How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

Tips on buying a used bike

Buying used motorcycle
Buying a used motorcycle may cause some hesitations in this "new is good, old is bad" consumer society, but there are positives to buying a ride that has been loved a little before.Cruiser

In our "new is good, old is bad" consumer culture, it's almost considered a lack of social grace to buy anything used. Even when the subject is motorcycles, a large faction insists that new is the only way to go. For one thing, you get a warranty, and for another, you're not buying someone else's headache. But concentrating on what you don't get with a used bike ignores what you do get—a cheaper buy-in and lower insurance rates, which add up to reduced operating costs over the life of the bike. If you pick a popular model, parts are cheap and readily available through salvage yards. Warranties are nice, but today's bikes are far more reliable than those of days gone by, and if you choose your used wheels with care to begin with, you might never miss a warranty. And while the joy of the new soon wears off, the satisfaction of a really good deal continues for mile after mile.

Take Your Pick
Before you start shopping for a used bike, you need to decide what you're looking for. There are two ways to go about it. If you're interested in, say, a Kawasaki Vulcan, then look for Vulcans and ignore everything else. But, if you begin your search with a list of what you want from a bike—a big-inch V-twin, with saddlebags and roomy seating for you and your sweetie—the possibilities open up, and your list of candidates grows, making it more likely the bike of your dreams won't remain just a dream.

Another detail to work out ahead of time is how much money you can afford to spend, which is not necessarily the same thing as how much you want to spend. Don't forget to factor in post-purchase necessities such as insurance and license fees. If you're smart you'll divert a few bucks toward replacing things like tires, chains and other items that might not be in the best of shape. Plus, the purchase of accessories (a windscreen, saddlebags) to suit your riding style.

Reading Between the Lines
No matter where you look for a used bike (the newspaper, specialty publications like Cycle Trader, the Internet), ads give you valuable clues about the condition of the bike, and the attitude of the seller. "Needs work" is obvious—how much work, and how much it'll cost is another matter. It could be a broken taillight lens, or a broken crankshaft. Don't forget to factor in the cost of necessary parts and labor—yours or a shop's—into the asking price.

“Rare” and “collector’s item” are equally loaded terms. A bike can be rare because it was good and there weren’t many made, or because it wasn’t very good and no one bought it. Either way, parts might be scarce. Any bike worth collecting—in the sense that the longer you keep it the more it’s worth—probably shouldn’t be ridden, making it a poor choice if you want a bike to do more than take up space in your garage.

how to buy a used bike
Do your research when buying the bike, make sure that is the model and year that you want and when you do find the deal you like make sure you get some background on that particular bike.Cruiser

Some ads are a little more specific, noting a "new battery" or other new parts. A new battery can mean the bike sat for a long time before the owner decided to sell it. Long periods of storage can result in other problems, like gummed-up carbs, rust in the gas tank or old tires with cracked sidewalls, all of which you'll want to ask about before you look at the bike. If an ad says "new chain," find out if the owner put on new sprockets at the same time. Putting a new chain on old, worn sprockets guarantees a shorter life for both.

When it comes to the price, “OBO” (or best offer) is what you’re looking for. This says the owner is willing to negotiate. Most sellers price bikes a little higher than what they’re willing to let them go for, just as most buyers initially offer a little less than they’re willing to spend. This kind of horse trading gives both the buyer and seller room to haggle and arrive at what each thinks is a fair price. But “firm” after a price often indicates an unwillingness to compromise. This take-it-or-leave-it attitude can make other aspects of the deal a lot more frustrating than with a more agreeable seller.

Do Your Homework
Before you see a bike, call and get some background on it. Ask about the fenders, tank, seat, tires, chain, fork seals and other details, so you won't encounter any nasty surprises later. Next, ask how long the seller has owned the bike, why it's for sale, how often it was serviced and by which company and if it's had any major problems. Most people you deal with are honest and will tell you just about anything once you get them talking.

Find out a little about the seller, too. Knowledgeable riders often take better care of their bikes, and have more realistic notions of their bike’s strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t to say someone who doesn’t know the bore and stroke of every bike ever made is trying to sell you a lemon. But a bike that’s been cared for by an enthusiast usually will be in better shape and last longer than one ridden by someone not as interested in bikes, other than looking cool.

You also can get a head start on the negotiations by feeling out the owner on the asking price. Even a seller advertising OBO might not be willing to bend more than $50. This is good to know before you invest a lot of time and energy.

Seeing Is Believing
If you like everything you've heard over the phone, it's time to look at the bike. Take a clipboard and walk around the bike, noting anything you see that might need attention later. Are the tires worn? Are the forks straight, do they bind at some point in their travel, do the seals leak? Are the brake pads worn out? Is the brake fluid clean and the reservoir full? Put the bike on its centerstand and have someone lean on the seat to raise the front end off the ground. Check the steering head bearings for play by yanking the forks forward and backward. Turn the fork to both sides and check for binding or clicking. Make sure the lights and handlebar controls work.

Look in the gas tank for rust spots and smell the gas to see if it’s fresh. Check the engine oil level and smell the oil. A burnt odor might mean a burnt clutch. Start the engine and let it get up to operating temperature. Check for smoking, oil leaks, a ragged idle, cam chain noise or anything that doesn’t sound right—if in doubt, ask about it, and don’t accept, “Oh, they all do that,” as an explanation. Pull the swing­arm from side-to-side to check for bushing or bearing play. Check the chain and sprockets, or if it’s a shaftie, check the oil level in the transfer case and the rear housing. Make sure both wheels are true and look under the bike for rusted mufflers or oil leaks. The cost of anything that needs fixing should be factored into the price you’re willing to pay.

If you don’t feel confident that you can spot any of these problems yourself, don’t be afraid to ask if you can take the bike to a qualified mechanic. Springing for an hour of shop time now can save you thousands of dollars later.

It's a Buyer's Market
You've seen the bike, it checks out, you're sold—almost. Now is the time to dicker over the price. Remember, it's a buyer's market, and if you don't get this bike, you'll get another one sooner or later. If you have an emotional stake in closing a deal, hell or high water, you're more likely to do something you'll regret—offering more than the bike is worth, or settling for one with more problems than you really want to deal with.

Buying a used bike is part art and part science, with a little luck thrown in. Do your research, take your time and you’ll end up with a deal so sweet you won’t miss that new-bike smell. Anyway, every new bike becomes a used one before long. The trick is to let someone else pay for turning it into one.