Checklist for Buying a Used Motorcycle

Buying used without being abused

I’m pretty sure Mr. Randolph wasn’t describing a used motorcycle, but he might just as well have been. Over the years, I’ve seen way too many guys—guys in fact who should have known better—toss away tons of money on bikes that were junk, simply because they didn’t know how to separate the shine from the stink.

Buying a used motorcycle ain’t rocket science. With a modicum of common sense and a few simple guidelines, just about anyone should be able to negotiate a satisfactory deal. Now, I can’t provide the common sense, and I really can’t help you with your negotiating skills, but what I can provide are the guidelines you’ll need to avoid a stinker. Follow them, and I can guarantee you won’t end up with a dead fish on your hands.

To begin with...

buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Don't be afraid to buy a used motorcycle. Here's a checklist of the things you need to look out for so you don't get abused.Cruiser

Unless this is your very first bike, you probably have some idea of what you’re looking for. That being the case, take the next logical step and learn as much as possible about it beforehand. Many bikes have certain idiosyncrasies, which the uninitiated may mistake for serious problems. For example, BMWs tend to smoke on startup if they’re left parked on the kickstand for any length of time. This is a harmless byproduct of their engine layout and in no way means the engine has bad rings or anything else—something you might not realize if you’re not familiar with the breed.

I’d also recommend brushing up on your basic mechanical skills. You needn’t be an experienced wrench to buy a used bike, but you should at least know what a worn-out sprocket looks like or how to tell if the steering-head bearings need attention. We’ve covered many of these topics in previous issues, and there’s always the how-to section down at the local library or bookstore. As a last resort, you have my e-mail address if you really need help quickly.

Rather than bore you with pages of techno-babble, I thought it’d be much easier on both of us if I just provided a handy checklist. I’m sure the circulation department would rather you bought a fresh copy of Cruiser every time you looked at a bike, but for my money, feel free to make a few copies. Since I’m not much for math, the checklist doesn’t provide any values—it’s simply there to show what you should be looking at. Once you’ve run the list, you should have a very good idea of what kind of shape the bike is in; after that, it’s all up to common sense and the depth of your wallet.

Body Work:

  • Fuel tank: general condition and paint
  • Fenders and side covers: look for scratches, dents, broken side-cover tabs
  • Seat: look for tears and missing trim, collapsed foam
  • Paint and chrome: look for repaired areas, general condition. Chrome should be shiny and rust free
  • Windshield: properly mounted, any cracks or glazing?
  • Saddlebags: inspect hard bags for signs of damage, soft bags for tears or abrasions, especially on the wheel sidepanels
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Fresh oil is a good thing, but check the bike's overall condition for signs of misuse or neglect.Cruiser


  • Oil: the level should be correct, and the oil relatively clean. (Cleanliness is subjective of course. If there's any doubt, find out when it was last changed.)
  • Oil leaks: this ain't 1965; there shouldn't be any
  • Starting/running: most sellers will have warmed up the engine, so this can be deceptive. The engine should start easily, even if it's cold, and warm up within a few minutes
  • Smoke: any heavy, black or blue smoke is cause for concern and reason to move on
  • Idle/throttle response: a warm engine should idle smoothly at a reasonable speed. It should also respond smoothly to the throttle. If it spits and sputters before the rpm picks up, something is wrong
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Be sure the engine starts up and runs well whether it is cold or warmed up.Cruiser
  • Noise: any decent engine should be fairly quiet, though some engines are by nature mechanically louder than others. Knocks, rattles and rumbles often indicate potential disasters. Minor problems can cause an otherwise healthy engine to play a few bars from the anvil chorus, but it takes a trained ear to decipher them. Anything that sounds really wrong probably is
  • Transmission: trannys are best checked during a road test, something that may not be in the cards. In general, the transmission should engage smoothly, and never, ever jump out of gear. If you can't road test the bike, you may be able to observe the owner run it through the gears. Listen for a missed shift, which may indicate an engagement problem
  • Clutch: make sure it's properly adjusted and doesn't drag or slip. Like the transmission, a clutch is best tested on the road
  • Exhaust: look for exterior physical damage, especially rust bubbles. Look for broken hardware, particularly at the cylinder head. The system shouldn't leak
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
The handlebars should be straight, grips in good condition, and mirrors in place.Cruiser


  • Handlebars, grips and mirrors: bars should be straight, grips in good condition, mirrors in place
  • Levers: should be straight and properly adjusted; check the ends for scratches possibly indicating the bike was dropped
  • Switches: make sure they work; a big shower of sparks when you try to use one indicates problems
  • Cables: should operate freely without binding. Look for tears in the rubber covers. Check the routing, especially if aftermarket bars are fitted

Fuel Tank/Lines and Petcock

  • Fuel tank: check for internal rust. The tank should be securely mounted, and there shouldn't be any signs of leaks
  • Fuel hoses: properly secured and in good condition
  • Petcock: if there is one, make sure it moves freely and doesn't leak

Cooling System (If Applicable)

  • Leaks: there shouldn't be any
  • Coolant level: should be roughly halfway between max. and min. marks
  • Temperature gauge: with the engine warmed up, the gauge should be reading normal
  • Coolant fan: these all differ in operation. The owner or owner's manual should be able to fill you in on the particulars, but in the main the fan should come on whenever the gauge approaches the red zone and sometimes when the bike is parked with a hot engine, even if it's off
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Give the wheel a spin to see if it wobbles and while you are at it check that the tread on the tires is in in good condition with no signs of dry rot.Cruiser

Tires/Wheels and Sprockets

  • Tires: there should be plenty of tread left, with no signs of dry rot
  • Wheels: look for dents, and, if possible, give the wheel a spin. If there's a noticeable wobble, it'll need to be trued, or replaced if it's a cast wheel
  • Spokes: should all be snug and straight. Give each one a light tap with a pencil or screwdriver handle. A tight spoke will give off a "ping," while a loose one will sound flat. Bent spokes will have to be replaced
  • Wheel bearings: these don't give much trouble unless the bike has very high mileage or has been pounded with a high-pressure washer. The wheels should spin smoothly without excess play
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Drum brakes will normally have a wear indicator; anywhere in the middle is good.Cruiser
  • Chain: should be properly lubricated and adjusted
  • Rear sprocket: teeth should be properly formed and straight. If they're hooked, bent or missing both sprockets, the chain will have to be replaced
  • Belt: check for nicks, cuts, abrasion and adjustment
  • Belt pulley: look for excess wear, chipped cogs or external damage
  • Shaft drive/rear end: check for leaks; make sure the wheel turns smoothly without making any odd noises
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
The chain should be properly lubricated and adjusted.Cruiser


  • Battery: should be capable of starting the bike without strain
  • Lights: check the signal and brake lights in turn, and don't forget the high and low beams. Make sure all the indicator and instrument lights come on
  • Horn: it either works or it doesn't
  • Accessories: all electric accessories should be properly installed. If it looks like "who did it and ran" wired the thing, figure on redoing the job ASAP.
  • Wiring harness: be on the lookout for large gobs of tape or wires that have been spliced into the harness, which would indicate that someone's been in there fooling around
  • Charging system: with the engine running, apply a brake (to turn on the brake light) and watch the headlight as the rpm rises. It should get slightly brighter as the charging system kicks in
  • Instruments: these should be legible and work smoothly
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Check the steering-head bearings by trying to move the fork front toward rear. If play is felt, the bearings are loose. Also, the fork should swing smoothly from side to side; if it doesn't, the bearings are probably dented.Cruiser

Front Fork

  • Steering head bearings: check for play and dents; indented bearings must be replaced
  • Fork tubes: when viewed from the side, the tubes should appear to be perfectly straight
  • Fork seals: look for leaks, torn dust covers and signs of unusual wear on
  • the fork tubes where they pass through the seals
  • Alignment: the fork tubes should be parallel, with the wheel centered. When the handlebars are in the straight-ahead position, the front wheel should also be straight
  • Clips: make sure any securing clips for the brake hose or speedometer cables are in place
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Check the swingarm for play.Cruiser

Frame/Rear Suspension

  • Frame: look for indications of an accident, particularly around the steering head. Repainted areas, welds or deep scrapes indicate problems. If there's any doubt, move on
  • Rear shocks: look for leaks and loose mounting hardware
  • Swingarm/suspension pivots: check the swingarm for play; if the bike uses linkage, check each pivot point
buying used bikes, maintenance, for sale, used-bike checklist
Tread carefully if the used bike has aftermarket parts.Cruiser

Miscellaneous Items

  • VIN numbers/engine numbers: altered, missing or non-matching numbers are a warning that something's not kosher. There may be a perfectly good explanation, but I'd recommend you consult with your local DMV before purchasing any bike with numbering issues
  • Aftermarket parts: a gray area at best, particularly with cruisers. I'm always leery of "performance modifications." A pipe and airbox kit are one thing, especially if the stock parts are included in the deal, but unless you know exactly what you're getting into, hot rods can lead to serious headaches. Tread carefully, particularly if you intend to use the bike as a daily rider. As far as things like saddlebags and windshields are concerned, you can always take them off if you don't like them
  • Service records: these are nice to have, but few riders keep them
  • Paperwork: verify that all the paperwork is complete, and that the numbers on the title and registration match the numbers on the bike. Make absolutely certain everything's in order before you hand over that cash.

First Impressions:
Those of you who attended Miss Manners School of Etiquette should recall the old adage about first impressions being the most lasting. The same is true of used motorcycles. In my experience, a bike that looks like it's had a rough life, probably has. As a rule, guys who don't worry about the way their bikes look generally aren't too concerned about the way they maintain them, either. While there are certainly some riders who take a perverse pride in riding a scruffy-looking yet immaculately maintained motorcycle, they are few and far between. Yeah, that cobby-looking Vulcan/VTX/Virago or Volusia may be a diamond in the rough, but chances are far more likely it's just rough.

The Dealer Dilemma
While the majority of used bikes change hands privately, there are certain advantages to buying one from a franchised dealer. First, dealers generally only take trade-ins that are in first-class condition. They don't want problems any more than you do, and they know that if they sell you a lemon, you'll have some legal recourse. To that end, most will even give you some sort of limited warranty. (In many cases the bike may have been sold there new, which speaks well for the dealer's ability to generate repeat business, and gives him access to the bike's complete history.) Second, dealerships can arrange financing, registration, facilitate any applicable remaining factory warranty credit and in some states sell you insurance, making the whole buying experience a little easier on you—especially if you're new to this. By no means am I suggesting you only shop for used bikes at a dealership, but it is an alternative, especially if it's your first bike.