How To: Buy a Used Motorcycle Like a Pro

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Buying a used motorcycle is a good way to get a perfectly running machine for dirt-cheap while also stretching your budget to get you on a much nicer bike. Here are our favorite techniques for getting the most value when you buy a used motorcycle.

Be Willing to Travel
Used motorcycle values vary wildly based on geographic location. The Manufacturers Suggested Retail Pricing (MSRP) and the addition of dealer fees usually dictate new motorcycle prices, with little variance. Pricing in the used market, however, is based on supply, demand, and what people in any geographic area are willing to pay. Los Angeles tends to believe 1970’s used Hondas that need work are worth $3,000-$5,000, while Bakersfield (50 miles north) has them for $1,500-$2,000. If you are willing to extend your search into areas that aren’t subject to fads, you have a much better chance of getting a better deal.

Value of Aftermarket Additions
Buying a used motorcycle is a way to get a motorcycle with the aftermarket options you want, already installed. The downside is that the seller often believes the aftermarket additions are worth the amount they paid for them (including what they paid for installation). New tires, a fresh oil change, or nice exhaust system are nice additions to a used motorcycle and will save you ownership dollars. These items are worth paying a little more for, while personalization bits like fancy levers and new mirrors are not.

Ashlee’s first purchase had a number of aftermarket “modifications”

How Many Miles Is Too Many?
The used motorcycle market is interesting because of the wildly varied use of the inventory within it. My dentist thinks hitting 1,000 miles in a year is a lot of riding. Many people view motorcycles as Sunday toys, which contributes to the idea that motorcycle engines can’t handle regular use. If you have two identical options side-by-side and one has 20k less miles, that’s obviously the better buy. If the bike you want has 30k-40k miles and looks like it’s been taken care of in the process, don’t be afraid to buy the bike you want as the engine has plenty of life left in it.

Willing to drive to Portland? While this face may look friendly, Thor is known for putting his bikes through the ringer.

Be Nice (Really!)
It’s your right to offer however much you can afford to spend for a used motorcycle. Offering too little, however, can be taken with offense and can be the difference between a sale or not, so know the market, know the product and offer something fair. You never know when the seller has aftermarket additions he planned on selling separately, but will toss in because he likes you and you treated him with respect. Remember, we are all just trying to get the most out of our money.

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  • Alex Tsinos

    I like researching the ownership history. Jot down the VIN and pay $10 at the dmv for ownership record (the service is available in my area but probably varies from one location to another). A 10 yr old bike with 5 previous owners is a red flag, plus limits the ability of getting complete service records. I ask for the VIN before heading out to see the bike. Also confirms the title is clean.

    • Rob

      When you go to see the bike, it’s a red flag if they want to meet you anywhere other than their house. Seeing how they treat the rest of their stuff will give you a good idea of how they treated the bike, even if they have it all shined up.

      • Beju

        I would actually rather meet a seller in a public place with a lot of traffic like a Target or Wal Mart parking lot than what’s supposedly the seller’s residence. I’ve heard of too many Craigslist robberies to be comfortable going to meet an anonymous person at an unknown house.

        Of course, that is the perspective of a Chicagoan.

      • Devin Byrnes

        Not always. Sometimes if I don’t like the person on the phone then I don’t want them at my house looking at all the toys I have in my garage, shed, etc. I have a large, empty parking lot nearby that I ask people to meet me at.

  • HellomynameisAG

    Don’t buy used bikes in the dark or at night ever, ever (from a parking lot in queens, or anywhere else for that matter, haha). CLEAN AND CLEAR TITLE is a must, unless you are looking for a track or stunt bike or something.

    • HellomynameisAG

      Oh yeah and if the deal is to good to be true, don’t worry it is.

    • Mr.Paynter

      I bought my ’73 CB500 project in a dark garden. She was far rougher when I got her home.
      Good point!

  • UrbanMoto

    1. Kudos on the increased attention to the used market. You guys are paying attention your readers.

    2. Re the geography, accessories and service bullet points, all great thoughts – my bud in LA was looking for a used V-Strom and after months of looking at every one offered, I found one in Seattle on CraigsList (for some reason there happened to be a TON of them for sale up there a the time.) He felt the vibe on it and flew up that weekend for a $5K red 2005 650 with 10K miles in like new condition, bought from a doting owner who changed the oil every 1000 miles or so and equipped it with a great range of accessories – the hand-made aluminum Jesse bags were worth over 1k by themselves. 12K miles later he’s still happy and the bike is running awesome.

    Patience is key and can REALLY pay off in the used market. Great deals aren’t easy to find, but if you can wait until the right one comes along they are definitely out there. They WILL come along and you can save a LOT by looking constantly and waiting for the right one at a great price.

    • Davidabl2

      Your story illustrates that (as in real estate) when buying bikes it can all be “location,location,location”

  • Island_Rider

    A well documented service history on a bike is always a plus when buying used, but don’t forget to take into account some of the easily checked wear items as well! You don’t need a mechanic for these, either…
    -Are the tires matched and in good shape? Or are they squared off and several years old? It’s very easy to go spend $500+ on a set of tires if the bike is in need.
    -How are the chain and sprockets? Check for cupping and wear on both front and rear sprockets, and see if the chain can be pulled away from the center of the rear sprocket. If it stretches more than about 1/4″ from the sprocket it’s close to time for replacement. It should also be done as a set, with both sprockets and the chain being done at the same time.
    -How are the brakes? A quick visual check can tell you if the pads have lots of thickness left, and a test ride can tell you if they’re pulsing/warped. Pads are fairly cheap, but discs are costly.

    -An easy way to check the steering head bearings is to stand the bike up, apply the front brake, and rock it forward and back. If you can feel play then budget some extra money for parts and labor to have them replaced. Some bikes can simply have them tightened/adjusted.
    -Are the handlebars straight and the bodywork free of rash? Plastics, especially new OEM ones, are never cheap. But if it’s your first bike, don’t worry too much about cosmetics!
    And of course, don’t necessarily count included riding gear as a bonus. Used helmets are not usually a good idea, and gear is only worth something if it fits you!

    • Lee Scuppers

      For a new rider, how do you judge tread depth and brake pad wear?

      • Mykola

        Lincoln’s head is a pretty universal standard (stick a penny into the tread, If you can see all of Lincoln’s hair the tread depth is too shallow). Dry rot, visible cracks in the rubber inside the tread lines, is also a bad sign.

        Brake pads can be eye-balled. Pads with only 1mm of meat left on them are ready for replacement. Be sure to look at both the inside and outside brake pads on a caliper, they may not wear evenly.

  • UnicornMaster

    I’m looking to buy my first bike after I go through the safety course and get my license in the spring (missed the last fall/winter class). I’m in the Vancouver, BC area and have found the usual places when looking for a used car to be lacking motorcycle inventory. Anyone here familiar with resources in my area for buying and selling used bikes?

    Cheers.

    • Island_Rider

      Other than the usual suspects (Craigslist, etc), you could also check into local forums to see what’s in their classified section. Try BC Sportbikes, or Dualsport BC. UsedVictoria is also good if you’re looking for bikes on the Island.

      • UnicornMaster

        Will do. Thanks!

    • Joe Bielski

      Check kijiji in your area as well.
      Bought both my used bikes through that site.

      • UnicornMaster

        Thanks!

  • pete bloggs

    Buying any vehicle is the same, do a check on vehicle before you even bother to go and see it and make sure it has no finance owing and has never been written off. Do your research, know what the particular model in that year and that condition is worth. If you don’t have much mechanical knowledge, then take someone with you who does, it’s worth giving them $50-100 for their time because you’ll get that back when making the offer. Be patient, fools rush in and often regret doing so.

  • Phil Mills

    Avoid scams: Craigslist has had a rash of bikes listed at slightly-too-good-to-be-true prices. Take a second and run one or more of the images through Google Image Search and see if it’s copied from somewhere else or posted on several different CraigsList sites across the country.

    Avoid stuntaz / wrecks: Major red flag in my book is a fully-faired sport bike that’s been converted to a “street fighter” (see pic of Ashlee’s bike in the article). There’s probably some underlying reason that the fairing is no longer with the bike. Look for other tell-tales like “just a small scratch on the exhaust from a kickstand mishap”.

  • Dan

    Awesome writeup. 2 more:

    Paperwork: know whether your state requires a separate bill of sale. Some states the signed title is enough, others require a bill of sale for the purchase price (sometimes notarized). If you’re into old bikes, note that if they’re *really* old (<1975) you can 'restore' a missing title for a nominal fee using a title service, which is a nice way to save money because 30-40 year old bikes with proper paperwork are rare and command very high prices.

    Test Rides: probably the greatest source of danger but something people don't think about. If you're buying from a stranger, you have no idea what kind of shape the bike is in. If the seller agrees to let you take it out, take a deep breath and double-check the operation / condition of all critical components (tires, brakes, throttle return, suspension action,headstock/steering, chain, etc) BEFORE mounting up. Once moving, test brakes, etc. at very low speed BEFORE slowly working up to normal speeds.

    • Lee Scuppers

      When I was even dumber and newbier than I am today, I test-rode an old bike with almost no brakes. Scared me out of a year’s growth. Just about ran into the seller’s car bringing it back, which would have served the swine right. He was full of b.s. about all the work he’d just had done on it getting it ready to sell. Yeah, but the shop didn’t notice the godawful brakes? No receipts, of course.

  • Chanson

    Check the Forums
    For many bikes, there are dedicated forums where you can learn all the ins and outs and peculiarities. This way you can track down known problems or weak points that require attention and determine if the previous owner has already rectified them. This may also help you select the correct model year, for example if a major design flaw is fixed after a certain year. You will be better prepared during an inspection or test ride to locate faults.

    • thepierced

      This is good advice before and after the purchase. At one point I was seriously considering a Kawasaki Concourse 1000. So I looked through several threads over at cog (concourse owners group). I did the same with the Bandit that I ended up buying, and maximum-suzuki.com has proven to be very valuable in diagnosing niggles and quips.

    • bammerburn

      This, best advice ever. I do this before every used-bike purchase (had 12 bikes in the past 4 years, all used).

    • roma258

      Also the bikes in the for-sale section of the forums tend to be nicer than your standard craigslist fare, since they tend to be owned by enthusiasts who look after their bikes.

      • Ryan Stewart

        x1000.

        Typically bikes on forums have a history of their own on the forum. You can search for the guy selling it. If he is a respected, well liked member with a lot of useful advice then you know he is probably taking care of his bikes. If the guy is on there asking how to rig something up because he doesn’t want to spend for the “overpriced” actual part you know to run screaming.

  • Louie Guthrie

    Some people think that if a bike has any damage from going down then it should be avoided. But often
    you can tell how bad the fall was. OEM parts are a big plus on a damaged bike. Check the bits like brake levers, bar ends, etc. If they are original equipment, that is good. Little nicks and scratches here and there may be clues that it really was “just dropped in the driveway”, and you can save a lot of money if you don’t mind a few blemishes. On the other hand, it can be hard to tell how bad the damage was if the bike is loaded with “upgrades.” It is usually cheaper/easier/more fun to replace broken OEM parts with aftermarket parts.

    Occasionally, even some salvaged bikes can be good finds. If the original plastics need to be replaced and it has a scratch on the frame, the insurance company may decide to write it off. Theirs is simply a financial decision. It has nothing to do with safety or performance. As a buyer your future resale value will suffer. However, if you get a good deal it will very likely depreciate less than a new bike over time.

    Wonder if a downed bike is safe? Watch a race. Racers go down all the time, but I’ve never seen one refuse to get back on a bike before it had been properly inspected by a qualified mechanic. If it can be
    ridden out of the gravel and is not leaking fluids, then it is going right back up to triple digit speeds. Might a wrecked bike be dangerous? Maybe. But you don’t have to be an expert to look for clues. And you might save a lot of money. Oh, and if you go out and drop your bike the day after you buy it, you’ll hate yourself much less if it wasn’t perfect to begin with.

    • Piglet2010

      But if you buy a scratched bike demand a significant discount since it will be worth much less if you re-sell it.

  • Justin McClintock

    That point about being willing to travel is incredibly true. I live in Atlanta. Almost every bike is instantly worth (or rather, will cost you) 25% more in town than it will 50 miles out of town. I’ve got 3 used bikes and I drove out of town for all of them…and saved a boatload.

    • Piglet2010

      Not a used bike, but I saved $1,500 off MSRP on my TW200 by driving an 8-hour round trip.

  • HammSammich

    I’d also recommend making sure it’s licensed…Several years ago, a buddy of mine got a suspiciously good deal on a heavily modified, used sportbike (GSXR 750, IIRC) with no plates. It failed inspection when he went to get plates, because the numbers on the motor and the frame didn’t match. After nearly a year of getting the runaround between the licensing agent, DMV and the State Patrol he finally sold it at a loss to some guy who planned on using it as a track-only bike.

  • Brian

    one other piece, don’t be afraid to walk away. if something doesn’t feel right, whether it be the seller the bike or some other circumstance, chances are your gut may be on point. don’t be afraid to follow your gut instinct.

  • Generic42

    Save a huge amount by buying in the fall and selling in the spring. Here in Colorado we’ve already had our first snow and all the pretty bikes are getting put away for the year. There isn’t as much demand and prices have fallen. If you can buy now, you have a fun winter project and then in the spring you can laugh at everyone paying $1-2K more.

    A commenter recently had a brilliant method for this – Always own two bikes: Buy the one you want to ride next year in the fall, sell the one you just road all summer that spring. By doing this he is effectively renting the bikes and sometimes makes a profit!

    • Khali

      Get and older bike (90′s or so) and enjoy working on it from time to time. Then, when you sell your current ride, use your older bike to get around (“transition bike”), while you search for a new one to buy.

      Not everyone has the money to pay 2 modern bikes at the same time…and you get to build that rat/streetfighter/caferacer/bobber/supermotard you always wanted.

  • Khali

    Here, BMW’s and Harleys are the bikes that depreciate less over time. So if you plan on having one and after one year or two selling it, those would be good investments.

    • Mugget

      I don’t get this whole idea of changing bikes every few years… every year? Bit excessive, innit?!!
      Also considering that you lose money when selling. But if that floats yer boat.

  • kevin

    Another good point: Take the time of the year into consideration! This doesn’t apply so much in the sunshine states, but for everybody else, you’re more likely to get a great deal on a bike this time of year than you are in the spring, even if it means your brand new purchase has to sit in the garage over the winter before you can really enjoy it.

  • kevin

    Another tip, look for new dealers with leftover stock. This sorta falls into a grey area because they’re not technically “used bikes” but it warrants mentioning anyways. Sometimes dealers end up sitting on bikes longer than they want to and it’s not uncommon to find a ‘brand new’ 2012 or even 2011 bike still sitting in a dealer showroom that you can often get for a steal compared to the equivalent ‘new new’ bike.

    • sixgunsteve

      A buddy of mine just bought a new 2011 Yamaha YZ450F still in the crate, never assembled for $6K. Not necessarily “cheap” but deeply discounted over a ’13 or ’14 model for a bike that may see weekend duty on a moto track but will likely live its life tearing up soy bean fields.