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The used bike-buying checklist

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OK, you trawled eBay/craigslist/the classifieds section in the Sunday paper, found a bike, and you’ve got a wad of cash in your pocket. Now what the hell do you do?!

Here’s a handy-dandy checklist. Just follow it and you'll avoid most of the idiotic mistakes I have made over the course of purchasing more than a hundred bikes.

Before you call/email/text the seller

More tips for buying a used motorcycle: What to look for mechanically and how to haggle.

Figure out how you’re getting it home. If the bike is a runner and you can get a plate (or transfer one off a bike you already own), riding is an option and you just need a lift. If you don’t have a license or cannot do same-day plates, you need a transport vehicle, like a pickup or a trailer. (You probably also want to bring along a buddy who can ride it for you if you are not licensed.) Plan on bringing equipment to secure your bike to the transport vehicle. Also find out from the motor vehicles government agency in your area what items are necessary to legally buy a bike. Most states require a minimum of a signed title, proof of insurance (which you will not need the seller for) and your license. Other states have requirements like a notarized bill of sale and perhaps proof of a safety inspection. Do your homework!

Bike on a trailer

Once you're ready to call, have your calendar handy so you can set a date and keep it. The seller has to take time out of his day to show it to you. Make sure you set up a time, day, and meeting spot.

  • Line up a buddy for either transportation or to do your test ride
  • Figure out your options to legally move the bike home
  • Acquire a bike transport vehicle if necessary
  • Call the DMV/BMV find out what is needed to transfer ownership of the bike
  • Make sure you have a date, time, and location for the transaction

Sometimes people have legitimate concerns about safety, showing up to meet a stranger while carrying a wad of cash. There are steps to deal with that, but that's another topic, so do a search if you're concerned. I’m a bike guy, not a safety guy.

Before you leave

Make sure you have the things you need, or you'll likely be making more than one trip. If you're traveling far to find your dream bike, that could be costly in time and money.

  • Bring a license plate if legally transferable
  • Bring a license (or licensed friend) and your bill of sale (read on, we have one for you!)
  • Bring gear for you or remind your riding friend to bring his
  • Bring the truck! (and maybe a trailer)
  • Bring tiedowns and Canyon Dancers if you are moving a bike with plastics
  • Bring the name, address, and phone number of seller
  • Bring payment

Tell the seller to leave the bike cold. Hard starting and running problems are much easier to mask on a bike that’s been run. Feel the pipes when you get there to ascertain that the bike was not running recently. Be suspicious of a seller who doesn't follow your instructions.

VIN HEADSTOCK

Once you arrive

Examine the title first. Don’t do a thing ‘til you verify the title and VIN on the headstock match. Modern bikes all have a 17-digit VIN near the neck. Older stuff has different numbers and locations. Do your homework to make sure you’re buying something legit. Also, be aware that re-stamped bikes exist. Make sure the title has no liens on it. Also be leery of a duplicate title. It’s not necessarily problematic, but the seller should have a good explanation for it.

Tire DOT codesNext, look over the bike. Short of giving model-specific information, some basic checks should tell you a lot of things you want to know. Get down on your knees and check the bike’s underside for leaks. (Or recently sopped up leaks that an unscrupulous seller may try to hide.) Check the tire date codes. (See this article for info on how to do that.) Examine the clutch and brake levers for damage or bending. If they are bent, start checking the corresponding side of the bike for crash damage. Check safety items like brake operation so you don’t die on a test ride. General condition of the bike is going to tell you a lot about how it was cared for, way more than mileage. Dirty oil, a rusty chain, balky control cables, and bald tires suggest lack of maintenance.

Then, verify it was left cold and ask the seller to start it up. Bikes can run a little oddly when they are first fired up, but it should smooth out within a minute or two. If the bike doesn’t sound right, lower your price appropriately or perhaps consider a different bike if you’re not familiar with what is wrong. Doing some research beforehand can help you estimate the repair costs: knowing, for example, how much you'll have to pay if the tires, chain and sprockets or brake pads need replacement.

I think the most important step for first-time buyers is to make sure it’s comfortable! Really sit and assess how you feel on the bike.

After that, bargain. Once you strike a deal, then take it for a test ride if you know how. (Or have that goon of a buddy you brought with you take it for a spin.) The reason you need to pay first is that most sellers are not going to let you just take off on their motorcycle, given that they are pretty easily stolen. If you both figure out a price and the seller is holding onto your wad of greenbacks, he’ll be much more likely to give you or your licensed friend the keys. If you don’t know how something works, ask before you roll away! Crashing usually means you just bought yourself a freshly crashed bike.

Use our handy bill of sale, and ascertain that the seller has signed the title in the correct spots. Pay attention here! Signatures in the wrong spots can render the title invalid, necessitating the procurement of a duplicate, which can take weeks!

  • Match the VIN on the bike to the VIN on the title
  • Check the bike for gross leaks or safety issues
  • Check when the tires were manufactured
  • Check for crash damage
  • Make sure basic safety items are working
  • Assess overall condition of the bike
  • Sit on the bike and make sure it fits you
  • Start it up and make sure it fires easily and runs well
  • Haggle and hand the seller money
  • Take a test ride or have a buddy do it for you
  • Make up a bill of sale and sign the title

Pipe

Before you return home

Load up the bike, title, and extras, like parts, helmets, or anything else the seller threw in.

  • If you’re not riding, load up the bike and secure it (We have info on that, too!)
  • If you are riding, affix your plate or temp tag
  • Load up any extras
  • Make sure you have the title, bill of sale, and anything else you brought that requires the seller’s signature

Happy hunting!

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