Inspecting a Used Bike

"Money's tight, times are hard, a brand-new bike just ain't in the cards"

Know what to look for!
Know what to look for!Cruiser

Things are tough all over, and if your financial situation is anything like mine, buying a new bike may not be the best way to dispose of what’s left of your disposable income —especially after you’ve blown most of it on luxuries like food, shelter and clothing. A better alternative may be something euphemistically known as a pre-owned motorcycle.

Consider this: In the U.S. the average motorcycle is ridden fewer than 2500 miles a year. In most cases that means a 10-year-old bike will have clocked fewer than 30,000 miles, and there are plenty that have turned less than half that.

Buying any used bike involves a degree of risk, especially if you unwittingly buy something that’s been “rid hard and put up wet.” Purchasing through a dealership is one way to protect yourself. Most offer at least a limited warranty on used bikes, and in some cases your new ride may even come with the remainder of the factory warranty to protect you. But dealers do command a premium, assuming they even have what you want in stock.

The alternative is to buy privately, and in that case it’s your responsibility to make sure the bike is in good mechanical nick.

Inspecting a used bike can get pretty involved, especially when you don’t do it on a regular basis, but as always your friends at Motorcycle Cruiser can help. That’s why we’ve condensed all the information you’ll need to inspect a pre-owned motorcycle into a handy-dandy checklist, complete with color illustrations.

Because we’ve covered all the technical blather in past issues, this list concentrates on what you need to check, as opposed to the 1-2-3 of actually checking it. You can find that info under the tech section at motorcyclecruiser.com or by e-mailing me directly. Feel free to make as many copies as you need, but don’t tell the lawyers I said so.

What to Take

  • CASH: You'll need at least enough to give the seller a deposit.
  • SMALL FLASHLIGHT: Handy for peering into the dark recesses.
  • KNOWLEDGEABLE FRIEND: If he's not so knowledgeable bring him anyway; a little moral support or a cool head is always handy.
  • PRICE GUIDE: Though not a strict necessity, knowing the market value of the bike you're looking at always comes in handy. If you can't find what you need at your local Barnes & Noble, try Googling ("used bike prices" works), ask your local dealership what Blue Book for the thing is, or go to kbb.com.
  • NOTEBOOK AND PEN: For the obvious reasons.

Maintenance Records

A verifiable service history is a real bonus. In this day and age mileage in and of itself isn’t that great an indicator of a bike’s condition. A bike with 20K on it whose owner can’t remember the last time it was serviced may not be as a good a value as the same model with 30K or even 50K on it that’s been meticulously maintained. In my experience the fact that the owner is conscientious enough to keep service records speaks for itself.

Major Components

Inspecting someone else’s motorcycle up close and personal takes a certain amount of diplomacy. Some guys are resentful, others take it in stride, but at the very least the seller should let you make a basic mechanical inspection of the bike.

Make sure the following is up to snuff
Make sure the following is up to snuffCruiser

First Impressions

A good used bike doesn’t have to look like it just rolled off the showroom floor, but it should at least be moderately clean and cosmetically decent.

Overall Condition of the motorcycle: Is it good, bad, or indifferent?

  • PAPERWORK: Make sure the owner has a title or valid bill of sale and registration and that all the numbers match. If something's amiss and his explanation sounds like a fish story, you'll definitely want to pass, no matter how stellar the deal.
  • PAINT: Look for chips, scrapes, dents and dings.
  • SEAT: Any rips or tears? Check the seams along the lower edge of the seat. Make sure hinges, locks and latches operate properly.
  • FUEL TANK: Check the exterior for signs of damage and the interior for rust. If there's a petcock it should work smoothly and shouldn't leak.
  • HANDLEBARS, GRIPS AND CONTROLS: Bars should be straight, and controls should operate smoothly. Check lever ends and bar-end weights and grips for signs of damage from tipovers.
  • MIRRORS: El cheapo aftermarket mirrors often mean the bike was crashed.
  • BODYWORK INCLUDING FAIRINGS, WINDSHIELDS AND BAGS: Look for scuffs, cracks and loose or missing hardware.
  • FRONT AND REAR FENDERS: Check for signs of damage.
  • MISSING HARDWARE: Look for loose, missing or damaged nuts, bolts and cotter pins.
  • FOOTPEGS/FLOORBOARDS: Some scraping is always permissible, but signs of crash damage aren't.
Some important engine components that shouldn't be overlooked
Some important engine components that shouldn't be overlookedCourtesy of Honda

Engine

Because engine problems are always deal-breakers I like to vet the engine before I waste a lot of time looking over the rest of the bike.

  • OIL LEVEL AND CONDITION: The condition may be hard to assess, especially if you're checking it through the sight glass. Don't be bashful—ask the owner when it was last changed.
  • EASE OF STARTING: Some engines just start harder than others, but unless special circumstances are involved the engine should turn over without laboring and start within a few cranks.
  • IDLE: A cold engine should idle on the choke; a warm one should idle at the recommended rpm without loping or misfiring.
  • THROTTLE RESPONSE: The engine should respond smoothly to the throttle without hiccupping, coughing or sputtering.
  • SMOKE: Some wispy white smoke is normal during warm-up, particularly when the engine and ambient air temperatures are ice-cold. Thick black or blue smoke is never a good sign, and it's a really bad sign if it increases as the bike warms up. Heavy dark smoke may be indicative of an overly rich mixture or an engine that's burning oil. Heavy white smoke usually means coolant is entering the combustion chamber.
  • FLUID LEAKS: Check for external oil, fuel and coolant leaks.
  • EXHAUST: Blued head pipes are only a cosmetic issue, but severe rust, rot or big dents are omens of impending pipe replacement.
  • NOISE: In the main there shouldn't be any odd rattles, bangs or wheezing, but noises are tough to diagnose. Some perfectly healthy bikes sound like threshing machines. If there's any doubt, pass or have a qualified mechanic take a listen for you.
And of course chassis, wheels, brakes, and electrical
And of course chassis, wheels, brakes, and electricalCruiser

Chassis

  • FRAME: Check for signs of repair or crash damage.
  • STEERING HEAD: Check the steering head bearings for signs of denting, or improper adjustment.
  • FORKS: Check for signs of physical damage.
  • FORK SEALS: Check for leaks.
  • FORK ALIGNMENT: The forks should be parallel to each other and aligned with the handlebars.
  • FORK ACTION: The forks should operate smoothly in both directions without binding or sticking.
  • SWINGARM: Look for signs of physical damage. Make certain the rear wheel is centered and square to the swingarm. Check the bushings/bearings for excess play.
  • LINKAGE: Check for wear at pivot points, loose or missing hardware and physical damage.
  • SPRINGS: Should at least support the weight of the rider and passenger without bottoming out.
  • MOUNTING HARDWARE: Make sure it's all there and in reasonably good condition.
  • REAR SHOCKS: These should operate smoothly in both directions; check for leaks.

Wheels/Tires

  • FRONT WHEEL: Look for missing, bent or broken spokes; check for worn bearings; check trueness.
  • FRONT TIRE: Check tread depth, sidewall condition and pressure.
  • REAR WHEEL: Look for missing, bent or broken spokes; check for worn bearings; check trueness.
  • ALIGNMENT : Take a look at the tire alignment. This takes some practice, but wheels that are grossly out of line are pretty obvious. If there are other signs of crash damage (even repaired crash damage) and the wheels look out of kilter you may be looking at a tweaked frame.

Brakes

  • FRONT MASTER CYLINDER: Check fluid level and condition. Lever feel should be firm when squeezed.
  • FRONT HOSES: Check for chafing and overall condition. Make sure they're properly secured and there are no leaks.
  • FRONT CALIPER: Check for leaks, and make sure all mounting hardware is there.
  • FRONT PADS: Check the wear indicators; most manufacturers recommend a minimum pad thickness of 1.5–2.0mm.
  • REAR MASTER CYLINDER: Check fluid and pedal travel.
  • REAR HOSES: Check routing and condition.
  • REAR PADS: Check wear indicators.
  • REAR DRUM BRAKE: Check wear indicator* and adjustment.

*Drum brakes normally have wear indicators on the actuating arm, but it’s not unknown for guys to reposition the arm on the brake shaft rather than replace the rear brakes when they’re worn.

Ninety-nine percent of the time there’ll be a punch mark on the brake shaft that’s meant to line up with the slit in the brake lever or with a datum mark, and it never hurts to check that.

Electrical/Lighting

  • BATTERY: The battery may be difficult to examine physically. If the bike turns over easily you can assume it's in half-decent condition.
  • STARTER: As above.
  • KILL SWITCH: Flick it and see what happens.
  • KICKSTAND SAFETY SWITCH: Make sure the engine dies if the bike is placed in gear with the stand down.
  • CLUTCH/NEUTRAL INTERLOCK SWITCH
  • (if present): Ditto.
  • WIRING HARNESS: Look for any signs of obvious damage. Unless you pull half the bike apart it's impossible to fully examine the wiring harness, but at least check the area around the steering head and under the seat and shine your flashlight under the tank. A big cloud of smoke and a shower of sparks when you turn the key is always a bad thing.
  • CHARGING SYSTEM: If there's no charge indicator, start the bike and let it idle; turn on the high-beam, a turn signal and a brake light. When you rev the engine the headlight should brighten. This isn't a very accurate test, but it will give you an indication as to whether or not the charging system is working.
  • HEADLIGHTS: Check high/low-beam and indicator (flasher if so equipped).

Check that each of these is functioning:

  • TAILLIGHT/RUNNING LIGHTS
  • FRONT AND REAR BRAKE LIGHTS
  • TURN SIGNALS AND INDICATOR (and self-canceling feature if it's there)
  • INDICATOR AND INSTRUMENT LIGHTS
  • HORN
  • ACCESSORY LIGHTS
  • SOUND SYSTEM
  • INSTRUMENTS

Road Test

Some things just can’t be checked when the bike is stationary. I recently looked at a very nice motorcycle that passed every point on the checklist. The only problem was that it jumped out of third gear. It’s a serious issue and one I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t ridden the bike. When I mentioned it to the seller he just smiled and said, “Oh, yeah, it’s been doing that.” The problem is that in this day and age a road test might not be that easy to come by. If it comes to a test ride I’d suggest asking very nicely and offering up enough of a deposit to show you’re serious. At the very least the seller should be willing to run you around the block a time or two. If the owner consents to a road test, remember you’re on someone else’s bike—you can find out all you need to know without riding it like you stole it.

  • CLUTCH: The clutch should engage smoothly and shouldn't slip.
  • TRANSMISSION: Although every bike has its own idiosyncrasies, in the main the tranny shouldn't whine or howl, it should shift positively and under no circumstances should it jump out of gear.
  • TRACKING: The bike should go straight with only light handlebar pressure.
  • HANDLING: This is largely subjective, but as a rule of thumb if you're not happy with it now, chances are good you'll be miserable later on.
  • ENGINE PERFORMANCE: Intrusive vibration, odd noises under load and a lack of performance are all cause for concern. In short, the engine should run sweetly, pull with authority and sound like it's in good shape.
  • GRIN FACTOR: A bike can pass all the other tests with flying colors. But if it doesn't make you smile when you ride it, pass. Somewhere out there is a bike that'll make you grin like a Cheshire cat every time you ride it, and half the fun is searching for it.

Good to Know

Although we’re primarily concerned with cruisers here, one thing I’d caution you to watch for, particularly if you’re looking at a sportbike, is safety-wire holes drilled in things like the brake caliper bolt or oil drain plug. If they’re there the bike has been on the racetrack, so make sure you know what you’re getting into.