With brand new motorcycles costing ridiculous amounts these days, secondhand bikes are becoming more and more desirable. Chances are if you buy a secondhand bike, you won’t only save money, but if you only keep it three or four years, you’re most likely to be able to make back your money when you sell it. Other benefits include the fact that it will already be run in and you might even get some free upgrades thrown in like an aftermarket exhaust that you didn’t have to sell a lung for.
The goal is to find a bike that has low mileage, anything under 25,000 or 15,000 miles in my opinion, and that has been taken care of very well. There are lots of things to look at that can give you an idea of what the bike’s life has been like. It’s impossible to cover everything, but with more experience with motorcycles, the more you will pick up on. So this checklist’s intentions are to try and give you a few good things to look at and do when buying a used motorcycle so that your chances of getting ripped off can be reduced.
If your state has a state safety and/or emissions inspection¹, does the bike have a current inspection sticker or certification? If the motorcycle doesn’t have a certification when was the last time it passed safety or emission inspection.
2. Is the bike currently ridden on a regular basis?
The longer the bike has been sitting without being ridden, the more likely that the bike will have problems associated with sitting. Specifically, carburation problems². The more cylinders the bike has, the more likely that any carb problems it has may be expensive to correct.
3. Is the bike stock?
The closer the bike is to stock, the less likely you are to have problems with poorly installed accessories or performance equipment.
4. Has the bike been crashed?
Look for scratches and scrapes on the underside of the exhaust pipes, the outside edges of the undersides of the brake pedal, shift lever, and footpegs. These items are less likely to be replaced in a low-side crash than other, more prominently visible items that are easily damaged. Still, check these as well. Things such as turn signals, bar-end weights, brake and clutch levers, and grabrails and engine case guards.
Even if the bike has no evidence of being crashed, ask straight out if it has been crashed. If the person is trying to cover something up, don’t make it easy for them. Force them to lie outright if they’re going to lie. Sometimes people will admit it if you are specific, but will never say anything if you don’t ask.
If you suspect that the bike has been crashed and repaired, regardless of the price, have it checked out by a mechanic before you
5. Has the bike been garaged?
Bikes parked outdoors suffer cosmetically. If you’re buying a $2,000 bike, this isn’t a huge issue, but if you’re spending $7,000 you probably don’t want a bike that’s been outdoors all its life unless it’s less than a year or two old.
6. Older bikes often have bad steering head bearings and, slightly less likely, bad swingarm bushings.
You can check both of these yourself³. Put the bike on its center stand, and have someone hold down the back of the bike. Turn the handlebars all the way back and forth, slowly. If there’s a “catch” or a “self-centering” or “notch” feeling right at the center of the bar’s travel, you’ve got bad steering head bearings that will need to be replaced. Now hold down the front end of the bike to get the back wheel in the air. Grab the back wheel and tire at the very back of the bike (even with the swingarm). Try to move the while from side to side. If you get more than about 2-3 mm of movement, you probably have bad swingarm bushings or bearings that will need to be replaced.
7. Hidden costs
Other things that don’t get properly attended on many older bikes offered for sale are tires, chain and sprockets, and batteries. If you have to replace all of these in the first couple of months of ownership, it can easily add $500 to the price of the bike, perhaps making a $1,500 “bargain” into not so much of a bargain.
The tires should have plenty of treads, no cracking or crazing of the sidewalls, and when you run your hand over the front tire, you shouldn’t feel much if any “scalloping” or “waves” in the tread. If the profile of the rear tire is noticeably flat across the center of the tread, even if there’s tread left, you’re probably going to need a new rear tire soon. The larger and heavier the bike, the sooner you’ll need it.
The chain should be good and greasy if it’s been lubed properly. It should not have dry spots and/or rust on it. The sprockets should not have “fishhook” shaped teeth. The chain should not pull easily away from the sprocket.
The bike should start easily while STONE cold, with a quickly turning starter motor if the battery, is in good shape. Ask how old the battery is. Ask to see a receipt for the battery if the seller installed the battery during his/her term of ownership.
8. Ask for a test drive
If all of the above looks and sounds good, ask if you can ride the bike. Plenty of people won’t let anyone test ride their bikes. My philosophy is to let them sell their bike to someone with a similar philosophy. I’ve bought and sold about 11 bikes over the past 14 years, the only ones I haven’t test ridden have come in a collection of boxes. Everyone who has ever bought a bike from me has been offered a test ride if they could produce a valid license and didn’t mind me leading the ride.
When you are riding the bike, look for the controls to operate smoothly and without binding, catching, or being abrupt or hard to operate. Look for the bike to return to a smooth idle whenever he stops. Also, check it to pull smoothly and consistently through ALL the gears. Make sure it stops smoothly with no pulsating through the front brake lever or rear brake pedal. You should make stops using just the front brake, just the rear brake, and both brakes. Slow the bike under engine braking to make sure it slows smoothly with no backfiring or hiccups. You should ride the bike through a series of various speed turns and make sure the bike holds a selected line and exhibits no tendency to wobble or weave. Stop several times while the motorcycle is completely warmed up, turn off the engine, and re-start the engine to make sure it restarts easily when hot.
9. Look under the bike after it’s been ridden.
Check for any fresh oil leaks, drips, or seepage. If it’s liquid-cooled, do the same search for coolant leaks.
10. Ask for service inspection
Ask to see any maintenance records available with the bike. Even if you don’t think you need someone else to check the bike out, ask if the owner would mind if you wanted to have it checked out (at your expense, of course.) I wouldn’t buy the bike even if everything else looked good if the owner objected to third-party inspection.
I’m sure there are many other things I’ve left out, but these are some of the things I check whenever I buy a used bike. So far, I’ve had never been burned. Good luck, and let me know how things turn out!