How to: Buy a used motorcycle

A version of this article was first published in April, 2016.

So the season is preparing to end and people are selling their motorcycles. This is the time to buy a used bike for the best price, if you’re happy to store it over the winter. It may even be the ideal time, if you’re looking to buy a motorcycle that will need some work over the winter to get it ready for next spring.

If you’re looking to buy a motorcycle without being able to touch the bike or even fire it up, take a look here at How to: Buy a bike at a distance.

Disclaimer

This is a guide only. It’s a collection of suggestions to ensure that you can make the best decision when buying a used bike. However, it is up to you to decide what best suits. Don’t try and do anything that you’re not sure about – it’s easy to misinterpret instructions, especially if you’re not sure what you’re doing. If in doubt, consult a professional mechanic. Better still, bring one along with you when it comes to checking out that bike.

Okay? Good, let’s get to it then.

The Search

rider-position
Do the research to narrow down the list of potential bikes to find the one that will fit you best.


Obviously, everyone’s got a budget, but you need to be realistic. You aren’t likely to get a reliable bike that’s good to go for $500, but you could get a good one if you’re willing to spend at least $1,500, better if you have more.

Generally the older you go, the cheaper they come (up to a point as vintage starts to demand higher prices), but you should know what you’re doing if you’re looking at anything 10 years or older, unless you’re looking for a project (especially if you’re going pre-2000). If you do go vintage be sure that parts are still available — some older bikes are no longer supported by the manufacturer.

Keep in mind that the bike purchase is only one part of the equation. You’ll need to save some cash for some parts (tires, chain, battery, brake pads, etc), registration, insurance and if you’re new to motorcycles, gear.

Nowadays, it’s all online. We recommend autoTRADER.ca as the best place to go for a good selection of used bikes, but we’re probably biased because AutoTRADER owns us. There are some other sites, but don’t bother looking at them until after you’ve checked out AutoTRADER. You should, however, visit your local dealer to see what’s on the floor. Your dealer really doesn’t want to store all those traded-in bikes for the winter. Decide how far you’re willing to go to see a bike and search within that area.

Don’t fall for the first bike you see. Look around at what is available and take your time. If you’re in a rush you will make mistakes. Also, be realistic about what bike suits you best. Go to your local dealer and sit on a few bikes to get a feel for what you like. If you’re new to the sport beware, a superbike 600 is not a first bike; starting out on a small 250-400cc bike is not only safer but it will make you a better rider too.

The Bike

At $13,995, the 848 Streetfighter is priced $8,500 less than the Streetfighter S.
There are a lot of bikes out there to choose from. You’ll have to narrow down your search to something that suits your tastes and budget.

Once you’ve narrowed it down to a specific bike that you like, before you go any farther, get an insurance quote. Don’t assume that insurance will be affordable, especially if you’re young and/or new to motorcycling. It’s not the time to find that your new purchase sitting in the driveway costs more to insure than it did to buy.

Do some research. There are a lot of owner group websites out there where you should be able to find common issues with a bike that you’re thinking of buying (note them down so that you can check for them when you go and see it). You can also go to the Blue Book Trader website to search a typical price for a specific motorcycle.

Assuming that you’ve got past these checks, it’s time to call the seller. Ask them to not start the bike ahead of time (a warm bike will hide a poor starting condition), and also ask a few questions:

  • Why are you selling the bike?
  • Are there any issues with it?
  • Are there any modifications?
  • How has it been used?
  • Where is it serviced?
  • When was it last serviced?
  • Has it ever been crashed?

The Meet

Rickey Gadson Kawasaki H2R
You might want to be a little suspicious about this bike

When you go to check it out, take a friend with you. It helps if they know about bikes, but if not, they’re still invaluable for helping you handle the bike for inspection and to remove the rose-tinted spectacles from your face, should you start to ignore all the expensive defects. Also, take a flashlight for closer inspections and some riding gear in case you can get a test ride. You may want to meet at a safe place (a dark ally is dodgy) and only during daylight as it’s easier to see any faults, with the added bonus that you’re less likely to get mugged.

Click here for a Used Bike Checklist here that you may want to print out and take with you.

Show up on time and be respectful. As soon as you meet the seller, you should be analyzing the situation. Close inspection of the bike will always be the ultimate test, but a skinny 17-year-old punk is probably more likely to thrash on his bike than a middle-aged accountant.

Bear in mind that the stated price of the bike may not be the only expense — even “minor” repairs, such as tires, brakes and chains, can add up to a sizable bill. The easiest thing to do is request the bike be certified as part of the deal. This may involve paying a bit extra and doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your own checks, but it does ensure the bike has been okayed by a qualified mechanic. This removes the chance of any nasty surprises when you take it for certification after you’ve bought it.

Okay, so you’ve got this far.  Now, what should you be looking at on the bike itself? BTW, you may want to practice some of these checks on a friend’s bike ahead of time.

Walkaway issues

Raced bikes tend to have a hard life

Sometimes you spot something that no matter what the price is, it’s likely best to walk away from the deal. Here are a few situations that may lead to that:

  1. Documents: Check that the frame and serial numbers on the bike match with the numbers on the documents. If they don’t or the seller doesn’t have the documents, be very, very suspicious. Also the ownership must be in the seller’s name (check against their driver’s licence) and sign the registration if a sale is agreed.
  2. DNS: Does Not Start. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it just needs a new battery or a fresh tank of gas. If it does not start then assume the motor is for show only and may be devoid of moving parts.
  3. One careful racer: This is really only an issue for sportier bikes, as cruisers, dual sports and many standard bikes will never see race use. If the bike’s been on the track then it’s had a very hard life. Giveaways are drilled bolts that are wired for racing so they can’t come loose — the sump plug and brake bolts are always a favourite.
  4. Dirty bike: If the owner cannot be bothered to clean a bike they want to sell, then assume they didn’t look after it either.
  5. Hard Sell: Don’t be pressurized into anything. If the buyer has “20 people wanting to buy the bike” then why isn’t it sold already? Don’t trust anyone except yourself and the friend that you brought along.

Front to Back inspection

honda cb750 2
Even if the bike looks mint, it’s a good investment to spend a bit of time checking it from front to back.

Okay, now to the inspection. This is where it really helps to have that friend who can give a second opinion. It also shows the buyer that you’re serious and puts you in a better position when it comes to the final price-haggling at the end. Note down each issue you find and set a value to be knocked off the asking price (it’s a good time to have a copy of our Used Bike Checklist).

Visual: Take a quick walkaround and check for any obvious signs of damage and crashing. Bodywork can be expensive. Even dinky pieces like the side panels found on most UJMs, dual sports and standards add up in cost quickly. Older bikes will likely have been dropped at least once, but severe damage may make it a walkaway bike.

FRONT END

Wheel: Get the front wheel in the air, and try to wiggle it back and forth between the fork legs at the 6 and 12 o’clock positions (here’s where it helps if you bring a friend). It shouldn’t have any play, but if it does, you might be in for a set of replacement wheel bearings. Spin the wheel; it should move easily and spin true (no wobbles). Check for any broken spokes and cracking as well as flats in the rims (especially if it’s likely to have been ridden off-road).

Tire: Is it squared off, weather-cracked, worn out, or flat? Are there flat spots, or knobs missing? Plan on buying new ones if they have visible issues. If you plan on a test ride, confirm tire pressures are correct.

Brakes: Use that flashlight to check if the pads are worn out. Pull on the lever to see if the brakes are overly spongy (may require bleeding or a new brake line). Check the discs for damage (scoring, warping, excessive wear) and the hoses for cracking (would need replacing). Spin the wheels to confirm the brakes aren’t binding and check that they come on quickly when applied. Make sure the brake light works while you’re at it and the lever isn’t bent or busted.

Suspension: Pump the forks up and down. If there are oily rings left behind as a result, you need new fork seals. If the forks spring back up immediately then you don’t have any damping and they may be missing fluid (suspect leaky seals). Check for pitting in the sliders and view the forks from the side to check they’re straight as well.

Steering Head: Get the front wheel in the air, and grab the lower forks; pull towards you, then push away. There should be no movement in the forks or steering stem; any wiggling or other movement indicates worn steering head bearings. While you’ve got the front end in the air, move the handlebars back and forth to make sure the steering head bearings aren’t notched in the centre (which will require replacement — big job). Check the bars are straight while you’re at it.

Frame: Do you know where the steering stops are? Check ’em out, to see if they look bashed up. If they’re damaged, it’s a good sign the bike was in a crash. So is cracked or chipped paint around the steering stem.

BACK END

Wheel: Get the rear wheel in the air, and try to wiggle it back and forth at the 6 and 12 o’clock positions. It shouldn’t have any play, but if it does, you might be in for a set of replacement bearings. Spin the wheel; it should move easily and spin true (no wobbles). Check for any broken spokes and cracking as well as flats in the rims (especially if it’s likely to have been ridden off road).

Tire: Is it squared off, weather-cracked, worn out, or flat? Are there flat spots, or knobs missing? Plan on buying new ones, if they have visible issues. If you plan on a test ride, confirm tire pressures are correct.

Swingarm bearings: Get the wheel in the air and hold the rear ends of the swingarm to see if the swingarm moves left and right. Is there’s play, the bearings are likely shot.

Brakes: Use that flashlight to check if the pads worn out. Press on the lever to see if the brakes are overly spongy (may require bleeding or a new brake line). Check the discs for damage (scoring, warping, excessive wear) and the hoses for cracking (would need replacing). Spin the wheels to confirm the brakes aren’t binding and check that they come on quickly when applied. While you’re at it, make sure the brake light works.

Chain/Sprockets: Does the chain have kinks? Is it rusty? Then it should be replaced. Is it too tight? That could mean countershaft problems (a leaky seal, or worse) down the road. As for the sprockets: if the teeth are hooked or worn down, you’ll need to replace them. Grab the chain at the back of the sprocket, and pull it. If it pulls off the back of the sprocket, then the chain is worn out.

Suspension: Check out the rear shock and make sure there are no obvious oil leaks there (be careful not to confuse chain lube splash with an oil leak) and pump up and down on the rear to check the linkages aren’t seizing (squeaking noise).

OTHER

Fluids: This is more for if you intend to take the bike for a ride, but confirm there’s enough coolant, engine oil and gas. Low oil or coolant is a warning the owner didn’t take care of things as they should, and you should expect other issues. If it has a metal tank, you should also make sure the tank’s insides aren’t coated with rust. Rust clogging your fuel system is a hassle you don’t need to deal with.

Clutch: Check clutch operation is smooth and not too heavy, and hoses/cable and lever are in good condition.

Stands and footrest: Make sure they work and are secure.

Electrics: Check out the other lights (signals, brake, high beam, low beam, dash lights, neutral) and the horn. The oil light should light up with the ignition on and go off when the engine runs (some flickering at idle can be acceptable).

Fire her up

The frame protects the engine when the going gets dirty, but a good skid plate would still be a wise investment for off-roading. Photo: Zac Kurylyk
Firing up the motor will tell you an awful lot.

First, check the engine is cold. If it’s a hard starter then a devious seller may have started and warmed it up prior to your arrival. Visually inspect it. Are there any obviously buggered-up fasteners? Are there oil leaks? A leak around a valve inspection port isn’t a big deal, but a leak around a base gasket is. Is the oil level or coolant topped up?

Starting a bike will tell you a lot. Ideally it should start easily, but the cranking will also give you a clue as to the shape of the battery and the starter motor/gears (whirring and clashing gears is not good).

Once running, check for exhaust leaks by passing your hand close (but not touching) the exhaust system and also ensure the headers are all warming up (cold header = cylinder not firing). Give it some revs to see how it responds to the throttle and to check how loud the pipe is.

Check what else is coming out of the pipe too. A dead giveaway of a tired engine is blue smoke out of the exhaust, which means it’s burning oil and will require a top-end rebuild, which can get expensive. Black smoke is a sign of running rich, but let it warm up first before passing judgement.

With the motor running, listen carefully for any knocking sounds. This is not easy, but a whirring, sewing machine-like noise is ideal; most bikes will sound a little clunky at idle.

Time to ride

Ricky Brabec is now in the top 10. He's the USA's top rider, and Honda's second-best placement in the top 10. Photo: Honda
Be sure to give it a good ride to ensure it’s all 100% …

If at all possible, get the owner’s permission to take the bike for a ride  (make sure paperwork is in order if you plan to take it on the street). Also be sure you are happy with the mechanical condition of the bike. IF IN DOUBT, DO NOT RIDE IT. Bringing cash in hand usually helps ensure they’ll give you a test and you’ll likely have to buy it on a cash-back agreement. Something like “Here’s the money on condition that I get it back, if I return the bike in the same condition within the hour” kind of thing .

If the owner won’t let you ride, ask yourself why? If you don’t know how it works on the street, then there could be an issue you missed, like poor acceleration or that it jumps out of gear under power or the brakes are warped and pulsing at the lever. The owner may just be wary, but if you have cash and an agreed price, then it should be fine.

When you get back, check again for any oil leaks and any other sounds from the motor once it has warmed up. Assuming everything works out, it’s time to make the deal. Be sure to raise any issues you found and get the price reduced accordingly.  Make sure the paperwork is in order and signed where required and get a receipt for any monies paid.

Congratulations, you now have a new (to you) bike. Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “How to: Buy a used motorcycle”

  1. The test ride issue has many problems. Letting a complete stranger ride off combined with new insurance requirements here in BC throws shade all over the idea that “it should be just fine”. Sellers beware.

  2. When super picky people (hipsters from Toronto ) come to buy one of my vintage bikes , i tell them that perhaps they should just go buy a new bike

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