Almost everyone I talk to about buying a used motorcycle wants to spend as little as humanly possible but going too cheap almost always backfires tremendously. As the saying goes: you get what you pay for! Buying and selling used motorcycles online can be downright painful, expensive, and sometimes dangerous. So, what makes me so knowledgeable? I know a little about buying used motorcycles on the cheap because I went down that same path many years ago when I wanted a starter bike. I looked for the cheapest motorcycle on the internet and got a “great deal”. What I really got was a tank full of rust and a 4-cylinder bike that only ran on 3 cylinders on its best day. It leaked fluids all over the place and it left me stranded more than once.
So, what is the answer? Buy smart and keep your goals in mind. Nobody buys a used motorcycle out of charity for a stranger; you buy a motorcycle to have fun and to some extent, to commute. DON’T buy a bike that is going to frustrate you and leave you hating the experience. I always suggest finding a properly sized/powered bike for your skill level (check out our recent blog post on the best motorcycles for beginners), and get a bike that is running and not in need of major surgery to make it usable. The $250 “steal” on Craigslist or Facebook typically will have you in the garage and spending major money on parts before you ever get to enjoy it. My brother-in-law was lucky enough to get an old Honda he bought on Craigslist running but the tank had holes in it from rust and it leaked pretty badly so he had to mock up a plastic tank just to get around the parking lot at his apartment complex. Not exactly the kind of fun he had in mind.
Before you go look at a used motorcycle:
- First and foremost: talk to the seller and make sure it runs.
- Ask the seller to make sure the bike will be cold when you get there. If they refuse, don’t go. It’s that important.
- Make sure that you will be allowed to test drive the motorcycle. Even a short test drive tells you how a chain is doing, if it overheats, or if the suspension is shot. If you’re not licensed, bring a friend who can ride it for you.
- Does the seller have a title and if not, why? If he does have a title, check to see if it is a “salvage title” (you probably don’t want that).
- Figure out how you’ll get the bike home if you buy it. Do you have a buddy that can ride it or drive your car home for you? Do you need a pickup or trailer (and straps)?
What to check on the motorcycle when you get there:
- Examine the bike cold. It’s unbelievably easy to hide running and starting problems if the bike is hot. If the seller can’t get the bike started or it sounds like a demonic chainsaw for the first minute of run time, you’ve got a problem.
- Has it been well-maintained? The level of maintenance is much more important than the overall mileage to me. If the bike is clean, the tires match, and the wear items (like grips and seat covers) look good, that’s a good sign. If the owner hands you a file of receipts, that’s a GREAT sign. A clean owner’s manual, all the factory keys, and the paperwork from any aftermarket equipment with a box of OEM takeoff pieces indicate that the bike received loving attention.
- Has it been damaged by a lack of maintenance? It should have the right amount of oil and the brake fluid should be pale yellow, not dark or black. Leaks are bad. Look out for dry cables, pitted fork tubes, leaky fork seals, and rusty chains. Look in the fuel tank with a flashlight and make sure there’s no rust or nastiness. If you have any questions, ask the seller. If something looks weird, there might be a reasonable explanation unique to that make/model of bike. Do your homework on the bike you’re going to look at so you don’t get surprised by any quirks.
- Pop the seat and look at the wiring. If you see factory connectors and nothing looks junky, great! But if you see electrical tape, vampire connectors, or a bunch of one color of wire, hard pass. Electrical problems on a bike are expensive and difficult to repair.
- Physically check the VIN and make sure the numbers match the headstock. The last thing you want when buying a used motorcycle is to accidentally buy a stolen bike. If you spot any inconsistencies with the VIN or title paperwork, run.
- Check the fork lock and ignition lock. If either one is busted or the keys don’t match, the bike has probably been stolen at some point.
- Ask the owner how the bike was used. If you think she might be a stunt rider or like wheelies, check for non-factory welds on handlebars and frame (stunt bikes get dropped all the time). Wheelies starve engines of oil when standing on the rear tire, so check compression on the cylinders. A compression checking took is only $13.99 on Amazon with free shipping. If you show up to look at a motorcycle without one, shame on you!
- Ask if the motorcycle has been laid down or wrecked. If so, who did the repairs? Check the bar ends, levers, and footpegs to see if their age and level of wear matched the bike. If they are damaged, the bike has been down. Be sure to look at the levers and see if they’re curled or bent inward from hitting pavement. If they are brand new or aftermarket, the bike has probably been down. If they admit that the bike was laid over, they could be an honest seller who had a little oopsie and did their best to fix the bike. If they lied about it, either the seller is dishonest or the bike has a troubled past they aren’t aware of; either way, you should probably pass.
Ready to test ride?
If you have a motorcycle endorsement and are willing to put the full amount of cash into the seller’s hand, they should let you test ride. If you don’t have your endorsement, they probably won’t let so bring a licensed friend who can test ride for you (and you can check out our recent post about how to get your motorcycle endorsement). If the seller is still skittish, let them take a picture of your license. You should only ride it after you’ve looked it over because you don’t want to find out mid-ride that the brakes need to be bled (do as I say, not as I do).
Ready to buy?
To get a used bike registered in your name, you’ll need:
- Signed and notarized Title and Bill of Sale from the seller
- Make sure the bike has valid inspection stickers (find an inspection station here)
- Insurance and Motorcycle Endorsement
- Registration and title fees and sales tax.
- Vehicle Application form
For those of you looking to buy a track-only bike or a dirt bike for offroad use only, you have options that the buyer of a used street-legal motorcycle won’t have. A bill of sale with a VIN will usually do the trick for transfer of ownership, but watch out for stolen bikes. If you do a bill of sale, get a copy of the seller’s driver’s license and have a notary formalize the bill of sale. That way, if a policeman comes knocking on your door asking about the “stolen motorcycle” in your shed, you can avoid your own felony for possessing stolen property.
Buying a used motorcycle for track-only use? Remember that typically, a track motorcycle is going to be ridden at speed, so you want to make sure it’s functioning well. I suggest having a reputable mechanic go through any motorcycle intended for the track to make sure it is trouble-free and safe to ride at triple digits. Any leaks or issues may lead to a frustrating morning at the tech inspection that most track day companies have before allowing riders on the track. Don’t spend $250 for a fun day at the track, only to be turned away before the day begins because the motorcycle “fails tech”.
The best choice for a buying used motorcycle is a street bike that is in the $1000 to $3000 range and runs well enough to take a small road trip to see what needs attention. Track bikes may command a higher sum but they will be required to perform better. Dirt bikes are their own animal so if you want to simply ride trails, a $500 bike will do. Planning to do jumps and acrobatics? Prepare to spend more on a well-sorted motorcycle. Pricing can be tricky but if you focus on the size, style, and intended use, some decent research will show the price point that makes sense. Any motorcycle that has a price that seems too good to be true and is out of line with the others for sale in that class is a major red flag.
The fun of buying a used motorcycle as a project bike is to make additions as you enjoy riding it. Take a Saturday to update the headlight and taillight to LEDs. Ride and enjoy! New tires can change a ride overnight. New rear sets or bar end mirrors can add value and curb appeal with little work and instant gratification. Put them on, ride out to a bike night, and show the folks what you did with your morning. You will certainly get a thumbs up! But if you toil in the garage all day just to get the engine to turn over, there is no fist bump on earth that will bring a smile to your face. You will wonder when you will get to ride that motorcycle anywhere but your driveway.
Buying a used motorcycle can be a major headache or an adventure depending on how you handle it. As always, the lawyers at MotoJustice are here to help. If you have legal questions, we have damn fine lawyers on staff that can answer them. We ride, so talking about motorcycles brings a smile. And remember, if trouble finds you out on the road, be sure to give us a call!