What to Look For When Buying a Used Snowmobile

Snowmobiles deliver more power and greater performance with each new model year. Unfortunately for those on a budget, they’re also more expensive, with some new sleds surpassing $15,000. It pays to buy a pre-owned sled to save some cash, but you don’t want to get saddled with a money pit. Here are a few things to look for when buying a used snowmobile.

It’s a seller’s market

First of all, understand that we’re now in a seller’s market. It’s not as easy to walk into a dealership and walk out with a new sled the same day. Some manufacturers require you to pre-order your sled in the spring, which kills impulsive purchases.

Plus, like with many commodities, the pandemic has squeezed the supply chain and has caused delays. That means some buyers who would have opted for a new sled are turning to Facebook Marketplace and craigslist to get their fix. With more buyers, savvy sellers know they can charge a premium for those buying a used snowmobile.

Snowmobile jumping through snow.

Price, price and price

Next, determine your budget. It’s helpful to have a solid amount in mind that you’re willing to spend, but at least have a ballpark figure nailed down. This will narrow your choices to a manageable handful instead of everything available.

Having a price point in mind also helps determine the type of sled you can afford, whether trail, crossover or mountain sled. While most riders opt for a two-stroke when buying a used snowmobile, know that a four-stroke will cost a little more.

It’s also a good time to narrow your brand choice. Many riders live and die by Polaris, Ski-Doo or Arctic Cat. If that’s you, your choice is easy.

If you’re not in love with any one brand, ask your friends or co-workers what they like best and why. It’ll help you narrow your choices so you’re not shopping until winter is over.

Backcountry snowmobiling

What am I going to do with the sled?

You need to be brutally honest with yourself.

Sure, you’d love to trailer your sleds to the Canadian Rockies and ride fresh mountain powder all winter, but how often will you really do it? Once a year? Once a decade?

A fully equipped mountain sled with a high-horsepower engine for altitude and extended track for handling is perfect for its intended use. But, if you’re a flatlander like me, it won’t handle as well on the trails around home where you’ll likely ride 90% of the time. And it’ll cost you more money than you need to spend.

In this case, it’s better to target a crossover sled that will handle well on the trails while providing decent performance during your annual (or once-a-decade) trip out west. Also consider opting for a trail sled and renting when you travel to the mountains. It’s all about finding the right balance of cost and performance.

Buying a used snowmobile? Check what’s available.

Now that you have a price point, sled type and brand in mind, hit Facebook Marketplace, craigslist, the dealership websites and other resources.

Look at mileage vs. price. In general, a four-stroke snowmobile will last longer than a two-stroke, but they’re harder to find and unsuitable for some terrain, like the mountains.

For two-strokes, about 5,000 miles (8,000 km) is considered middle-aged. Sure, there are always exceptions, but it’s a good rule of thumb when trying to make complicated decisions quickly.

A two-stroke sled with 10,000 miles (16,000 km) is in senior-citizen territory, so be wary. Again, though, it’s a rule of thumb. Some riders take meticulous care of their sleds and surpass that mileage without missing a beat.

Plus, if you just plan to ride the sled out to your fish house a dozen times a winter, then a high-mileage sled may be fine. It underscores the importance of determining how you’re going to use the sled.

Examine the skid frame when buying a used snowmobile.
Check the skid frame for corrosion and wear.

Examine the skid frame & rear suspension

You’ve targeted a sled and arranged to look at it. Start by examining the skid frame and rear suspension.

Snowmobiles frequently tackle rough terrain, by accident or otherwise. Trails get abused during the season, exposing gravel, rocks, stumps, asphalt and other obstacles. The skid frame and suspension feel the brunt.

In addition, ice chunks can form in the skid frame overnight if you don’t park in a heated garage. The next day, you fire up the sled and take off with ice and snow banging around in the skid frame.

Eventually the heat exchanger warms up and melts everything. Now the components are saturated with water all day. That freeze-thaw cycle takes a toll on bearings, pivot points and suspension components during the sled’s lifetime in the form of corrosion and wear.

Snowmobile grease points.
Fresh grease is a sign the sled was maintained well.

When buying a used snowmobile, look for signs that the skid has been maintained, like grease on edges of pivot points. Push down on the back end. Does the suspension move down and up smoothly? If so, that’s a good sign. If you can push the suspension all the way down easily and it dribbles like a basketball, the shocks are shot.

Snowmobile rear shock.
Push down on the back end and ensure the suspension moves smoothly.

Lift the back end up on a block and check the skid-frame wheels. They use non-greaseable sealed bearings. Look for signs of corrosion. Grab them and give them a good side-to-side wiggle. Excessive lateral play indicates wear. If they make noise when you spin them, it’s a sure sign of corroded bearings that will eventually fail.

Snowmobile track wheels.
Wheels that make noise when you spin them indicate bad bearings.

Check the slides for wear or signs of melting. This suggests the owner ran the sled in low-snow conditions, which increases engine heat and stress. 

Front suspension on a snowmobile.
The front suspension should rebound smoothly.

Check the front suspension

Next, lift the front end and move the skis back and forth to check for excess slop in the steering, which points to worn bushings. Ensure the skis aren’t bent and the bottoms aren’t carved and beat up. Check if the wear bars are in decent shape. With the sled back on the ground, push down on the front end. The suspension should rebound smoothly with no pogo-sticking.

Snowmobile engine compartment.
Check under the hood for signs of wear.

When buying a used snowmobile, get under the hood

Now it’s time to dive into the engine compartment.

 When buying a used snowmobile, look for signs of a blown belt.
This sealant was used to plug a hole created due to a blown belt.

Examine the primary and secondary clutches for abuse. Excess belt dust points to wear. Belt chunks are even worse; their presence means someone blew a belt. If the belt guard is beat up, it means they blew a belt at high speed, which creates shock-loading forces that stress the motor mounts, clutch and engine. It also suggests the sled was ridden hard, which increases your risk. If you’re still interested, use these factors to your advantage during the negotiation.

Snowmobile belt guard.
Check the belt guard for signs of abuse, which indicate a rider blew a belt at high speed.

Look for excess oil in the exhaust. Overall, is the engine dirty and corroded? Check for white corrosion on aluminum and rust on steel components. Increased rust in the engine bay and on the front suspension indicate lots of open trailering, which exposes the sled to salt spray.

Check for oil leaks around the engine, which indicate bad gaskets or seals.

With the track elevated, start the engine. If the sled has been sitting for a while, don’t worry too much about blue smoke. If you’re looking at the sled during summer, it’s not going to idle as smoothly as it will in winter; snowmobiles aren’t designed to run like a top at 80°F (27°C).

With the hood open, turn the track and watch the clutch to ensure it engages with no wobbling or abnormal noise. Check track alignment.

Snowmobile odometer.
A malfunctioning speedometer could mean the mileage is off.

Does the speedometer work? If not, the sled’s mileage might be off. On older sleds, it can also indicate a bad driveshaft bearing, which is labor intensive to fix.

Snowmobile track.
Inspect the track for missing lugs and wear.

Inspect track condition

Look for missing lugs or studs. Check for rips or protruding bars. If the track requires replacement, you’re looking at several hundred dollars. Again, use it to tailor your offer. 

Broken plastic on snowmobile dash.
Look for broken plastic.

General body check

Walk around the sled and give it a good look. Note any broken plastic, missing paint and dents. Bent handle bars indicate the snowmobile has been rolled. Missing paint on a bumper could indicate it’s been bent and straightened.

Snowmobile bumper.
Check for a bent bumper, which indicates an accident.

Make sure the lights and brakes work. Check if the antifreeze is full. If not, a leak could be responsible. Remove the gas cap and look inside for deposits.

Is it licensed?

If the snowmobile hasn’t been licensed for several years, it could mean it’s been sitting for a long time. This raises red flags for the fuel-delivery system. Gasoline breaks down in as few as 30 days and can leave deposits and varnish that plug tiny fuel openings and injectors. It could mean someone dragged the sled out of storage to try and make a quick sale.

You’re unlikely to find the perfect sled when buying a used snowmobile; all of them will have some issues. But understanding what you’re buying helps you mitigate risk and make the best offer.

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