Skip to Main Content
Search Suggestions
Common Tread

Don't get burned: Tips for buying a used motorcycle

Mar 29, 2016

I have owned many bikes. I’m over the triple-digit mark by a long shot. I’ve been able to do that by buying really nice bikes for fair prices. Then I am able to resell them without taking a loss.

I recognize not everyone wants to be a used-bike mogul, so knowing how to avoid a bike that's a turd can be a bit more difficult for people who actually spend rational amounts of income on motorcycles. That's where this guide comes in. It's not comprehensive, but some of the items in here might save you from ending up with a junker. (And if a junker is what you are buying, I'd like to plug my recent haggling article, so at very least you won't spend much money on crap.)

Some people are baffled by how to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to used bikes. If you are really green, remember that there's no shame in picking up a bike from a dealer. They have a vested interest in making sure the bike is in good shape! If you're hellbent on buying private party (read my checklist, if you're new to the game), generally newer is better. Maybe you're running out to look at a bike in 20 minutes, so let's start with the CliffsNotes. If the following three conditions are met, you're probably looking at a bike that's at least halfway decent. All these points are covered more thoroughly later, but here are your takeaways:

  • The bike does not appear to have crash damage
  • The bike does not appear to be leaking any fluids
  • The bike generally looks like it was cared for

Now, let's go deeper, eh?

Posident VIN numbers
Harley's Posident characters are intentionally distinctive looking to help keep unscrupulous sellers from swindling honest folks. It pays to know what you should be looking at. Harley-Davidson image.

Check the VIN

This is the starting point. The rest of this guide is useless if you're looking over a hot bike. (Stolen, not souped-up!) Physically check the numbers and make sure numbers are not re-stamped. If you’re looking at bikes that have a high theft rate, like Harley-Davidsons, you might even want to bring pictures of factory-stamped numbers along for comparison if you don’t know what “knocked-over” numbers look like. Once you’ve eyeballed that, check that the title numbers match the headstock. I have had my share of titling errors and fixes. If you can navigate the local motor vehicles bureaucracy, you can make some money on titling errors, but for most people who ain’t in the flippin’ game, title inconsistencies are a headache. Run.

Examine the bike cold

I have mentioned this tip before, and so have many of our readers, and I am fanatical about it. Especially on an older bike, I tell the seller to leave the bike cold before I get there, and I stick to it. It’s unbelievably easy to hide starting and running problems on a hot bike. Feel those jugs and the pipes to make sure that bike is ice cold! If the seller can’t get the bike started, or it sounds like a blender full of rocks for the first minute of run time, you might have some problems on your hands.

Shift Lever
Hey, that's not supposed to be bend-y. RevZilla photo.
Examine the bar ends, levers, and footpegs

These are the first things I look at. Their age should be commensurate with the bike. If they are damaged, the bike has been down. I look for rash, obviously, but levers can give away a few clues. Levers often “curl” when they hit the pavement. They might not be broken, and the seller might have buffed out the rash, but a curved appearance usually indicates damage. The same usually goes for “shorty” levers that a seller has cut and re-shaped. Most people don’t do this unless they need to replace a banged-up lever. Aftermarket lever and pegs are also a bit of a tip-off that a crash has occurred. If the seller cops to it, he may be an honest fellow who had a tipover and did his best to fix the bike. If it goes unmentioned, though, it could mean the seller is dishonest, or perhaps the bike suffered at the hands of a previous owner.

Bent lever
This curled brake lever is a sure sign of a tip-over. Further research is required. RevZilla photo.

Regardless of what equipment you find, check for additional damage. Cracked oil pans, busted fins, and tweaked handlebars all add to the cost of making a bike "right" again.

See how hard the bike was ridden

Note that I don’t think hard riding or redlining a bike is bad for it, but some folks really beat the snot out of their machines. I examine the tires. Flat, longitudinally grooved tires are indicative of burnouts. On sport machines, check the edges of the tires. If you see “pilling” (little blobs of rubber) or "feathering" (tell-tale tiny surface ripples) of the tires all the way to the edges, that’s a pretty good indicator the bike was used at the track.

Check the hero blobs, too. Those are the little indicators on the footpegs that give the rider feedback in a deep lean that they are getting close to scraping more expensive parts. If those are ground down or gone, again, the bike may have gone to the track. I don’t think that alone disqualifies a bike from consideration, but a seller who does not disclose that information may not be forthcoming about other negatives about the bike.

See if this hooptie’s ever been ripped off

Check the fork lock and ignition lock. If either one is busted — or the keys do not match — there’s an excellent chance someone went joyriding. If you already checked the title, you saw the “Salvage” designation, right? Theft recovery vehicles can and do end up on the street. That doesn’t mean the bike is necessarily junk, but recognize that the resale value is poor on these, so your offer should reflect that.

Pop the seat

Specifically, you're getting in there to look at the wiring, especially the items hooked up to the battery. If you see factory connectors and nothing looks amiss, great! But if you can see a GPS, fog lights, and two power leads hanging off the bike before you get into the guts, your spidey sense should start tingling. Once you're in there, look for electrical tape, vampire connectors, or a whole bunch of one color wire. (This happens usually because the owner was too cheap to buy multiple spools of wire in different colors!) Recognize the resulting electrical catastrophe could be both expensive and difficult to repair.

Ducati paint
Glossy paint not only makes the exterior of the bike look fantastic, but it's also often an excellent indicator of how the bike's mechanical bits have been maintained. Photo by Lemmy.
Assess the bike’s general condition

I don’t usually give a hoot about a motorcycle’s mileage. The odometer only tells one part of the bike’s story. If an owner hands you a file of receipts, that is a Very Good Thing. If the bike is generally well cared for — it has matching tires, shiny, waxed paint, and the owner has obviously replaced wear items like grips and seat covers — that’s a good indicator of what kind of bike you’re looking at. People are rarely fastidious with one part of their bike and lax with another. Usually they either love the bike or neglect it. If you see evidence of something that’s been unrepaired for a long time, it might be indicative of a bike that has other defects lurking. Similarly, a pristine owner’s manual, all the factory keys, and paperwork from aftermarket equipment with a box of OEM takeoff pieces usually point to a bike that received lavish attention.

The odometer, for me, is a very minor factor in determining a used bike's quality. Photo by Lemmy.

The flip side of this is "disrepair through disuse." Check the oil level, and the color and level of the brake fluid. (It should be pale yellow, not dark brown or black.) Check for dry cables, pitted fork tubes, leaky fork seals, and rusty chains. Leaks of all forms are usually not good. Electrical items that are inoperable, spongy brakes, and rusty fuel tanks (yep, look in there with a flashlight) will let you know you either have some work ahead of you, or need to keep looking for a better bike.

Understand what you are looking at

It’s OK to tell a seller you don’t understand a piece of equipment or a procedure. (Kicking a bike to start it or retarding a magneto are pretty personal tasks that even experienced bike buyers ask owners about.) I’ll give you some examples. If you’re going to look at a first-generation Kawasaki Concours, you should know that the cam-chain tensioners, due to the coarseness of their adjusting teeth, often let the chain become pretty loose. This manifests itself as a Connie that sounds dang noisy at startup, just clanging and clacking away like an old diesel. The noise usually abates once the bikes warm up. And guess what? It’s totally normal.

Here's another example. Harley-Davidsons, being dry-sump, allow oil past a sealing check-ball into the crankcase, especially after sitting for a period. Upon startup, they typically either lose a bunch of oil from the breather hose on an older model, or the air cleaner on a newer one. It can be very disconcerting for a buyer to see a "Harley in great shape" barfing up what looks like a whole quart of oil from the engine, but that’s totally normal too.

I mention this because not everything that looks weird means a seller is out to screw you. If you don’t do your homework, you may pass up a chance to put a wonderful bike in your garage. Knowledge rarely hurts.

Go ride it — after a pre-ride check

This is a two-pronged recommendation. First, there really is no reason why a test ride cannot happen. If you’re willing to put the full amount of the bike in cash in the seller’s hand, he has nothing to lose but a sale. When dealing with really skittish folks (on a bike I really wanted), I added my driver's license to the stack of bills. The second piece of advice here is to safety-check the bike, especially if it has gone unridden for a bit. It sucks to be at the top of third gear when you find out the brakes need to be bled. (Ask me how I know! Young and dumb, but I lived to tell the story. Take heed.)

Brake fluid
Brake fluid should be clear and light in color, like a nice pale yellow, depending on brand. If you didn't notice this in your inspection of the bike, be sure you look at it before you pull away on a motorcycle that may have been maintained poorly! RevZilla photo.

I’ve bought some lemons, but I’ve gotten my hands on way more bikes I’d describe as “cherry” or “creampuff.” Follow the list, do your homework, and keep a sour pucker off your face.

“You know the chase is better than the catch.” — Motörhead