How to: Screw up a bike purchase

The Yamaha Bolt looks good in all four colours. Photo: Bill Petro

You might not be able to ride your motorcycle right now, but you can still search the for-sale listings for a deal. This is a great time to pick up a used bike, because you probably have a few weeks or even months to go over it and make sure everything is all ready for spring. Having said that, there are plenty of ways to screw up a bike purchase. Here’s a list of mistakes that can turn your motorcycle buying experience into true misery.

Unless you’re Scrooge McDuck, do your homework on pricing. Find out what similar models are selling for locally, find out what niggly bits you’ll have to fix, adjust the price accordingly.

DON’T DO your homework on pricing

You don’t want to overpay for a used bike, especially this time of year, when demand in Canada is low. So if you’re looking at a bike, do your best to find out what similar machines are selling for in your area. If you’re buying something rare, this may be hard, but at least give it a try.

So you want to buy that super-cool Honda CX650 Turbo? Did the owner actually properly maintain the turbo? Is the cam chain slapping around inside the back of the crankcase? Find out what to look for and what questions to ask before you show up at the sale.

DON’T DO background research

With the amount of information available online these days, you should thoroughly research any model of bike before putting money down. For instance, if you’re buying a used Kawasaki KLR650, a quick Google search will tell you about the infamous Doohickey problem. That’s easily fixable, but what if the bike you’re looking at has a more complicated foible? Say you’re looking at an early ’80s Yamaha 400 cc parallel twin — did you know you’ll have to split the cases to replace the starter? Before you drop coin on that vintage Honda CX500, know that the timing chains in these engines are notorious for loosening up and eating away at the engine case. You’ve got all winter to research this stuff, so take your time and make sure you have a general idea of what you’re getting into when you buy a bike.

If the bike won’t start when you’re there, walk away, unless you’re buying it for parts. And make sure the seller starts it from cold; feel the exhaust before they start it, to be sure they’re playing fair.

DON’T ASK to hear it running

This is obvious. If the seller claims it runs, then don’t be an idiot — make sure they get it started in front of you (and started from a cold engine; make sure it isn’t already warmed up before they press the starter). That way, you know the starter works and you can assume the battery works, instead of getting it home and having to push it up a hill to jump-start it, if it starts at all. Of course, if you’re buying a project, then you won’t expect to hear it running. But in those cases, at least make sure the engine turns over. If there’s a kickstarter, use that to boot the engine through a revolution or two. If there isn’t and it won’t start, then put the bike in neutral, get it rolling, and then bang it into gear to see if the pistons are cycling in the bore. These tricks aren’t foolproof — the gearbox could still be a mess, compression could be crap, or there could be some other terrible issue — but it gives you at least the bare minimum information.

‘Course, it might be too icy or cold for a test ride, but you should do the best you can to make sure the bike handles well and the gearbox isn’t fragged.

DON’T ASK for a test ride

The reality is, this time of year, you might not be able to test ride a bike if the weather is bad, or there’s snow on the road. But if you can get aboard the bike, you should. The seller may balk if the streets are icy, and you can’t blame them for that, but cash-in-hand will go a long way toward smoothing over worries in other scenarios.

CMG Honda CRF250L project bike accessories Zac Kurylyk Photo
Get up close and personal to check out all nooks and crannies of the bike. The devil may be in the details.

DON’T DO a mechanical check-up

Even if the bike starts just fine, you really need to give it a solid examination before you buy it. We’ve published guides to this before (see one here), and you’re best-off taking a look to make sure you get all the bases covered. You can never get a 100 per cent guarantee the bike won’t give you any trouble, but there are many, many things you can look out for that will save you money, time and heartache down the road.

CMG Honda CRF250L project bike accessories Zac Kurylyk Photo
Make sure the plates, registration and other documents are in order before you leave.

DON’T GET proper paperwork

Ah, the classic snare for the unwary beginner: “I ran the VIN, the title is clean, but I lost the ownership paperwork and blah blah blah …” What’s really going on here? The owner may have lost the paperwork and is too lazy to look for it or get a replacement registration slip — that does happen. Or the owner might never have transferred the registration from the previous owner (this is much more likely, especially with dirt bikes). Or that previous owner may not have even transferred the registration from the owner before that. Or the bike may indeed be stolen, but not properly entered in the database. There are ways around the paperwork issue, depending on the province you live in, and how friendly the agent is at your local motor vehicle department. But this is generally a massive pain in the neck, and depending how your luck is, you may never get paperwork for that bike. Another note: check with your local motor vehicle department as to what information is needed on the receipt, and make sure you get that receipt. There are few things more annoying than going back for a receipt, especially if the owner doesn’t cooperate. And while we’re on the subject of paperwork, if you live in a province where a used motorcycle must be inspected at the time of sale, make sure this is taken care of as well.

Marc Marquez MotoGP
You may have to move really, really fast if you come across the deal of a lifetime. Like, Marc Marquez fast.

DON’T MOVE quickly enough

While it pays to be cautious, there are times when speed is the key to getting a good deal. Example: one of my riding buddies found a BMW K75 for sale a few years back at a fantastic price (mostly good running order for $1,500-ish, with full service records). He had the money in the seller’s hand as quickly as he could, and it was good that he did — there was another buyer coming up the driveway who might have thrown in a couple of hundred extra. You rarely get into these situations, but if you do, don’t dilly-dally.


  1. Keep a flashlight in your car and bike and use it to check the bike. Poor lighting is no excuse to examine a purchase carefully. Also exhaust pipes cool quickly so check the engine cases. I have also brought a battery and cables to start the bike. Disconnect the dead battery which will cause problems if left in circuit. Ask for all things pertaining to the bike e.g. owner’s, warranty, and shop manuals, spare new or used parts like filters, carry racks, exhaust pipes. Do the chameleon thing and look around the premises and ask what else there is. It is very hard to get these things later one the money has been exchanged.

  2. When viewing in the off season IE winter the hear it running from cold might be an issue if the bike is stored in an unheated garage or shed. I had an old fellow show up on the coldest day of the year to look at my normally good running Dodge D50. Parked since Nov and now Feb with temps near 0 degrees F. The run down battery just wasn’t up to the task so his offer was 1/2 the asking price. He wasn’t interested in returning on a more normal day. I now no longer sell vehicles between Dec and March.

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