How To Buy A Motorcycle - Motorcycle Buyer's Guide

Know Before You Go

Part I - Know Before You Go

You've taken the MSF course, skipped the last two summer vacations and convinced the wife nothing's going to better fulfill your life than a set of new wheels. You're ready to plunk down hard-earned cash, but not exactly sure what to expect from the process-or even where to begin. We've compiled a few tips here that will hopefully take some of the guesswork out of the ordeal.

A. Target-Fixate
This, of course, presumes you've already narrowed down the type of motorcycle you plan to ride. While a new bike is often an emotional purchase, sometimes it pays to get practical, too. Once you look at needs rather than wants, you'll narrow things down even more.

Prime considerations:
1. The kind of riding you'll do (i.e. commuting vs. touring). For instance: How long is your commute? Is good gas mileage important? Will you be carrying a passenger?
2. Features: Engine size, options and styling. Unfortunately, too many people skip the previous step and jump to this one. Of course, looks are important, but consider ergonomics as well. The right height, reach and weight count for huge piece of mind as well as comfort.
3. Cost: Let's face it-a good chunk of shoppers buy solely on price. We're not fans of this approach, but if you're determined to crunch numbers, consider true operating costs as well as sticker price. Things like monthly payments, maintenance, insurance and fuel can add up. There's a reason 750-900cc bikes are among the most popular cruiser models year after year: they're invariably the cheapest to own; they don't use much gas, they don't cost a lot to insure and their relatively simple design keeps repair bills low.

B. Dig Up the Dirt
As you'd expect with any big-ticket item, you'll have to log some hours doing homework. That means digging up all you can about the bikes on your short list and figuring out where to shop for them.

In the Internet age, you can cover more ground more effectively online. The tried-and-true hunting grounds are still viable:

Cycle Trader, the Recycler and eBay Motors, (the first two have print versions as well as Web sites) are great sources for gathering ideas of what's available. Craigslist is also an option, but because it's fairly unregulated, it's hit or miss. You can find parts and accessories at these places, too:

For hard information on models, a Web site that's proven fairly reliable is It has a comprehensive list of bikes from 1970 to the current model year, with a listing of specs for each. You can compare specs between models, too.

The Motorcycle Cruiser Web site is a treasure trove of information. Our full tests, first rides and class comparisons can help you make that crucial choice, and the 2008 Buyer's Guide in this issue can give you a feel for the latest trends in the cruiser world.

Whatever model you're looking at, check its reliability-read maintenance histories of model lines or engines as well as any idiosyncrasies that might be common knowledge among current owners. If the reviews say the bike is notorious for rattles or leaks, then maybe you should move on.

The Delphi forums (under Motor Transport) are a great resource, as is Epinions (under Motorcycles), though the latter isn't as comprehensive.

If you're checking strictly for price, NADA Guides is the place to go.Kelley Blue Book also has a Motorcycle Values tab that's a good alternative, although it's not as intuitive or comprehensive.

C. Seal the Deal
At this point, maybe a few bikes still fit your criteria. Narrow it down further by visiting a couple of dealerships. Get multiple bids from different dealers. By now, you should have a good idea of the average selling price for the models-useful for some leverage. The more flexible you can be about specifics-such as paint or installed options-the wider the range of the bikes you can choose from. Ultimately, the ability to consider several versions of the same model can give you additional bargaining power.

Buying during the winter is often a smart move because sales are slow and dealers are trying to get rid of last year's stock.

Test rides are crucial, and if you can score one, by all means do so-even if you're not sure the bike you'll be test-riding is the one you'll end up with. It's a good idea to do all your tests in one morning or afternoon. Riding bikes back to back will help you uncover even minor differences, which makes for a more educated purchase decision.

So, now you're ready to whip out the wallet and pay cash, right? Or not-most of us just don't have that much cash laying around. In some cases, you can take advantage of incentives like rebates or low-interest financing. But don't just take the financing at the dealership; check for better rates from your local bank or credit union.

Got that? OK, now you can sign the papers, thumb the starter and hit the road.

Part II - Read Your Dealer

The Aug. '07 issue, we walked you through the nuts and bolts of buying a bike. That article addressed everything from filling out paperwork to adjusting levers but neglected to cover one of the most important aspects of any motorcycle purchase, namely establishing a good working relationship with your dealership. For this issue, we aim to rectify that oversight by sitting down with three different dealer principals. Our conversation uncovered the mistakes customers make, what every customer has a right to expect from the dealership and, similarly, what the dealership expects in return.

To ensure candor, no names or locations are mentioned, just general descriptions of the shops' demographics and product lines.

Shop No. 1 is a large Harley-Davidson/Buell dealership, selling 500-600 bikes a year in an area with both affluent and blue-collar customers.

Shop No. 2 is a moderate-sized multiline dealership, carrying Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki motorcycles. The majority of its customers are young sportbike or off-road riders, but it sells a fair amount of cruisers as well.

Shop No. 3 is a Eurocentric "destination" dealership, carrying BMW, Ducati and MV Augusta, catering to riders who are, for the most part, extremely well heeled.

All three are successful, professionally run operations that enjoy good reputations and have loyal customer bases. All of them emphasized that without a strong repeat customer base they'd be out of business. Their answers go a long way toward explaining what it takes to make the dealership/customer relationship a good one.

MCC-When it comes to buying a new bike, what's the typical customer's biggest mistake?
The single biggest mistake most customers make is to focus solely on price, and pit one dealership against another simply to save a buck. As Dealer No. 2 explained, "We need at least a 10 percent profit on new-bike sales to provide good service and to stay in business. If I slash prices (on new bikes), I have to make up the loss somewhere else. If a guy is blowing out bikes at cost, he can't possibly provide the same level of service I can." He added, "If a customer buys his bike elsewhere to save a few bucks and then comes here for warranty work, we'll be happy to do it, but our customers come first, so he'll be at the back of the line."

Dealer No. 3 said that the second biggest mistake customers make is to focus on one model. In many cases, they're reluctant to discuss their needs with the salespeople. "Often a potential customer picks the wrong bike for his needs, based on a magazine article or what his friends are riding. Too many guys come in to buy a 1098, when what they really will have the most fun riding is a Multistrada or even a GS BMW. They buy the wrong bike and then lose interest, so they miss out on the fun and we lose a customer."

MCC-What should the customer expect from the dealership?
Besides a certain level of competency, every customer should be treated with respect, courtesy and, above all, honesty from every member of a dealership's staff. But as our H-D dealer pointed out, don't expect miracles. If you show up on a Saturday when the showroom is packed, chances are you're going to be cooling your heels for a while. But, he added, when it is your turn, you're entitled to the salesperson's (or any other employee's) undivided attention.

MCC-Conversely, what does the dealership expect from the customer?
For starters, dealers would like you to be completely honest. If you're not ready to buy, let them know. Salespeople are paid on commission, so while asking questions is fine, spending an hour leading them to believe you're serious when you aren't takes them away from other customers and reduces their income.

Secondly, good dealerships welcome feedback. If you're unhappy, politely let the owner know and give him a chance to rectify the situation. Going away mad doesn't solve your problem, and if he doesn't know what went wrong, chances are good it'll happen again.

MCC-What constitutes a "problem customer"?
We expected this question to open up a floodgate, but our dealers-to a man-insisted that 99.9 percent of their customers were fair, reasonable people. When pressed, they described a problem customer as someone who has unrealistic expectations or assumes he'll be given some sort of special treatment.

Interestingly, Dealer No. 1 opined that a problem customer is one who refuses to have his bike serviced according to the manufacturer's schedule. This dealer felt that too many of his customers didn't have maintenance done on a regular basis, and then complained when their bikes failed to run properly, or they were hit with bills for repairs that wouldn't have been necessary if the bike had been serviced in a timely manner.

MCC-The flip side of that question would be: At what point do you decide a customer is more trouble than he's worth?
The consensus was that it's always case by case. But dealerships definitely don't feel the love when the customer lies, is disruptive or misrepresents facts. Warning flags also go up when a potential buyer walks through the door badmouthing another dealership. In all cases, the bottom line is this: If you can't turn a profit on a customer, there's not much point in wasting a lot of time on him. This may seem cynical, but dealers do exist to make a profit and the door won't stay open long if they can't. So, if you're obnoxious and cheap, you can expect the brush. (As a postscript, Dealer No. 2 told us that when a customer comes in with an attitude, he likes to see if he can change his mind. "It's a challenge, but if you can turn the guy around, you might end up with a great customer.")

Five Points
A few simple suggestions should make your next dealership experience that much better.

1. Treat the staff with the same courtesy and respect that you expect to receive from them.
2. Be open to suggestion-a professional salesperson should be able to help you pick a bike that'll best suit your needs.
3. If at any point in the negotiations you feel uncomfortable either with the deal or the dealership, step back and catch your breath. If the issues can't be resolved, shake hands, walk away and find a shop where you feel more comfortable.
4. If you want to negotiate price, by all means do so-that's part of the fun. But don't ask a dealer to give you a rock-bottom price on a current and popular model unless you like being disappointed.
5. If there's a problem after the sale, try and resolve it amicably. More drastic measures can be taken if you reach a dead end.

Facts and figures
Honda has 1200 (give or take a few) dealerships in the United States. Harley-Davidson has 684 U.S. dealerships.

Part III - Insurance

Whether you're buying one of the shiny, new bikes in this issue's 2008 Buyer's Guide or a well-kept used bike, you need insurance.

Think about this: The Insurance Research Council reports that in 2004, nearly 15 percent of drivers were uninsured, with some states having 25 percent or more uninsured drivers. A report by the AAA Foundation shows that unlicensed drivers (no license, revoked or invalid) were five times more likely than licensed drivers to be involved in fatal crashes (and were unlikely to have insurance). It's risky enough out there for us motorcyclists, but against those odds, it's foolish to go without insurance-and almost every state requires you to carry it, anyway.

You need coverage from the moment you finish signing the transfer of ownership documents and fork over the money for your newly purchased motorcycle. Fortunately, insurance companies can provide a "binder" that activates your coverage, starting the policy on the date you request. The binder is usually sent by e-mail or fax; these days, nearly every company has the capability to provide a quote and binder on weekends, too.

Insurance Policy Coverage Basics
The key elements of insurance coverage:First, you must have liability coverage for bodily injury and property damage. It comes in to play when you cause an accident and injure other people and property. It does not cover your own injuries or motorcycle damage.

Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (both bodily injury and property damage) is your protection against the irresponsibility of others. If another motorist injures you or damages your motorcycle, the odds are about 1 in 5 that they will either be completely uninsured or have such low coverage limits that your damages won't be fully reimbursed. This coverage, which you pay for, protects you in just such circumstances.

Comprehensive coverage covers your loss by theft and damage caused by flood, fire or animals.

Collision coverage covers your vehicle loss or damage for accidents you cause, accidents caused by another and accidents caused by circumstances where no one is left to take responsibility (like gravel or a fluid spill in the road).

Let's look at two typical examples to see how it all works. The rates were obtained from real quotes from five large insurance companies.

Bob Smith is 25 years old and has been a licensed motorcyclist for three years. He took a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course, has one speeding ticket, is single, is a renter in Glendale, California, and commutes to work, riding about 5000 miles per year. He owns a 2004 Yamaha V-Star 1100 Custom. As a young person with no family and few assets, Bob felt comfortable getting lower coverage limits of $15,000/$30,000/$10,000 liability (per person/all persons per incident/property damage), un/underinsured motorist coverage of $15,000/$30,000 and comprehensive and collision with a $500 deductible (meaning in the event of loss or damage, Bob is responsible for the first $500). The rates ranged from $802 to $1941 per year.

John Doe is 46 years old and has been a licensed motorcyclist for 11 years. He's married, has a clean driving record over the last five years, owns his home in Glendale and rides for pleasure, about 5000 miles per year. He bought a 2008 Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Nomad. Because John has a family, a home and more personal assets, he chose higher coverage limits of $100,000/$300,000/$50,000 for liability, $100,000/$300,000 un/underinsured motorist coverage and the same $500 deductible for comprehensive and collision coverage. His rate quotes ranged from $675 to $1708 per year.

The range of rates is pretty dramatic, but actually quite typical. The point is that it pays to shop around. However, just like with a motorcycle, you shouldn't buy insurance strictly on price. Examine things like a company's claims history, complaint history and availability if you're involved in an accident.

There aren't many things you can do to lower your insurance rate, but one of the best ways is to take an MSF riding course. Most companies give a discount for three years or longer that will more than justify the cost of the course, and the course will improve your riding skills.

A note about motorcycle value: Motorcycle insurance policies vary as to what is covered in the event of loss or damage, whether it's just the motorcycle or also accessories attached to the motorcycle. Ask the agent and read the policy carefully. We've seen policies that cover no accessories, $2000 worth and even as much as $7000 worth at no extra charge. If you've ladled on $10,000 worth of parts, you'll want to price the extra cost for covering them.

When comparing rate quotes, make sure they have identical coverage limits, and be truthful-insurance companies will access databases with your driving history, and if it turns out you have lied on something material-whether you've had accidents, for instance-they may simply ask you to pay the difference, but they can also terminate your coverage for cause. Finally, make sure you always carry proof of insurance either in your wallet or under the seat.