Buying a used Jeep Wrangler JK can be a budget-friendly option if you're in the market for a Jeep. But there are some things that you should to pay attention to when you're checking out potential rigs from either a dealership or an individiual.
Having been a Jeep owner for more than seven years now, and having owned more than a few Jeeps, I've learned a thing or two about what to look for when buying a used Jeep and thought I'd share my thoughts with you.
Jeep Wrangler JK Models
The Jeep Wrangler JK was manufactured from 2007 to 2018, and they pushed a lot of these out of the factory. Some of the models that you'll find when looking to buy a used Jeep include:
- Sport (base model)
- Sport S (a few extras like power windows)
- Sahara (nicer model with painted fenders and roof options, as well as leather seats)
- Rubicon (comes with trail-ready suspension, Dana 44 axles, front and rear lockers, and sway bar disconnect)
While the Rubicon is definitely the most capable and ready to hit the trail right off the lot, the Sport, Sport S, and Sahara are also very capable Jeeps that do well on many trails, and you can't go wrong with any of these models.
Is a 2-Door or 4-Door the Best Jeep?
Among Jeep owners, there's the age-old debate about whether a 2-door or a 4-door Jeep is best. Some will say the 2-door is the only "real" Jeep since that was the only option when they were orginally manufactured. I own both types of Jeeps and I honestly don't think there's one right answer to this question because there are pros and cons to both, and it ultimately comes down to what is going to work best for you and your individual needs.
The advantages of the 4-door include:
- Longer wheelbase with gives you a smoother ride
- Extra storage in the rear
- Extra doors to easily access the rear seats (climbing into the back of a 2-door is not fun for adults!)
The advantages of the 2-door include:
- Less expensive than a 4-door
- Awesome turning radius, especially on the trail
- Better gas mileage (not a lot, but better)
How to Buy a Used Jeep Wrangler
When you're buying a used Jeep Wrangler JK, there are hundreds of things you should look for and I highly recommend you consult a mechanic. In the interest of time and space, I'm going to offer my insight on a few of what I consider to be some of the most important things you should consider and check out when buying a used Jeep. (Full disclaimer, I am not a mechanic and the following is just my personal opinion, based on my experience.)
1. The Bumper
Most Jeep Wranglers come with a plastic bumper, but some later models (the Hardrock edition) came with metal bumpers. When looking at used Jeeps, it’s not unusual to see the factory bumper has been swapped for an aftermarket one, perhaps with a winch installed.
Over time, the plastic bumpers can fade quite a bit, but it’s not really a big deal. You can easily restore them using off-the-shelf plastic restoration products, which work well.
(Beyond the bumper, there is actually quite a bit of plastic on the Jeep Wrangler that can fade over time, due to exposure to the elements, or both. You're likely to find the fenders, side mirrors, and door handles are all made of plastic. If any of these are greyed-out, don't let that scare you...as I mentioned, this is super easy to fix.)
The JK also comes with factory halogen lights, which aren’t extremely bright and are commonly replaced with LED lights, so you might notice this among some of the used options. For doing trails at night, having the LED lights is a huge upgrade.
3. The Hood
When new, Jeep Wranglers come with plastic latches for keeping your hood secured, but on really windy days, you can experience some hood flutter with the stock latches. This can be prevented by upgrading the hood latches, something I and many other Jeep owners have done. So don't be surprised when you're looking at a used JK if you come across a Jeep with upgraded latches.
Also, don't be worried if you look under the hood and see a lot of dirt. This is the normal state for many Jeeps, which were meant to be taken off-road after all. But, if there's a ton of grit and grime everywhere, that might be sign the previous owner didn't take great care of their rig.
4. The Engine Bay
Another thing to check out is the wiring. A lot of people mount aftermarked acessories for the Jeeps including winches and lights, so you are really going to want to pay attention to how well any of these modifications were wired.
I've seen good and bad wiring. When you look under the hood, if you see a jumble of wires all over the place, that's an indication of bad wiring and you should defintiely proceed with caution.
And let's talk about superchargers. If the used Jeep you are looking at has a supercharger installed, I highly recommend that you take it to a mechanic and have them do an inspection before you make any committments to buy it. I’ve known a few people who have had serious problems with them. Just make sure the used JK you’re looking at is running right before you walk away with the keys.
5. The Engine
There are two engine options (three if you’re international). From 2007 to 2011, the Wrangler came with the 3.8-liter engine, and then in 2012 Jeep came out with the 3.6-liter. For my international audience, you had an option for a 2.8-liter turbo diesel, which we don’t have here in the states, so I won’t be talking about (sorry!).
I will say, the 3.8-liter motor is practically bulletproof. It’s a great motor! But you’ll want to be aware that after about 100k miles, they are pretty prone to consuming oil, so this is something to be aware of, especially if the used Jeep you're looking at is up there in miles.
Another common issue with the 3.8-liter engine is a manifold crack, which is tough to find with a visual inspection but it is something you can hear. Which is why I always recommend that you test drive any used vehicle you're thinking about purchasing. To identify this issue, you should start the vehicle with the hood open and listen for a ticking sound.
The 3.6-liter engine is a nice upgrade from the 3.8, coming with 83 more horsepower and an aluminum block, making it lighter than the 3.8. The oil cooler on the 3.6-liter is prone to leaking, and I've personally experienced this issue, as well as several friends, and we've all had to take it in for service. Make sure you take a look underneath the vehicle to inspect for any leaking oil.
The radiators are also prone to leaking on the 3.6-liter, even under 100k miles, which is pretty early for a radiator to go bad. Again, I myself have experienced this problems as well as some of my buddies.
Coolant boxes are also prone to crack in the 3.6 so you’ll want to inspect those to make sure it’s filled and there is no breakage anywhere. Water pumps can also cause problems in this engine, but it isn’t as prevalent as these other issues.
Overall, both the 3.8-liter and the 3.6-liter are great dependable motors as long as you do regular, preventive maintainence and keep them mostly stock.
What do most folks do when they first buy a Jeep Wrangler? They lift them, put on bigger tires, and equip them with some cool wheels. Upgraded tires and wheels is a very common modification and one you should expect to see when shopping for a used Jeep.
Some may have a budget boost lift kit installed, which basically means they put a spacer in between the stock spring and then added a little bit of a longer shock. It’s a nice little upgrade and isn’t very expensive, while still giving you a smooth ride with added clearance.
With all DIY projects, there are some folks who do them well and some who don't. When you’re inspecting a vehicle with a budget boost, the first thing you'll want to check is to see if the tires are rubbing anywhere against the vehicle. This happens when the tire is too big for the lift and wheel well or if the offset isn’t right.
Common places to see rubbing are on the inside of the bumper, on the sway bar or control arm, or underneath the fenders. Look for paint and tire marks, which are signs of rubbing.
If the Jeep JK you are looking at has been lifted by more than 2.5”, you’re going to start to have some problems down the road with the driveshaft. This is because the angle is wrong for this model, which can significantly shorten the life of the driveshaft. Adding an aftermarket driveshaft can solve this problem, so check to see if that’s already been done.
7. The Undercarriage
When buying a used Jeep, one of the most important things to look at is the undercarriage. These vehicles were made for off-roading, and that's what a lot of folks do. A lot of Jeeps take a beating on the trail, so don't be afraid to get down on the ground and take a good look underneath.
If you live in an area with a lot of snow where they salt the road, you’ll also want to check underneath for rust and paint bubbling, as well as around the hinges and bolts all over the vehicle.
And look for things that are bent, scraped, or scratched. While this can be normal, you’ll also want to see if the previous owner did some proper maintenance and care.
Another thing to look for are skid plates. If you see an aftermarket skid plate that’s all scratched up, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means the previous owner was wise enough to protect the undercarriage from getting to beat up.
You should also look at the transfer case and differentials, and ask the seller when the the fluids were last changed. These both require routine maintenance and if this hasn't been done, this might not be the Jeep for you.
8. The Exterior
Taking a good, hard look at the exterior of any vehicles you're considering buying is probably a no-brainer, but there are few things to pay attention to.
Occassionally, small sections in front of the mirrors can get dented, which usually happens if someone removes the doors and doesn’t strap them back, allowing the door to hit the mirror. While this isn’t a big deal, it just might help you talk the dealer down in price a little.
You may also notice some pinstripe scratches on the side of the vehicle, which can happen on the trail when wheeling through tight spaces between trees and bushes. This can usually be buffed out easily, but again this is something that may help you negotiate the price down.
9. Hard or Soft Top
The soft top option is going to be lighter but it's also going to be noisier when you're driving down the road. The great thing about the soft top is that you can just pull that thing right off all by yourself if you want.
When inspecting a soft top on a used JK you'll want to check for any rips in the fabric and observe if the plastic windows are still in good condition or not.
The hard top options do have a tendency to leak, so check the seals all around the corners and look for any evidence of cracking or water damage. You can still remove the hard tops on a Jeep Wrangler, but it’s going to be more difficult to do by yourself and you’ll need a place to store it as well.
10. Rock Sliders
Only the Rubicon edition of the Jeep Wrangler comes with a rock slider already installed stock, and this is a beefy piece of gear that really helps protect your rig from getting too banged up off-road. On the Sport, Sport S, and Sahara editions it’s common to find aftermarket ones installed on used Jeeps.
11. The Back End
There's not a whole lot to worry about when checking out the back of a used Wranger. But there is one thing that’s very important: if the previous owner upgraded to larger wheels and tires, you will want to make sure they also modified the tire carrier and hinge on the tailgate to accomodate the extra weight.
If they didn't you could have some problems down the road because the stock carrier and hinge are very prone to fail with extra weight they were not designed to carry. If the tires and wheels are larger than stock, make sure to do a thorough inspection and for cracks or dimpling at the edges of the tailgate.
Rear bumper upgrades are also relatively common and if the previous owner did so, check it out and give it a good inspection. This is important because some aftermarket bumpers don’t come with a trailer hitch and you might lose your towing capability.
12. The Interior
I think the interior of Wranglers are generally pretty comfortable and sleek looking, and I’ve enjoyed countless hours long drives in them.
If the vehicle has been lifted and has larger tires, look at the edges of the drivers and passenger seat. Have they been smashed down? This happens sometimes when people have to slide in and out of a taller vehicle.
You’ll want to check for rips and stains as well, especially on soft-top editions as they are more likely to be exposed to the elements.
You may notice the used Jeep Wrangler JK you’re looking at has aftermarket rubber floor mats. This is a good thing because it makes clean up after a trail run much easier. If you can't find a used Jeep with them, you can always buy aftermarket mats.
There are a couple different stereo options, with the more expensive options coming along with navigation features, but I do not think having this is necessary, since you can use your phone or tablet for navigation.
Test Drive It!
After you're done looking under the head, all over the interior and the exterior, and once you're crawled around underneath the Jeep to check things out, you need to do a test drive.
You want to see how the used JK accelerates and how it brakes, especially if they have added bigger tires, because this can cause problems with the brakes if the previous owner didn’t upgrade them as well.
You should check the steering and see how responsive it is because lifts and bigger tire modifications can impact how the Jeep steers. If you find something is off with the steering, ask the owner or seller why it is doing that, because this could be costly for you down the road. The steering should be nice and firm, and not pull in either direction.
I'd recommend taking it to a parking lot to test out the 4WD by putting it in 4-high or 4-low. You should also make sure the lockers are good by activating those and test the sway bar disconnect too. It's better to find out if these are in proper working order before you take it on the trail and, more importantly, before you buy a used Jeep.
My last helpful piece of advice about how to buy a used Jeep Wrangler is to bring a flashlight with you when you go to check it out. When you're looking in the engine, at the undercarriage, and in all the other nooks and crannies, a flashlight can really help you shine a light on potential problems.