Used excavators imported from China have been growing in popularity over the last few years. Thousands of these excavators are imported into the United States every week. And for good reason. The deals are too hard to pass up.
We’ve been shipping cargo from China for over a decade, and import hundreds of excavators into the United States every month.
With the growing demand for purchasing used excavators from China, we’ve realized that the availability of information for potential buyers is incredibly limited.
This guide sets out to help potential excavator buyers determine if purchasing from China is the right decision for them. If they decide it is the right decision, this guide will teach you everything you need to know about how to find the right excavators and make the entire process from the point of purchase to the point of delivery a seamless and uneventful experience.
By the end of this guide, you will have all the necessary information to become an expert at sourcing and shipping excavators from China.
Table of Contents
Deciding to Buy from China
When it comes to expanding your construction fleet or starting a new project, the decision to purchase equipment is significant. Let’s dig into whether or not a used excavator from China might just be the best addition to your lineup.
Benefits of Buying Used Excavators from China
The most obvious benefit of buying an excavator from China is going to be the savings. Used excavators sold in China are significantly more affordable than the used machines you are able to find domestically. The savings here can be crucial for businesses looking to build a fleet or start a business. All one has to do is compare the pricing of domestic models from brands like Caterpillar and Volvo with equivalent models in China to see the incredible savings.
- Wide Selection of Brands and Models
China is a big country that recently underwent a massive industrial boom. At the height of their own infrastructure development, world-renowned brands were all eager for the opportunity to sell their machines in China. This has allowed the Chinese market to be flooded with various brands and models. And today, it has led to established brands strengthening their presence in China.
- Availability of Parts and Services
Contrary to what some might think, parts and services for these brands are widely available, thanks to their global presence. With the increase in the gray market for these excavators, the benefits have become even more pronounced. This growth has significantly improved the accessibility of parts. There is a thriving community and parts sellers stepping in to offer components that might not be accessible from official dealers. This effort supports gray market buyers, ensuring they can maintain and repair their equipment with greater ease than ever before.
- Proven Durability and Performance
The excavator brands speak for themself. When it comes to machines that are built to last and perform, you will notice the same name brands you’ve grown to love having a similar level of popularity amongst industry users in China. We have seen hundreds of excavators come from projects in China where they were meticulously maintained and serviced, ensuring their reliability and functionality remain consistent with their expectations.
- Eco-Friendly Option
Eco-friendly is not something all buyers are expecting to hear when purchasing machines and shipping them from China. However, the purchase of a used excavator extends the machine’s life. Thus reducing the demand for new manufacturing and the associated carbon footprint.
Buying used machinery from China will come with its challenges. There is already an inherent unknown factor anytime you buy a used machine from a third party. Potentially even more so when you’re making a purchase online, and on the other side of the world.
The other issues you may encounter are navigating the international shipping and importing process, potential language barriers, and ensuring you are purchasing machinery that is compliant with US EPA regulations.
With the right research, and the help of reliable partners, like Guided Imports, you can mitigate these challenges effectively.
Understanding these challenges is what defines the success of an excavator import. We will go into great detail sharing everything you might need to put together, so you are an informed buyer and a prepared importer.
The first step to researching excavators is to find sellers. But they are not going to show up in classified ads, Craigslist, or the Facebook marketplace. So to find the sellers, you need to learn where they hang out.
The most straightforward way to find sellers is through Alibaba.com.
Alibaba.com is a database where factories and trading companies can create an account and list the products they are selling. Alibaba does a decent job verifying the businesses that create a seller account on their platform. They offer unique services to sellers to help further verify their legitimacy in an effort to appeal to more buyers, like you.
When it comes to buying used excavators from China, Alibaba is the most popular platform for connecting with these sellers.
This is why we recommend sticking with this platform because most of the larger, reputable sellers will have a presence on Alibaba. It also makes the searching process more seamless, because it gives you a single platform to use to find machines and sellers.
If you’ve never used Alibaba before, here is a straightforward step-by-step list to get started.
- Create an Alibaba.com account
- Use the search filters to only look for sellers in China. Use a simple keyword to start, such as ‘excavator’ or ‘caterpillar excavator’.
- Use the search feature to find a brand or model you are interested in.
- Navigate through the listing. Click on the images, read the specifications, and gain an understanding of how excavators are marketed on Alibaba. You will quickly notice that the descriptions of excavators are not always clear. This is because sellers often have inventory moving so rapidly, that they don’t have time to update their listing.
- Send messages to the sellers and ask them questions. If you are looking for a particular model, ask what they have in stock, and what information they can provide you. With an Alibaba account, you can message them directly within the platform. Or, you can find their WhatsApp number, and message them via WhatsApp.
- Don’t expect to learn everything about Alibaba in one day. Instead, dedicate a couple of hours clicking around the site, using the search filters, and viewing various seller profiles.
- Don’t feel intimidated by Alibaba. You’re essentially shopping in China when you are on the website, so information you may expect to see, might not be there.
- Take notes of questions you run into and analyze what kind of information is provided on the sales pages, and what information is not. (This will come in handy later.)
- As you continue to browse through Alibaba, you will learn more about the different sellers marketing the machines you are interested in. You will have had conversations with some of these sellers and made a list of potential machines you find interesting.
When dealing with Chinese suppliers online for a used excavator, it’s important to have realistic expectations about the information you receive. While it’s crucial to ask detailed questions about the undercarriage, engine, final drives, swing motor, and swivel motor, be prepared that sellers might not be as forthcoming as you’d hope.
This could be due to a language barrier or because they’re hesitant to disclose issues, fearing it might dissuade you from buying. It’s essential to recognize that a lack of transparency doesn’t necessarily mean the machinery is in poor condition. Sometimes, sellers may struggle to articulate that the issues are manageable and don’t significantly impact the excavator’s overall functionality.
Keep in mind that buying used machinery, especially from abroad, inherently involves some risks and uncertainties. It’s wise to anticipate and budget for maintenance and basic repairs as unknown costs. Even if the seller doesn’t provide complete details, assume that you’ll need to invest in some level of repair and upkeep to bring the equipment up to your standards.
This mindset will help you approach the purchase more strategically, ensuring you’re prepared for additional expenses that may arise after the transaction. By doing so, you can mitigate surprises and manage your investment wisely, even when buying from international sources like China.
Ensuring a Safe Purchase
We receive a lot of questions from prospective shippers, asking if it is easy to get scammed on Alibaba.
In short, the answer is no.
For a seller to obtain an Alibaba account, they need to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year and go through various legitimacy checks by Alibaba, and their third-party auditors. So while a scammer can create an Alibaba seller account, the chances they would do such a thing to sell a handful of products before they are banned is relatively low.
However, with the information you will learn in this guide if used correctly, you can confidently bring those chances down to zero.
Anytime you read Alibaba horror stories, 9 times out of 10 the stories can be chalked up to miscommunication between the buyer and the seller. So if you want to take anything away from this guide, the most important thing to learn is the importance of communicating with your suppliers.
Understand that their English is not at a native level. Their knowledge of excavators, while we expect it to be advanced, may not extend as far as yours. Also, just because you inform the seller of something you want, it does not mean they will remember your request.
Therefore, always ask, and then verify.
Selecting a Seller
Your gut is going to be the strongest indicator of whether or not a supplier feels like a good option for you. So the best way for you to vet suppliers is to spend time communicating with them.
Ask them questions about the machines you’re interested in. Evaluate their willingness to respond and provide you with visual and written proof, as well as how well they communicate.
You would not buy a car from someone who knows nothing about vehicles. So why buy an excavator from someone who can’t answer basic questions about condition and specifications?
Once you’ve found possible sellers on Alibaba, search the company name online to see if you can find them listed in multiple locations. Compare the information you’ve received on Alibaba with the information listed on their other websites and sales profiles.
If something looks suspicious, such as the names match, but the addresses are different, ask them to explain. Reach out to them on both platforms and ask the same questions. What you’re looking for is consistency.
Consistency tells you a lot. It tells you the company is legitimate, they are organized, and they value their brand’s image across multiple platforms.
The most important factor in picking a seller that is worth buying from is their communication. While you may feel inclined to chalk uncomfortable encounters with cultural or communication differences, you must notate these occurrences. The sellers on Alibaba speak with buyers around the world daily. It is their responsibility to bridge the cultural and communication gap, as they intend to sell to the outside world.
So while this does not mean you should not have an open mind, it does mean that you should listen to yourself when something feels off.
Identifying a Good Used Excavator
Buying an excavator from China requires a careful and strategic approach since you won’t be able to inspect the machine in person.
A good excavator requires a good seller. This is why you are going to want to communicate with as many sellers as you can. Once you’ve found a list of sellers that are willing to answer your questions and provide you with information of the machines they are selling, you can begin to look closely at a short list of excavators.
Remember the mantra we discussed in the section about Alibaba?
Always ask, and then verify.
This holds incredibly true to the stage when you are analyzing the various excavators that catch your attention.
- When a seller says the machine only has 210 hours on it, ask for a photo.
- When a seller tells you the tracks are barely worn, request detailed photos.
- When a seller tells you what the engine is, request photos of both the engine and the engine tag.
While you want to remain professional during your communication, you don’t want to take anything at face value.
The analogy here is akin to buying anything used off a lot. The seller’s job is to sell the machine, not convince you why you should not buy it. So be careful when details are provided and the proof isn’t delivered.
Services exist where an inspector can visit the lot and test the machine for you. However, most of the tests can be done by the seller while they are recording videos of the tests taking place.
When buying a used excavator, there is a well-known 5-point inspection a buyer should perform. Here’s how you can adapt the five key inspection points for an online purchase:
- Request Detailed Photos & Videos: Ask for clear, close-up images and videos of the sprockets, rollers, idler wheels, and tracks from different angles.
- Inquire About Wear & Replacement History: Ask the seller about the history of undercarriage maintenance, including when parts were last replaced and any known wear issues.
- Ask for a Cold Start Video: Request a video of the excavator starting from cold. This can reveal issues with smoke or unusual noises during startup.
- Service Records: Request detailed service records to understand the engine’s maintenance history, focusing on any major repairs or recurring issues.
- Final Drives
- Oil Condition Check: Ask for a video or photo evidence showing the oil level and condition from the inspection plug.
- Metal Filings Inquiry: Specifically ask if there have been any issues with metal filings in the oil, indicating internal wear.
- Swing Motor
- Oil Level and Quality Confirmation: Request visual proof of the oil level and ask if there have been any issues with water contamination or leakage.
- Maintenance History: Inquire about the frequency of oil changes and any past issues with the swing motor.
- Swivel Motor
- Leakage Check: Ask for detailed images or videos focusing on the swivel motor area to spot any potential leaks.
- Recent Maintenance or Issues: Inquire about any recent repairs or known issues with the swivel motor, especially regarding seal integrity.
When should you request these details?
We suggest making a list of the main features you want in an excavator. Pick ones that are easy to spot to help you focus your search better.
Characteristics such as model, engine, year, hours, and photos can be used as your first phase of narrowing down your search.
Once you’ve found a list of contenders, then work on chipping away at this list by finding reasons why an excavator is not right for you.
Over time your list will shrink, or it could even disappear requiring you to start the search again. But eventually, you’ll have a list of 1-3 machines you feel are viable options. Tell the seller you’ve shortlisted a few machines and ask for their help to take a closer look at each one. This will help you make your final choice.
To not waste your time or theirs, only start this stage if you are certain you will buy the machine if it passes.
If you’re just browsing without serious intent, sellers might not treat you seriously. Later on, when you’re ready to buy, you might not receive the same good service because they might think you’ll just waste their time again. So, it’s important to respect both their time and yours.
Finalizing the Purchase
At this point, you’ve done your due diligence on the seller and the machine, but there are still more steps you need to take before you pull the trigger.
- Ensuring Compliance and Import Requirements
- Finding a Reliable Freight Forwarder
- Obtaining Shipping Quotations
- Purchasing Your Equipment
- Documentation and Shipping Preparation
We will go over each of these steps below.
Ensuring Compliance and Import Requirements
Importing a used excavator from China to the US is a hefty task. But we’ve got you covered to ensure your equipment is compliant with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).
Any engine imported into the United States requires an EPA Engine Certification. You are going to want to check that the engine in the excavator has an EPA tag. Most machines Chinese sellers will offer you will have this tag. But it is vital that you not only ask but request photo proof.
To import the engine, an EPA Form 3520-21 must be filed. This form needs to be completed in its entirety. To complete this form, documents must be available to reference from.
Depending on the specialty of your freight forwarder, they may know how to fill out this form. Some Chinese sellers can provide it, but you can’t always rely on their accuracy. While it is best to work with a freight forwarder like Guided Imports, as we’ve filed countless 8520-21 forms with the EPA, we have seen some shippers fill this form out on their own.
Either way, the accuracy of this form needs to be taken seriously, because the EPA is not an agency you want knocking on your door.
To fill out the 3520-21 form you will need the following information
- Engine Manufacturer
- Engine Serial Number
- Engine Family Name
- Engine Factory Address
- Equipment Model Number
- Equipment Serial Number
However, if your seller can’t provide you with proof the excavator is EPA-certified, then you should cross that machine off your list and keep looking.
Finding a Reliable Freight Forwarder
This will help you avoid surprise fees, ensure you have all necessary documentation and requirements before shipping, and ensure a seamless process.
Some excavator dealers want to use their freight forwarder to handle the shipping up until the port of destination. We suggest avoiding this.
When an additional freight forwarder needs to be hired after export, it opens the door to a greater risk of miscommunication, or added fees that you did not account for.
By utilizing a freight forwarder that specializes both in exporting machinery out of China and importing machinery into the United States, you can consolidate the shipping process to a single freight forwarder, who is capable of managing their entire shipment for you.
This means you won’t be responsible for ensuring every last detail of your shipment is done correctly, as you have a single entity watching over your shipment from start to finish.
Obtaining Shipping Quotations
Most Chinese sellers will offer you a shipping quote that includes ocean freight but requires you to handle the import and last-mile delivery.
This is often difficult for buyers because it means that the seller can ship the excavators before you’ve had a chance to obtain all the necessary information required to clear customs.
We have seen it countless times. When we were handling the customs clearance, EPA filing, and last-mile delivery for a customer, but another forwarder loaded the container onto the ship, vital information was often missing and neither the seller nor the buyer had a chance to document what was needed.
This has led to delays and penalties imposed by US Customs.
Chinese sellers don’t do this maliciously. Used heavy machinery from China requires specialization to export. This is why they opt to work with Chinese freight forwarders who they can trust can handle the exporting process, without there being any issues or delays.
This is one of many reasons why so many Chinese sellers refer to Guided Imports as their preferred freight forwarder. Because we know exactly what is needed to export excavators, as well as what is needed to import them into the US.
Because of the complexities of shipping, and the importance of ensuring documentation is obtained before the shipping date, we always recommend obtaining a shipping quotation from a freight forwarding company that can quote you for the full length of the journey.
When reaching out to a freight forwarding company, you want to provide them with all the necessary information needed to obtain a shipping quotation.
Freight forwarders need the following information to provide you with a quotation:
- Description of cargo
- Container type (usually a 40-foot high-cube container, flat rack, or roro)
- Total gross weight
- Supplier Address
- Delivery Address and an explanation of how you plan to unload the freight
- HS Code for each machine (this will help them calculate the duty and taxes. You can ask your supplier for this.)
Once they have this information, they will be able to get back to you with a detailed outline of all of the costs for the container to be loaded onto a vessel, shipped to a port near you, cleared by all US government agencies, and delivered to your site.
Purchasing Your Equipment
This is going to be a nerve-wracking task if this is your first time buying from China.
Once you’ve gone through the checklists to get to this milestone, you are going to want to inform the seller of your desire to purchase.
Request a Proforma Invoice for you to review. A proforma invoice is essentially a pre-invoice, giving you a heads-up of what to expect in terms of costs associated with the procurement of your machines. Ensure the proforma invoice includes the machine’s model number, serial number, engine number, and year.
The proforma invoice should also have the bank wire details of the seller. These details are important because you are going to want to perform an international wire transfer to send your funds to the seller.
There are escrow services, like Alibaba Trade Assurance. But we will explain later in this guide why we suggest this is not the best option.
Most banks allow you to do this online, but we’ve noticed buyers doing this for the first time prefer to visit their local branch and work with their business bank manager to ensure the details are accurate and everything looks correct.
Once you obtain the bank details from the proforma invoice, confirm the bank details are correct through at least three communication channels. Chinese sellers are most likely not going to scam you, but confirming the bank details through multiple communication channels reduces the risk there is a third party intercepting emails and other communications, and sending you the wrong banking information.
You want to closely inspect that the bank details accurately reflect the supplier’s name. If they don’t, ask for an explanation, and request documentation proving the bank details are accurate.
Some suppliers will use a Hong Kong company. This is okay, but the name should match, and there should be a way for them to prove the ownership is linked. But just because you see a Hong Kong bank or a Chinese bank, does not mean it is their account.
Remember, we are doing this not because it is frequent, but because we want to make it virtually impossible for you to be the victim of fraud. So this due diligence may feel unnecessary, but if you talk to any business that was a victim of these scams, they will tell you that there isn’t ever too much due diligence one could do.
Once everything checks out, you can proceed to pay your supplier.
Documentation and Shipping Preparation
This cannot be stressed enough. This part is arguably the most important part of the entire importing process. You want to be as detailed and strict with your seller as possible, to obtain all of the necessary information about your machines.
Two primary documents are needed before shipping. You will receive these either during the purchasing process or shortly after.
The two documents are:
- Commercial Invoice (Your freight forwarder needs this invoice for customs clearance, as it defines the cargo, who the seller and buyer are, and what the total value is.)
- Packing List (This is a document that details exactly what was loaded into the container, and is also required for customs clearance and delivery.)
The information needed to file EPA form 3520-21 is the following:
Every excavator you are purchasing must have:
- Engine Manufacturer
- Engine Serial Number
- Engine Family Name
- Engine Factory Address
- Equipment Model Number
- Equipment Serial Number
Receiving Your Excavator
Maintain communication with your freight forwarder, as they will be liaising directly with the seller to arrange a day and time to pick up the machines.
When the machines are picked up, the ball is now in your freight forwarders court.
A good freight forwarder will provide you with points of contact during each stage of the journey. They will provide you with detailed updates, and walk you through each step of the shipping, importing, customs clearance, and delivery process.
Any reputable freight forwarder wants this shipment to be just as much of a success as you do. This is why it is important to find a forwarder you can trust and feel confident will be reliable and accessible during the entire shipping process.
Anywhere from 30-60 days after the cargo is picked up from your seller, the cargo will arrive at your requested destination. Your goal during that day is to unload the equipment as fast as possible, so the container can be returned to the port.
With your new to you excavator on your lot, you are free to begin testing and inspecting before you put it to good use.
Additional Advice and Horror Stories
I tried to be as thorough as possible with the guide for excavator buyers. But after over a decade in the industry, there is an endless amount of information I believe is vital to the success of your excavator importing business. Regardless of whether or not you are planning to import one excavator or one hundred excavators, my goal is to make the process seamless and uneventful.
Having said that, here are some additional tips and stories I believe are important to share, but didn’t fit in the step-by-step guide above.
A lot of people ask me what could go wrong. I’ve seen many things go sideways. However, my aim in creating this guide is to highlight all the potential pitfalls and help importers steer clear of those nightmare scenarios.
Having said that, here are some of the horror stories we’ve witnessed on multiple occasions.
1. Excavator buyers were not prepared for all the associated costs to buy, ship and import.
When you get a quote from an excavator seller, it often includes shipping costs. However, many people overlook that this usually covers just transport to the port of destination.
After the ship docks, you could be facing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in extra fees at the port. So, even if a seller says they’ll ship the excavator to a nearby port, it’s not as simple as just arranging a truck to pick it up.
This oversight can lead to unexpected costs and unpleasant surprises for buyers, which is the last thing you want after spending a big chunk of money on a machine you haven’t even tested yet.
The best way to avoid being another victim of this horror story is to work with freight forwarders that can help you understand all costs, and not just take your supplier’s word for it.
2. Shipment got stuck in customs because there was no forwarder ensuring ISF was filed.
Another common problem we see is when shipments get stuck in customs because no one made sure the Importer Security Filing (ISF) was completed.
We often hear from customers whose containers have been sitting at the port for weeks because they don’t know how to collect their excavator. They weren’t told that someone needed to take care of the ISF and get customs clearance.
If a container isn’t picked up, it starts racking up demurrage fees, which can cost thousands of dollars each week. These fees keep accumulating until the container is claimed.
But to claim a container, you need to clear customs and submit the 3520-21 form to the EPA. Without doing this, the container stays put.
Failing to meet these requirements on time can lead to fines from US Customs, adding up to significant costs for some importers.
3. Shipments faced EPA issues because the buyer didn’t obtain the necessary information required to file EPA form 3520-21.
Not getting an EPA clearance is another issue that pops up often. Sometimes, customs might release a container before the EPA has cleared the shipment. This means you could get your excavator and then find an EPA agent knocking on your door, asking for more details or wondering why the EPA paperwork wasn’t filled out right.
This usually happens because buyers didn’t gather all the necessary documents for the EPA filing.
Dealing with the EPA is something most businesses try to avoid. If they spot an issue, it can cause major headaches. Even though many problems can be chalked up to a one-time error, the EPA can still impose hefty fines.
So, what’s the solution? Just make sure you have all the correct details noted down before your excavators are shipped:
- Excavator Information
- Engine Manufacturer
- Engine Serial Number
- Engine Family Name
- Engine Factory Address
- Equipment Model Number
- Equipment Serial Number
Having this information ready and accurate is key to filing your EPA paperwork properly and avoiding any issues with the EPA.
Why Not to Use Alibaba’s Trade Assurance
Alibaba offers Trade Assurance. This is an escrow service where Alibaba will act as the middleman between you and the seller. In theory, this service is great because it adds a minor level of protection to the buyer.
The reasons we don’t suggest you use this is because it should not be considered a solution that you can use to replace your own means of instilling confidence in a seller.
In short, if you feel as though you must rely on trade assurance or escrow, then you should ask yourself if you really feel comfortable buying from this seller.
If the answer is no, then don’t buy from them.
Trade Assurance is an easy excuse to bypass your own vetting and supplier qualification. And this is where many buyers go wrong.
Trade Assurance is not the equivalent of the Walmart Customer Service desk. You can’t complain to them and ask for a refund when you find something that you were not anticipating.
When Trade Assurance is used, you let your guard down where you shouldn’t let it down. So instead, only work with a supplier where you feel absolutely confident that if you wire them a significant amount of money, they are going to deliver what they are selling.
If you have any reason to believe that your supplier may run with your money, then you should remove this seller from your list of options.
Importance of Video Proof
We recommend asking your supplier at the time of purchase to provide a detailed video of the excavator being loaded into a container, assuming it fits.
It’s important not to just assume they’ll follow through because you asked. You should follow up multiple times and make sure they remember to do it on the loading day.
You’ll want a complete video from the moment the container doors open until the seal is securely placed on the closed doors. This seal should be clearly shown in the video, so you can verify the seal numbers match upon arrival and check for any tampering signs.
Having this video might seem unnecessary now, but it can be incredibly useful for anything from insurance purposes to helping with the unloading process.
We hope you found this guide super helpful for your excavator importing adventure.If you’ve made it this far, that means you are serious and genuinely interested in your own success. So we have something special for you.
- Exclusive Buying/Importing Checklist: We’ve crafted a handy one-page checklist, summarizing all the key steps from this guide. Perfect for keeping track of your progress while you hunt for the best used excavators. And guess what? It’s all based on the feedback and questions from folks just like you. Want your copy? Just drop us your Name and Email below, and we’ll send it right over to you.
Get the Excavator Buying Checklist
- Got Questions? Let’s Chat: Whether you’re stuck, curious, or just want to talk shop, we’re here for you. Give us a ring at (215) 207-0109 or shoot us an email at [email protected]. We love hearing from you and are always ready to help make your importing journey smooth sailing.
Remember, we’re not just a guide in your hand; we’re real people eager to support your success. So, don’t hesitate to reach out, whether you’re a seasoned importer or just getting started. Let’s make your excavator import a roaring success together!