What to look for when buying a used motorcycle? Buying a used motorcycle from a private seller or dealership? Whether you’re buying a bike at an auction like Mecum, turning to online listings, or buying a used bike from a local seller, it pays to know what to look for when buying a used motorcycle.
What to look for when buying a used motorcycle?
Ready to buy a used motorcycle? Here’s an overview of the most important things to look for to make sure you know what you’re getting.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
Used Motorcycle Inspection Checklist
If you’re able to inspect the motorcycle in person, make sure you know what to look for when buying a used motorcycle. This buying a used motorcycle checklist covers some of the most important things.
A clean bike is usually a happy bike. It is important that the seller places high importance on communication with you, divulging all the details of the bike.
You may be interested in an older “project or restoration” bike and will be willing to overlook some flaws in the finish. You may be looking at a “brush popper” and a slightly rough look is to be expected. Only you know what is cosmetically acceptable.
Look the bike over carefully. It’s easy to tell the difference between a bike that’s just been “quick cleaned” for a sale and one that’s been garage kept and pampered by a true enthusiast. Check all the tight spots. You know the hard-to-reach places where dirt can accumulate.
The enthusiast will take the time to get into these areas and keep his bike looking showroom. The “quick cleaner” will not. He’s hoping that your excitement will override your common sense and you won’t be looking too closely.
Let’s check out the exhaust first. I know you want to start the bike up and hear it roar. There’s plenty of time for that later. You want the bike cold for the initial inspection. Warm engines turn over easier.
In fact, when you call the seller to ask him where to come to see the bike, make sure to tell him not to run it before you get there. Here’s why. First, you want to make sure the exhaust is solidly mounted. The exhaust system gets a lot of vibration from the engine, which can cause the mounts and the pipe to fail.
Places on the exhaust that you may not have a clear view of you may feel areas of corrosion that have actually rotted through. You would probably hear exhaust leaks when you first start the bike so now you know to listen for them.
As long as you’re down there checking on the exhaust, you might as well give the frame the once-over. Look closely. You’re looking for dents, scrapes, and cracks. Is there any indication the bike has bottomed out, taken a hard landing, or been in some kind of accident?
Get hands-on with the frame too. Slide your hands over as much of the frame as you can. You may feel something you can’t see.
Check the steering head bearings. While holding the front brake lever, rock the bike back and forth. If you feel movement or hear a clicking sound, it’s a good indication that the bearings in the steering head might be loose or worn. Place your hand over the upper triple clamp and frame to feel the movement.
A little slack in the clutch cable is normal and any excess can usually be adjusted out. Squeeze the clutch in. Is it smooth? Release the clutch slowly. It should release smoothly. You should not feel any “snags” or “pops” as the clutch lever is engaged or released.
Have a seat on the bike. Engage the clutch. The bike should roll smoothly with little resistance while in first gear with the clutch engaged.
While sitting on the bike, take it out of gear and roll it forward. Gently apply the front brakes. The brake lever should operate smoothly and the bike should slow to a stop with little to no noise from the brakes. Release the brake lever.
It should return smoothly into position and the bike should now roll freely with no dragging of the brake calipers. If they drag, they need work. While braking at speed you should not feel any pulsing in the lever as this would indicate a bent rotor.
While straddling the bike, shove down on the front end. The forks should return to position slowly and almost silently. Any loud noise can be bad news. Look at the fork seals. They should be clean and smooth. There should be no fork oil on the tops of the seals or on the forks.
If there is a bit of oil around the fork seals the bike may just need new seals which are relatively affordable. But if there are nicks or rust on the fork tubes a more serious repair is needed. The forks themselves should be clean, shiny, and smooth.
Bounce up and down on the seat. The rear shock(s) should offer some resistance and return the rear end to its normal position without springing up and down.
Chain and Sprocket
Check the tension of the drive chain by pulling it away from the rear sprocket at the three o’clock position. You should not be able to pull it farther than about halfway off the sprocket tooth. Any farther and it’s time to replace. The inner area of the chain that contacts the sprocket should be clean, smooth, and shiny.
Other things to look out for are links that are binding or kinked. This will cause tight spots in the chain and subsequently enhance excessive wear on the drive train. If you can put the bike on a stand and spin the rear wheel you can easily see if the chain maintains the same tension as it turns.
In addition, keep your eyes out for excessive rust. Small amounts can be easily removed but large amounts can mean it’s time for a new chain. Check the sprockets closely. Look for sprocket teeth that are hooked, pointed, or chipped.
Tires & Wheels
Smooth even wear should be expected and is no cause to worry. Severe wear on the center third of the rear tire could be an indicator of long-distance freeway riding or performing “burnouts”. The latter is definitely not good for the tire but also causes unnecessary abuse on the engine. Excessive hard braking and skidding can cause flat spots on the tire.
Check the 4-digit DOT numbers on the outer sidewall of the tires. The first two digits indicate the week the tire was manufactured, the second two digits indicate the year. Most recommend replacing tires when they are 6 years old, even if they appear to be in good condition.
Inspect the wheels for dents. If possible, place the bike on the center stand with the transmission in neutral and spin the back wheel. Watch it from both the side and the rear to identify dings or bends in the wheel. The same can be done with the front wheel using the kickstand and some help from another person.
Open the fuel cap and look inside. You may want to bring a flashlight with you. You should be looking through a light amber-colored fuel and clearly see the bare metal interior of the fuel tank. If the fuel is dark it’s probably old and should be drained and replaced. You’ll also want to flush the system and change the filter just to be safe.
When inspecting the fuel tank you want to look for rust or any grit or sediment in the tank. If you’re not sure if you’re seeing sediment, rock the bike gently from side to side and set up a small “wave motion”. If there’s sediment you’ll see it shift from side to side. If the tank is full be careful not to overdo it. You want to keep the fuel in the tank.
The normal appearance of coolant is neon green and should smell sweet. With the engine cold, remove the coolant cap and take a look. Green is great. Brown-colored coolant could mean either rust or oil has invaded the engine. If the engine has begun to rust, you will want to consider some costly repairs in the future.
If you have oil in your coolant you may have a leaking head gasket or failed O-rings. O-ring repair is not a death warrant for a bike but fixing a head gasket is a job for an expert “gearhead”, so you may want to reconsider your purchase if this condition exists.
What are the red flags when buying a used motorcycle?
Red flags. Things to look for when buying a used motorcycle include rust or significant scratches, oxidized paint, a rusty chain, smoke from the exhaust when the bike is started and leakage from the engine or transmission.
What to consider before buying a used motorcycle?
Visually inspect the motorcycle and make sure there aren’t any major scratches or dings. Pay special attention to the gas tank; if it’s dented, it may need to be replaced. Look at the exhaust pipes, too, and check for any bluing on the metal, which could indicate that the motorcycle overheats.
What mileage is too high for a used motorcycle?
Generally, high mileage on a motorcycle is anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 miles. For sport bikes, the high mileage number will be on the low end (usually around 25,000), while cruisers and touring bikes typically become high mileage in the 40,000- to the 50,000-mile range.
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