Guide to buying a used motorcycle

by Kate A January 23, 2019

Guide to buying a used motorcycle

I’m a huge fan of buying my cars and bikes used. Every single motorcycle I’ve ever owned has been pre-owned and I truly believe that one’s loss is another’s gain. If you are the type of person who keeps their bikes or cars for decades, buying new might be worth it. But I enjoy switching what I ride fairly often so buying new would not be very cost efficient. There is definitely a negative stigma about buying used motorcycles. Many are afraid they will get stuck with a bike that has endless mechanical issues and while that’s definitely a possibility if you’re not careful, there are also plenty of honest sellers out there who just want to get rid of their bike at a fair price. Being able to identify red flags and knowing what to ask and what to look for can help you land a great deal. Here are a few tips for buying a used motorcycle.   

Figure out what you’re looking for and how much you’d like to pay

Classifieds are flooded with motorcycles for sale and unless you know exactly what you are looking for, narrowing down your search is going to be pretty tough. First figure out what make and model of bike you want, what year range and how much you want to pay. Being too picky about the bike specs when buying used is going to make finding the perfect bike a very lengthy process so you might have to compromise. When figuring out how much you want to pay for the model of bike you’ve chosen, consult a few different sources. First, there are of course website like Kelly Blue Book and NADAguides that will show you the bike’s estimated used retail value. This will give you a general idea of how much the bike you want is worth. My favorite source for checking the prices however is eBay. eBay allows you to see closed auctions or sales and how much the bikes actually sold for. Sellers often inflate their asking price but what the bike is listed for is not always what the bike is actually worth.

Where to look

Today’s  most widespread source of classifieds is Craigslist. Sometimes to get a good deal on a used motorcycle, you might have to branch out outside of your city or perhaps even outside of your state. Websites like SearchTempest allow you to search Craigslist nationwide. Don’t get lazy, sometimes a great deal is worth a really long drive. Some other sources to check out for used bikes are eBay, bike specific forums, Cycle Trader (although it’s almost completely abandoned by private sellers, you can still find good deals once in a blue moon) and public auctions. Most of the time, buying a used bike from a dealership means that you are going to over pay. Even if you find a used bike at a dealership listed for a fair price, the out-the-door price after all the taxes and fees the dealer adds on will usually put you over the fair market price.

Questions to ask the seller

These questions should be answered prior to you making the trip to look at the bike. By asking these questions you are not only gathering information about the bike’s history, but you are also looking for any red flags that the seller is not being completely honest. Two things you should definitely never ignore – If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is and if you have a gut feeling there is something off about the deal, you are probably right.

  • Why are you selling the bike?
  • Are there any mechanical issues with the bike?
  • Has the bike been regularly serviced? If so, where?
  • Are the service records available?
  • Has the bike ever had any major engine work done?
  • Has the bike been in any accidents / tip overs?
  • How many owners has this bike had?
  • Was the bike always stored inside?
  • What features don’t work the way they’re supposed to?
  • Can I take the bike to a mechanic for an inspection?
  • Do you have the bike title in hand?

What to look for when checking out the bike

It always helps to bring someone along who knows motorcycles and can help you determine the condition of the used bike. But if you don’t have such a buddy available, here are a few things to look for when checking out a potential bike purchase:

  • Chain condition: This is an easy way to tell whether the motorcycle has been well maintained. If the chain is completely un-lubed, dirty and / or rusted, it’s safe to say the bike has not been cared for or has been sitting for a while.
  • Tire wear: Depending on the bike model, tires could be very expensive to replace. Check out the thread wear indicators to see how much thread is left on the tires and to determine whether they have to be replaced right away. The closer to the thread wear indicators the tire is worn, the less thread there is left. If the tires have to be replaced as soon as possible, it may cost you a few hundred dollars. In addition to wear, if you are buying an older model motorcycle the tires might not be worn but dried out, cracked and old. This will also require a replacement.
  • Brake pad wear: This is another way to not only determine additional expenses you’ll have to incur with the bike purchase but also how well the bike was maintained. Someone who genuinely cared for their motorcycle would not ride with brake pads worn down to the metal backing plate.
  • Oil level: With the bike warmed up and standing completely straight, look through the small window conveniently located on the bottom of the engine to make sure the oil level is between the two marks on the case. If the window is completely empty, chances are the seller never checked their oil level and the bike hasn’t been well maintained. Also check the color of the engine oil. If the seller is claiming the bike was recently serviced but you look through the small window and the oil is completely black, the seller is lying. Fresh oil should be clean and amber (or possibly light green if it’s high performance oil) in color. If the oil looks “milky”, it could be an indicator that some coolant has found its way into the oil, which could indicate a blown head gasket and/or a major engine problem.
  • Bent levers / Scrapes: If the seller is claiming the bike has never been down but you notice the brake or clutch levers or shifter are bent, the seller may not be telling the truth. Also look for any signs of scrapes on the engine case cover, fairings, handle bar ends, exhaust and mirrors. A small tip over is not necessarily a deal breaker on purchasing a used bike but if the seller isn’t being honest about a small issue like that, what else is he/she lying about?

Test Rides

If you are completely new to riding, I would not recommend you test riding someone else’s bike. Firstly, you won’t really know what you are looking for during the test ride. An experienced rider will know what a bike is supposed to  feel like and is a lot more likely to notice issues that might arise during shifting, braking, turning, etc. As a new rider you are also vulnerable to making a mistake and dropping someone else’s motorcycle and being responsible for paying for damages on a bike you don’t even own. If you don’t have a buddy or acquaintance who is an experienced rider and can test ride the bike for you, keep reading about taking your bike in for a pre-purchase inspection.

If you are not mechanically inclined, get a pre-purchase inspection from a shop

Most motorcycle shops or dealerships will offer pre-purchase inspections on used motorcycles. It’s fairly inexpensive and will give you a clear idea on what you are getting yourself into. If a bike needs a lot of work and you still decide to go through with the purchase, an official quote from a shop on what it will cost to get the bike fixed can be used as a bargaining tool to get the price of the bike down.

There are a ton of great used bike deals out there. Remember to BE PATIENT as finding a great deal might take some time. Better to wait for just the right bike rather than getting stuck with something that you overpaid for or something that will give you nothing but headaches. Happy bike shopping!

Kate A
Kate A


As a matter of fact, I do know what I'm talking about.

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