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The rider’s guide to buying a used motorcycle

Added March 12, 2021
Motorcycle keys

Considering purchasing a used bike? It can be an adventure. And just like a long motorcycle journey, your knowledge, research, and planning influences results.

Saving money is just one of the reasons many riders decide to buy on the used motorcycle market. Some riders also seek a dream motorcycle that’s no longer manufactured. Ultimately, whether you get a great used motorcycle at a sweet price or buy a money pit of a bike will depend on being a knowledgeable consumer. Follow these tips and you'll be prepared to make a smart buying decision.

Research first: Know what you’re buying

Forewarned is forearmed—it’s an old cliché, but it really fits the process of shopping for a used motorcycle. First, determine the type of used motorcycle you want to buy—and, if you have a particular year, make, and model in mind, even better. Next, cast a wide search net to see what’s currently available on the market. Once you’ve narrowed your search to one or two brands or models, develop a used motorcycle checklist to guide your research. Make sure to keep track of year, make, model, price, mileage, proximity, and personal priority details such as color, accessories, and other preferences.

For each used motorcycle on your checklist, do a deep dive to discover what it’s like to own one. Thanks to the internet, you can find and download owner’s and service manuals for many late-model motorcycles. Look for an online owners’ forum where you can learn from the experiences of current cycle owners, including common service issues, popular upgrades/modifications, and rider satisfaction or complaints.

Research new model reviews that include information and photos of the motorcycle as new, including what an unmodified example looks like. Since these reviews frequently make comparisons to similar competitor models, they can help you determine used motorcycle values.

Private sellers versus dealers

You can expect to pay more for a used motorcycle from a dealership than you might when buying from a private seller. On the plus side, dealers will likely:

  • Sell only their best traded-in motorcycles
  • Inspect and perform any needed maintenance or service
  • Offer a limited warranty or return policy

Buying a used bike from a dealer is probably your low effort, low risk, and savings value path. Motorcycle dealers are in the business for the long run and have a reputation and repeat business to look after.

Private sellers may be riders who prefer to recoup more from their used motorcycle than what they’re offered on a dealer trade-in. They can also be folks who are getting out of motorcycle riding or just selling an unwanted motorcycle. Buying from a private seller can put a fine motorcycle in your garage at a great price if you do your due diligence as an educated buyer. The key is to use the knowledge from your research and take a professional approach to inspecting the used motorcycle.

Price and value

With the exception of rare or collectible antique motorcycles, the price of a used motorcycle should represent a good value versus buying a new one. Prices and value are dependent on condition, mileage, and how the motorcycle was used and maintained. It’s common for riders to customize and personalize their motorcycles, but not all customizations add value. In fact, some could be done to “repair” damage from drops or accidents. This is where knowing what the used motorcycle originally looked like and how it was configured pays off. You often can find out about the most common updates to specific models in online forums.

Title, registration, and state inspection

A motorcycle is a valuable piece of real personal property that has a unique vehicle identification number (VIN). An on-road motorcycle needs to be registered, inspected, and have plates and insurance just like a car or truck. If something is amiss with the VIN, title, or registration, buying it may be a headache and could be a total loss. You certainly don’t want to buy a stolen vehicle.

We’ll discuss inspecting the motorcycle itself in a moment, but the first thing to inspect is the VIN on the motorcycle frame and engine so you can compare to the documents. Numbers must match everywhere along with the year, make, and model on the title and registration. The title must be clear. If there is a lienholder, they should’ve signed off on their portion, and you should be given the contact information to verify this. Beware of salvage, rebuilt/reconstructed, flood damage, and other-than-clear titles that affect resale value. If a used motorcycle sounds good enough at a fair price, ask for the VIN number before you go look at it. Your request should not be a problem if the owner isn’t concealing an issue.

Vehicle history report

You can learn a lot about the used motorcycle you’re interested in by acquiring a vehicle history report. Most websites that offer reports based on VIN are focused on cars and trucks, but some provide reports on motorcycles as well. CycleVin offers some free reports and a VIN history for $25. You can also try VINData Vehicle History. Both can help you learn about the title, liens, safety recalls, DMV history, and more. Once you know the used motorcycle is as represented, it’s time to look it over carefully.

Maintenance history

The longevity of a motorcycle is heavily dependent on the timely performance of routine motorcycle maintenance and the quality of that service work and materials. You should already be well versed on the maintenance requirements and schedule of this motorcycle. Feel free to ask questions that will reveal how the current owner has managed maintenance. Most motorcyclists are very fond of their motorcycles and it will show by how they discuss maintenance. In an ideal situation, they’ll provide a service record with invoices from a quality motorcycle shop. Some motorcycle riders are dedicated to DIY upkeep; this can be a real plus, as skilled owners can take the time to do great work on their machine. However, if you know more about maintaining their motorcycle than they do, this is a cause for concern. In any case, it’s time to perform a motorcycle inspection and take note if their maintenance claims check out.

Cold motorcycle inspection

Let’s see if the bike of your dreams is in ride-ready shape. Up to this point, it’s possible you haven’t seen the motorcycle in person. When you schedule a time to meet the owner and see the bike, you should insist that they don’t start the motorcycle before you arrive. There are two good reasons for this. First, you’ll want to completely examine the motorcycle and be able to touch parts that get hot. Second, you’ll want to witness a cold start as this can reveal some potential engine issues.

Here’s a general motorcycle inspection checklist to follow. Check:

  • Handlebars and grips: Look for signs they’re bent or scratched from drops or accidents.
  • Brake and clutch levers: These get damaged in drops and accidents; look for damage, bends, and scrapes, and that both sides look the same age. Were parts replaced on one side?
  • Foot pegs and lean feelers: Look for signs these have been ground by hard cornering or damaged as mentioned for the levers.
  • Tires: Are they ready for riding? Rear tires do wear out faster than front tires. Also keep in mind:
    • More wear in the middle could mean freeway touring or commuting
    • High wear in the middle of the rear tire only could also be a sign of burnouts
    • Excessive wear at the edges can mean aggressive cornering or track use on a sport bike
  • Brakes: Look for excessive brake pad and rotor wear, and if they apply and release smoothly.
  • Clutch: Feel for a little play in the lever; put the bike in first gear and see if it rolls without resistance.
  • Exhaust system: Look for dents, scratches, rust, and solid mounting; vibration can loosen or crack them.
  • Frame: Look for dents, bends, cracks, scrapes, or rust.
  • Wheels: Look for loose or bent spokes and damage to the rims. Does the bike roll smoothly?
  • Engine: Look for leaks, scrapes, cracks, and broken cooling fins.
  • Coolant: Check coolant if water cooled—should be sweet smelling, green in color, and have no oil contamination.
  • Engine oil: Fresh oil will be light colored; oil darkens as the miles accumulate. Check for metal particles or signs of coolant contamination.
  • Oil drain plug: Look for a rounded-off bolt and leaks.
  • Final drive chain and sprocket: Check for excessive slack, very dirty or rusted chain, and worn or damaged sprocket teeth.
  • Final drive belt: Check for excessive slack and signs of wear, holes, or cracks in belt.
  • Battery: Check for signs of leaks or corrosion on terminals.
  • Electrical wiring: Look for signs of fraying, failing insulation, rewiring, or splicing in accessories.
  • Bodywork: Look for parts that could be damaged in a drop or accident, signs of repairs, or parts that seem newer than the rest of the motorcycle.
  • Cleanliness: Is the motorcycle clean on the surface but dirty behind panels or under the seat or engine?
  • Cold start: Does it start easily? Listen for unusual sounds and look for smoke at the exhaust; consider using your phone to make a video recording the cold start to show your mechanic if you have questions.

Safety during the sale process

Both parties in a private motorcycle sale may have some issues concerning safety. Sellers might be reluctant to meet you at their home and allow a stranger to test ride their bike. As a buyer, riding a motorcycle you don’t know can be risky, especially if you’re a new rider—don’t test ride questionable motorcycles. Buyers should also be careful about bringing a large amount of cash when looking at a bike the first time. Stay alert as you scout out a used motorcycle. If something seems wrong, listen to your gut and move along to the next prospect. Be cautious about buying from a professional motorcycle flipper or someone dealing in motorcycles without business licensing and insurance.

Professional inspection and test ride

Every motorcycle needs professional service sooner or later. If you’re getting your first motorcycle, you should find a local motorcycle repair shop that’ll work on the bike you want to buy. After you find a motorcycle, give it a good once over, and agree on a price, ask your shop to check it out. Sellers of a quality motorcycle shouldn’t have an issue with this. A trained motorcycle mechanic is the best test rider and can tell you if the bike is good or has problems you missed. With this expert advice, you can feel good about the purchase or negotiate a new price to reflect the service needed—or pass on a lemon. The small cost the shop asks for this service is well worth it.

Get a good start with your new motorcycle

A new-to-you motorcycle needs to be insured, state inspected, and registered before you start riding it. Don’t forget to service it first. Change the oil and filter, and replace any worn items such as tires, brake pads, or a weak battery. Having everything mechanically refreshed and properly adjusted will help make your newly acquired used motorcycle safer and more enjoyable. If your cycle has a documented service history, this is where you preserve that value by keeping more records. Learn more about taking your maintenance skills to the next level.

Buying a used motorcycle is an exciting process. If you approach it with good research and patience, you can get a great motorcycle at a nice price. You might even meet some future riding buddies or new friends. Doing it right may take more time and effort, but that investment pays dividends, mile after mile.

Till next time, ride safe!

Related links:

See all of our motorcycle insurance coverage plans that come with Dairyland’s exceptional service and support.

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