How to: Buying a Bike From a Distance

It used to be that there were three ways to look for bikes. First, you could go to your local dealer. Second, there was the word-of-mouth method, but if you knew what your friends had done to their bikes, you knew better than to buy their cast-off machines. So that left the local newsprint circulars, like the Buy, Sell & Trade, which had a section for advertising motorcycles, typically with no photos and overly optimistic pricing and descriptions (1981 Gold Wing! Last Ran in 1982! 100,000 KM! Asking $10,000, No trades!).

Things are much easier now, thanks to the internet allowing you to browse bikes for sale not only in your local area, but across the country. Now you can easily peruse machines the next town over, the next county over, or the next province over. What do you need to know to buy a great bike that’s far away?

The search

Whether you know exactly what you’re looking for (1997 Suzuki GSX-R750, yellow paint, under 2000 km on the odometer, priced at $500) or you just want to browse all the deals available, you can adjust search parameters accordingly. Just remember that if you narrow things down too much, you might miss out on a deal — maybe the seller forgets to list engine displacement, or mileage, or misspelled the bike’s name, or something. It pays to cast a wide net, as long as you don’t mind searching through more ads. Sometimes, you’ll find a deal everyone else missed because of the seller’s goof-up.

Think about where you’re searching, and what you’re searching for. If you want to find a 1978 Honda CB750 in the $1,000 range for a cafe racer project, there’s probably not much point in searching ads for bikes 2,000 km away. It’s going to cost you a lot of money just to pick it up. Conversely, if you’re looking for something rare or expensive – say, a Münch Mammoth – you’re going to have to search a much wider area, probably the whole country. It’s worth looking farther away if you’re spending more money, but if your budget is low, you should stick to local stuff.

Due diligence

So you’ve searched the ads, and found the bike you want. Now’s the time to do your due diligence. Ask yourself a few questions before putting out any money.

Use common sense to avoid scams. A Ducati Hypermotard for $1,000? You’re definitely going to be out the money.
Is this a scam?

The Internet is filled with scammers who are trying to take your money, so remember: if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t pay $1,000 sight unseen for a Hayabusa, whose owner just wants to get rid of it after her husband died. You’ll lose the money.

There’s a great primer at autoTRADER.ca on how to avoid online scams, which you can find here. These rules apply to buying cars and bikes alike. The Canadian government also has a website with some tips for scam avoidance.

Anyone with basic common sense should be able to filter out those scams — the crooks will cut off communication as soon as you start calling them on their lies. The rip-offs that might be more likely to take you in are ads for a “never trail-ridden, always babied KLR650” that turns out to be well-knackered when you see it in person, after you’ve put money down and driven eight hours to pick it up.

One way to avoid these sorts of bad deals is to ask for a lot of photos beforehand. Another is to find someone who can inspect the bike for you in person. Maybe you have a friend who lives close to the bike, or if you’re a member of a forum like the CMG Forum or Horizons Unlimited or ADVRider, another forum member can check out the bike for you (and maybe outbid you?). However, these sorts of arrangements don’t always end well, so the safest bet for buying bikes long-distance is to work with a motorcycle dealer who has a reputation to protect. You’ll probably pay more, but that’s the price of peace of mind.

CMG Honda CRF250L project bike accessories Zac Kurylyk Photo
Close-up details shots like this will give you a very good idea as to what shape the bike is in.
What is the bike’s mechanical condition?

So the bike exists, and it’s described accurately. Time to assess its mechanics. Again, this is where the photos come in. What do you look at if you buy a bike locally? Tires, chain/sprockets, brakes and paint, so you want photos of all that stuff. Thanks to the Internet, you can even get video of the bike running. It’s not as good as an in-person test ride, but it helps.

Along with the general condition of the bike, especially wear items like tires, chain and brake pads, try to find the maintenance history. When was it last serviced? If you’re doing a private sale, you’ll just have to take the owner’s word on this stuff, unless they have receipts. At a dealership, they’ll likely have performed necessary servicing before the sale, but ask.

You can also run the bike’s VIN through a title research service. Often the province where the bike is will give you a report on the VIN, in Ontario, it is called the Used Vehicle Information Package. That will tell you if there are any accidents in the history or liens. This is a bit of a hit-or-miss process, as cosmetic damage like a broken fairing may look like an expensive crash on the report, but might not be a big deal (we’ve heard of motorcycles being written off for something as simple as a garage tip-over). On the other hand, many owners might simply do their own wrenching after an accident, and if the police or insurance weren’t notified, you could still be buying a crashed bike. It’s much easier to pass this off with a bike than a car.

Norton Commando 961SE
You found a smoking deal on a rare Norton Commando, but can’t register it? Do your homework first!
Can I register the bike?

Here’s the issue that’s ruined many a bike deal. You want to be very, very certain that you can register the bike in your name after purchase, and the rules/regulations for this vary by province. In some provinces, you’ve got to perform a safety inspection before transferring the title. In others, no safety inspection is needed. In some provinces, in-province purchases are hassle-free, but they want you to jump through a line of hoops in order to bring in a bike from another province.

It would take a whole website to list the various requirements of each province’s motor vehicle department, and given the vagaries of government, information we give you today could be out of date tomorrow. So, here’s a general set of rules wherever you live:

  1. Find out what exact steps are necessary to register the motorcycle to your name in your home province. Don’t ask your drinking buddies, don’t ask Facebook, ask the Department of Motor Vehicles.
  2. Ensure the seller will comply fully in helping you make that purchase (get the bike inspected, give you the VIN for insurance purposes, etc.).
  3. Don’t cut corners.

It’s simple: if you want a hassle-free transfer, follow the rules. It’s bad enough to buy a bike locally with screwed-up paperwork, but if you’re dealing with a seller the next province over? Fuggedaboutit.

Even if the seller’s paperwork is in order, you’ll want to make sure there are no liens against it, which is money owing for many potential reasons.

The issues surrounding title transfers make it much easier to make a long-distance purchase from a dealership than a private owner. If you’re buying a bike from John Doe in Ontario and you live in Alberta, you have the money and he has the title. One of you is going to have to demonstrate trust in the other to make the deal happen. Either you’ve got to send the money before you get the title, or he’s got to transfer the title before he gets the money.

Depending on the registration process where you live and how you’re setting up the money transfer, there are ways for both of you to safeguard yourself here, but this is definitely a sticky point in the age of Internet scams (again, read the autoTRADER write-up—fraudulent escrows are a problem to be aware of). But if you’re working with a dealership, there’s theoretically a level of trustworthiness and restitution that gives peace of mind.

Make sure you check with your insurance company, to see what you’ll be paying to insure the machine you’ll be interested in.
Can I insure the bike?

In the age of stratospheric insurance costs, make sure you can afford to insure the bike before putting any money down.

What’s the fine print/total cost?

Does the bike have a warranty? If so, and you’re buying a used bike, does the warranty transfer? If you’re buying from a dealership, are there other fees to pay?

A dealership may add their own fees to a purchase. Find out, before you commit to buy.

Getting it home

So the deal is done, the bike’s in your name, and you want to ride it!

There are two ways to get a bike home: have it shipped, or go and bring it home yourself.

If you’re shipping the bike, you can deal with an outfit like Day & Ross, Midland or other general freight companies, but working with shipping companies that aren’t moto-specific is not without risk. We’d recommend a motorcycle-friendly shipping company, one that moves vehicles on a regular basis. Do your homework and find what’s available in your area, and don’t just automatically go for the cheapest option. You want a shipper that will treat the bike like it’s their own. Your local dealership may have a recommendation if word-of-mouth doesn’t find you one.

The other option is to ride it home, or take it home yourself. If you’ve bought the bike within a reasonable distance, you can use a truck or trailer to take a road trip, pick it up and take it home. If it’s farther away, you can do a fly-and-ride, riding the machine home once you land.

But beware! A fly-and-ride is not without risk, at least on a used motorcycle. Of course, you’ll want to make sure your paperwork is in order before you leave, because you won’t be able to sort that out once you’re a few days’ ride away. And you’ll want to be very, very sure the bike is mechanically sound enough to make it home (remember we said to check those tires and the chain and … ). If it’s new, that’s probably not an issue. If it’s used, you’ll definitely want to think about bringing at least the bare minimum of tools (or taking out a CAA membership). Good luck!

5 thoughts on “How to: Buying a Bike From a Distance”

  1. I have to agree with DG on this too. Buying a bike from a dealer I a lot more expensive and can be a just as sketchy as a private seller. Plus rarely a dealer will sell a bike anywhere near the bluebook retail value OR give you the trade-in value. It’s actually kind of insulting. Plus a lot will sell more of a bike than many need, or a brand new bike to a brand new rider.

    Maybe in Ontario it’s that way, but in Atlantic Canada I don’t think it’s so bad. I flip 2 or 3 bikes every season, and stand behind my sales. Yes they have a curb and got’her warranty but if anything goes wrong, I’d work with anyone who buys a bike from me that has troubles with it. I can’t say the same about a few dealers.

    Private sales are where the best deals are. Do your homework, get the story, and then check it out. And always get a second opinion if you’re not sure. Don’t be afraid of taking a chance or walking away. There is always another bike/deal around the corner for the person that looks hard enough…

    1. There are a lot of good reasons to buy from a dealer, and one good reason to buy private sale: It’s usually more affordable, you’re right.

  2. WOW! I can only speculate that the author of this article has not purchased a lot of bikes from private sellers. He somehow forgets that we’re only 1% of the population and somewhat of a brotherhood. Shouldn’t he have interviewed people who have owned several bikes asking how they obtained them and what suggestions they have to make it a win win transaction. 160 bikes later, all purchased privately, from many States, Provinces and one from the UK I’ve never not received exactly what I purchased. There are great private sellers out there selling good bikes that you might never find in the main stream dealer’s showrooms. It’s hard work to find unique bikes and at sometime during the process you have to make the leap-of-faith that what you’ve researched is what you can live with and that your fellow bike owner has told you the truth. Great bike sales take both informed buyers and honest sellers. It’s a lot easier to do than this article suggest. Buy from the person that owns the bike!

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