buy from a dealer than through an auction house or private sale, but you do get some bang for your buck in terms of consumer protection. A dealer must guarantee a vehicle’s title (no finance owed, not stolen or rebirthed etc) and also provide a cooling-off period if you sign on the dotted line and later change your mind.

A dealer must also provide a statutory warranty (terms vary between states and territories) and they usually welcome trade-ins as part-payment. You can also have a test drive and for peace-of-mind arrange for an expert independent inspection through your state’s motoring body.

By comparison, there are real bargains to be found at vehicle auctions. However, you also need to have a good knowledge of cars, or at least have someone with you who does, because you generally have to rely on visual checks without an independent inspection or even a test drive. Auction rules vary from state to state so check with the auction houses about what consumer protections (if any) are provided.

Buying privately is usually cheaper than buying through a dealer and, unlike an auction, you can have a test drive and arrange an independent inspection. However, there are no statutory warranties or other consumer protection with private sales.

If it’s buyer beware, then ute buyers be extra aware

Some 4x2 ute are subjected to regular overloading and lousy maintenance. Some 4x2 ute are subjected to regular overloading and lousy maintenance.

Many utes have hard lives. Uncaring owners can often load them way beyond their maximum payload and tow ratings, which can place massive strain on chassis, suspensions and drivetrains.

A 4x4 ute can increase that risk factor due to its off-road ability, as underbody and drivetrain components can suffer fearful abuse due to careless driving in rough terrain combined with poor maintenance. And that doesn’t mean a 4x2 ute is immune from such treatment either, as rugged worksites, regular overloading and lousy maintenance can be just as damaging.

However, that’s not to say all used utes, be they 4x2 or 4x4, have been beaten to death. Many owners take great pride in their vehicles and look after them. In fact, it’s not uncommon for utes to do little - if any - heavy lifting.

Inspection and test drive

A 4x4 ute can increase that risk factor due to its off-road ability. A 4x4 ute can increase that risk factor due to its off-road ability.

Always make sure you inspect a car after you’ve had a good night’s sleep, it’s in full daylight and on a dry day (no rain drops on the bodywork) so that any flaws will be easiest to see. It’s also good to bring someone with a good knowledge of cars, as they may see things you don’t and vice-versa.

Look for damage in the load tub or tray. Small dings and scratches are acceptable but big dents and gouging can indicate careless loadings from great heights, like landscaping rocks tumbling from front-end loaders. Equally, a freshly applied spray-on liner or freshly installed tub-liner kit might look sharp, but be hiding some serious damage underneath.

Misaligned body panels, gaping or pinched panel gaps and doors/tailgates that don’t open and close cleanly can be signs of chassis and body fatigue. They can also indicate poor quality smash repairs. A small fridge magnet can detect plastic body filler, because it won’t stick. Also look for colour differences between panels and bubbling under paintwork which can indicate corrosion.

Crawl underneath to make a thorough inspection of chassis rails for signs of fatigue (even cracks) under the load area and any drivetrain oil leaks. Uneven tyre wear can also indicate a misaligned chassis or damaged suspension.

The interior is another indicator of wear and tear. Look for worn seat facings and sagging base cushions, along with leaf build-up in the plenum chamber and UV damage like faded trim and cracked dash-pads which can signal a life parked outside. Make sure all the controls work properly and there’s no dampness in carpets or under vinyl floor linings, which can reveal poor weather sealing and potential corrosion.

Also do some basic engine checks, preferably when it’s cold. The engine bay should be tidy and stain-free and the oil on the dipstick should be at the correct level and ideally light to dark brown in colour. Black can be okay too if an oil change is due but a grey or milky colour could mean coolant entering through a blown head gasket or worse.

Misaligned body panels, gaping or pinched panel gaps and doors/tailgates that don’t open and close cleanly can be signs of chassis and body fatigue. Misaligned body panels, gaping or pinched panel gaps and doors/tailgates that don’t open and close cleanly can be signs of chassis and body fatigue.

Remove the radiator cap and check that the coolant is clean and brightly-coloured without a similar milky mix. Start the engine and let it idle to operating temperature, listening for any knocks or rattles and looking for traces of external oil or coolant leaks. Also check that none of the engine-related dashboard warning lights are on.

Once warmed up, take it for a decent test drive (at least 30 mins), preferably not on busy roads and not with the seller in your ear the whole time so you can see, hear and smell. Drive it at all the legal speeds and check that it idles smoothly at traffic lights, accelerates cleanly without hesitation, doesn’t blow smoke when you boot it up a hill, there’s no suspicious burning oil smells and no dashboard warning lights come on.

Be it manual or automatic, the transmission should change up and down smoothly and quietly without hesitation or unusual noises. Also keep an ear out for the whine or howl of a noisy differential, which can indicate a hard-worked unit that’s on its last legs.

The ute should also steer straight with only light hand contact on the steering wheel. A veer to one side, particularly when braking, can indicate at best the need for a wheel alignment but at worst damaged suspension or faulty brakes.

However, this is just a brief overview of an inspection and test drive. Our best advice, even if you or your mate know a thing or two about cars, is to arrange for an expert independent inspection through your state’s motoring organisation. After all, you’d be mad to buy a house without getting a thorough builder and termite inspection first, so treat any ute purchase the same way.

Paperwork for private buyers

A well-maintained ute should have an owner's logbook, which documents its full service history. Also make sure the seller is the owner by checking that the details on their driver’s licence match those shown on the vehicle’s registration papers. In some states you should also be issued with a roadworthy certificate before you can transfer the registration to your name.

Also ensure that the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plus its engine number, serial number and date/year of manufacture match those shown on the rego papers. The VIN can usually be found on the vehicle’s compliance plate in the engine bay or sometimes at the base of the windscreen. The engine number should be stamped or displayed on the engine itself.

If any of these details don’t align be wary, because the vehicle could be stolen, had its engine changed without the authorities being notified or in rare cases it could be an administrative error. Even if all the details do line up, though, make sure that the vehicle is also debt-free by checking its VIN online at the Personal Property Securities Register, which for a small fee can confirm it's not about to be repossessed by a finance company.

So, let’s make a deal

If the vehicle you’re interested in meets the criteria above and the asking price is within both your budget and the guiding range, then you’ve done everything reasonably possible to ensure yourself a good deal on a well-maintained ute that should give many more years of reliable service. 

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