If you’re in the market for a motorcycle, chances are you’ve noticed that a swath of new two-wheelers with a five-figure price tag. Of course there are plenty of motorcycles with smaller digits on the bill of sale, but like anything, motorcycle retail prices go up, not down.

Is your need or desire for a motorbike fervently at odds with the very practical matter of staying pennywise? If so, here’s a way to make peace between the devil and angel on your shoulders: buying used.

Buying used can allow you to enter motorcycling inexpensively, or get you the bike you’ve longed for but could never afford when it was brand new.

Buying used can allow you to enter motorcycling inexpensively, or get you the bike you’ve longed for but could never afford when it was brand new.

Purchasing anything secondhand involves inherent risks. Chief among the concerns many buyers have is the sold-as-is status of the item that most private party sellers, and even dealers, invoke as part of the sale. Whether buying a used motorcycle, car, or refrigerator, once you hand over a check or cash to the seller, what you bought is now your problem (in most cases) even if it looks like new.

This aspect of buying used is intimidating to many people simply because of a fear of the unknown. What’s the best way to combat that fear? Knowledge.

While it’s virtually impossible to guarantee what you’re buying is utterly free of any troubles, you can hedge your bets in this gamble of buying used. The payoff in this challenge is that you can get all or most of what you want in a motorcycle, and at the same time spare yourself the sting of paying retail prices.

Arming yourself with a strong general knowledge of the type of motorcycle you’re interested in, some patience on your part, a willingness to develop a discerning eye, and the resolve to stick to a budget will foster the ability to more accurately assess the overall condition of a used motorcycle. With your new skill set you’ll have a better sense of the likely condition of things you can’t see or otherwise physically inspect, thereby shrinking down that nagging fear of the unknown.

The tradeoff for the cost savings of a used motorcycle is the potential that you’ll be buying someone else’s problems.

The tradeoff for the cost savings of a used motorcycle is the potential that you’ll be buying someone else’s problems.

However, before you can begin the process of shopping and evaluating used bikes, you’ll first need to evaluate a key party involved: you, the buyer.

Know Thy Self

Your first step in this journey should be a self-assessment test. Give yourself an honest rundown of your strengths in this process, and determine if you’ve really thought through the demands and requirements of buying a used motorcycle.

  • Are you comfortable talking frankly to strangers about something they own, asking them politely pointed questions?
  • Have you set a budget, and do you know precisely how much you can safely stretch that budget if necessary?
  • Are you an impulse buyer?
  • Do you have a specific type of bike in mind (cruiser, dual-purpose, sportbike, standard style, large or small displacement, etc.) or are merely at the point that you want a motorcycle, any motorcycle?
  • Are you detail oriented, or do pretty, shiny things distract you and lull you into a carefree (careless?) trance?
  • Mechanically inclined, or at least know your way around a basic toolbox?
  • Have you previously purchased something that you later regretted due to lack of knowledge about what you were buying?

Answering these questions – as well as any others that came to you – will help you determine if you’re ready for the challenge of buying used, and hopefully get you in the I’m-getting-prepared frame of mind.

Are you prepared for the challenges involved in buying a used motorcycle? Decisions, decisions

Are you prepared for the challenges involved in buying a used motorcycle?

Decisions, Decisions

If you haven’t decided on a type of motorcycle, i.e. cruiser, standard style, sportbike, etc., obviously you’re at square one. The intent of this how-to isn’t meant as a primer on picking your first motorcycle, but a few tips on picking a two-wheeler bear mentioning.

Take into account your experience level. Is this used motorcycle also your first? If so, you’ll want to factor into your decision-making things like your physique. Is your inseam long or short? Will you be able to comfortably maneuver a 400-pound-plus motorcycle at low speeds, or even walking/pushing a bike that weight over short distances, you know, in case you run out of fuel 100 yards from a gas station? Maybe you’re on the bigger end of the scale of human dimensions and you’ll need a larger scoot in order to feel comfortable.

Because cruisers typically have low seat heights and relaxed riding positions they can make good beginner bikes. Cruisers are appealing for a variety of reasons to motorcyclists of all skill levels.

Because cruisers typically have low seat heights and relaxed riding positions they can make good beginner bikes. Cruisers are appealing for a variety of reasons to motorcyclists of all skill levels.

If you have precious few miles under your belt, you’ll want to reconsider getting that 170-hp liter-class sportbike as your beginner ride and maybe think in terms 500cc standards with a more upright riding position that will better allow you to feel secure about riding as you continue to hone your skill set.

Not every newbie rider is necessarily restricted to beginner style motorcycles, but a fair self-assessment will help narrow down your choice of used motorcycle, making quick work of a big part of buying that first used bike. One category of street motorcycle that can serve a variety of people is the cruiser.

The cruiser segment has enjoyed robust sales for many years. As a result, the used market for cruisers promises a broad selection. Cruisers come in a variety of engine displacements; and the design parameters most manufacturers follow often result in motorcycles that have seat heights lower than other types of bikes, making them a sensible choice for freshman riders.

Most motorcycles are designed to fit an array of physiques. Nevertheless, it’s good to know your limitations.

Most motorcycles are designed to fit an array of physiques. Nevertheless, it’s good to know your limitations.

Other good selections would include lightweight, small-displacement sport style motorcycles. These machines often have styling and riding positions similar to the hyper-performance race replica sportbikes, but don’t produce time-warping horsepower, and can weigh less than 400 pounds.

The web is your friend

Use the web for the powerful information-gathering tool that it is. Forums are a great resource for crash courses in subjects that are new to you. Internet enthusiast forums are often full of users that sleep, eat, and breathe the subject of the forum.

The ’net is a valuable resource when shopping used motorcycles.

The ’net is a valuable resource when shopping used motorcycles.

Forum regulars will often know every obscure tidbit and nuance about a motorcycle, down to the type of metal alloy the manufacturer used 17 years ago on a Tuesday in September during the fifth production run of certain type of bolt used to fasten the mirror stalks. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.

A caution to heed while surfing forums for info is that anyone can say almost anything, and make it sound like concrete fact. So, rather than rely on forums as the definitive authority, look for common themes and consensuses across as many forums as you can stand to read about various aspects of motorcycles you’re interested in purchasing. If a particular topic – good or bad – about a bike keeps showing up in forum after forum you’ve probably stumbled on some useful information that you can add to your arsenal.

Ready, set, buy? Not yet.

At this stage, the internet is still your friend. Sites like Craigslist.com and Cycletrader.com have a national presence as well as localized searches, thereby allowing you to build a good sense of the current resale price range of specific models of bikes. Knowing how strong or soft the resale market is will help you shape a budget, too.

Printed trader-type magazines still have merit in this electronic age.

Printed trader-type magazines still have merit in this electronic age.

For all the advantages the electronic age offers for shopping convenience, sometimes the old ways still pay off. Plenty of sellers still place ads in local newspapers or the printed version of CycleTrader and similar publications. Also, check with your neighborhood motorcycle dealer.

Although a dealer’s primary objective is to sell brand new bikes at full retail, they take trade-ins, just like car dealers. An upside to buying a used bike from a dealer is the high likelihood the dealer previously performed service work on the motorcycle before the owner traded it in for a shiny new ride. The dealer might have a detailed service history on the motorcycle, so even if they’re selling it as is, you’ll have a better sense of what, if any, future care the bike may need. However, just as car dealers will price vehicles with as much profit built in as possible, a motorcycle dealer selling used motorcycles is bound to do the same. You’ll have a greater chance of finding a motorcycle selling at the low end of market value with private-party sellers.

An oft overlooked aspect to weigh when shopping used motorcycles is the age of the motorcycle. Is older and cheaper necessarily better? A 20-year-old motorcycle for the paltry fee of $750 seems like a deal too good to pass up, but it may well be a nightmare in disguise.

This thirtysomething-year-old Honda’s pristine condition is the exception rather than the rule for motorcycles of this age. Even a machine so well kept is bound to have some age-related issues.

This thirtysomething-year-old Honda’s pristine condition is the exception rather than the rule for motorcycles of this age. Even a machine so well kept is bound to have some age-related issues.

Bikes cresting the double-decade age and beyond have more potential for issues. Unlike a car or truck, a majority of a motorcycle’s engine and final drive systems, as well as suspension, are exposed to the elements. Even if the seller was diligent about maintenance, time takes its toll, especially on electrical components and fasteners (bolts, nuts, etc.). Additionally, consider the dwindling availability of spare parts for a motorcycle produced a few decades ago.

Technology has been good to motorcycles made in the last 15 or so years. Manufacturers have made great advancements in designing suspension, frames, wheels, and electrical components and fuel-injection systems. Not every older bike is a disaster waiting to happen; but until you develop a deep cache of motorcycle knowledge and experience, shop as new as your finances will allow, even if new to you means 2001.

Used motorcycle shoppers take your mark!

Once you’ve got a grasp on what the used motorcycle market has to offer, enlist the help of a friend. Bike-savvy friends may notice things that you might’ve overlooked, as well as help you stay grounded. Your two-wheel enthusiast pal may keep your swelling excitement in check, preventing you from wildly throwing blank checks at the seller before you’ve even heard the motorcycle run.

If you’re new to riding and don’t yet have friends who ride, consider a hired gun.

Local motorcycle shop mechanics may be willing to make a few extra dollars moonlighting. People with extensive knowledge often hire themselves out through web venues like Craigslist. Consider creating a contract, verbal or otherwise, with your evaluator-for-hire that will allow you to utilize their skills in assessing several motorcycles. An agreement for a predetermined length of service will ensure you have the help you need for an extended period. Consequently, your hired gun will have something of a guarantee of several jobs (or a flat rate that’s good for you both), which might entice them more than just performing one evaluation.

If you bristle at the notion of paying someone to help you look at used bikes consider for a moment that the fee you paid for the professional assistance could turn into a welcome expense. If your hired gun discovered some issue with the bike that you know you wouldn’t have ever found yourself, possibly costing you much more in repairs than you could stomach, the fee the evaluator charged for their services could be insignificant when compared with the grief of buying a trouble-laden used motorcycle.

Finally, make sure to tote along riding gear in the event the seller will let you test ride the bike. Again, if you’re new to motorcycling and have yet to purchase riding gear, then ask your veteran riding bud or paid evaluator if they’ll bring their gear in order to test ride for you.

Get geared up for the adventure of buying used!

Get geared up for the adventure of buying used!

Phase II

In the second part of this how-to we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of specific areas of inspection – tire wear, indications of prior damage, etc. – and things to look for on a used motorcycle you’re considering, as well as some questions you’ll want to ask the seller.

In the meantime, start doing your shopping homework.

  • fastfreddie

    Buying a 30+ year old bike is a great/frustrating way of improving your mechanical skills;) I advice getting a bike produced after the new millenium.

  • Alexander Pityuk

    If buying your first one, then it’s always best to buy overly reliable bikes as new as possible within your budget. Because the chance you will get a bike that really appeals to you is almost negligible. Often you can’t know what you want until you try something. What you need at first is the joy of riding as such. And what you need even more is not to get into certain intimate relations with your new bike (aka as @#$%ing with it), which would ruin your first experience.

  • azi

    My rule of thumb: for a bike <5 years old, budget an extra $500 to fix stuff. For a bike 6-10 years old, budget an extra $1000 to fix stuff. For bikes 11-15 years old, budget $2000 to fix stuff. For bikes over 15 years old: make sure you really, really, really love that model of bike so you don't mind spending the purchase price again fixing it up… or just ride it into the ground.

    • TC

      BMW = Bring Money With you.
      HD = Hundred Dollars, because that’s the least you will ever spend at the dealer. Those head hankies are pricey.

  • Dustin Kyd

    I have rules of buying anything second hand, 1. Research the bike and it’s common issues and typical issues at X amount of miles. 2. If you go to look over the bike always take someone knowledgeable with you(if you go on a forum and ask someone close to you they’re usually willing to come help you get started and you can make a riding buddy, also you can talk to a local mechanic and see if they are willing to look it over with you) 3. If the seller won’t let you rest everything or bring it to a shop for an inspection look elsewhere. 4. Make sure you have the title in hand before handing over cash. Also make sure to bring a witness or two with you at all times some people are crazy. Buying a used bike from a dealer is a much safer bet.

  • Kevin Polito

    My first bike (1970 Kaw Mach III) had been wrecked so many times, every painted part was a different color. The first owner had died on it, so it was known in the neighborhood as The Death Bike (as in, “What?! You bought The Death Bike?!). But several of my friends had Mach IIIs, and it was cheap, so that was the bike I learned to ride on.

    • TC

      I had one of those. 3 complete engine rebuilds by 15k miles. Scariest bike I ever owned.

      • Kevin Polito

        I used to carry spare sparkplugs in case one fouled. Sometimes I’d run to the store to pick up a few things and had to change a sparkplug to make it back home.

        • TC

          Never fouled a plug, but it smoked like a chimney until I switched to synthetic 2 stroke oil, Klotz, I think it was called. Ran better and no smoke. That was the only bike I ever owned that would pull a wheelie when it hit it’s powerband.

  • JMDonald

    I have bought three used bikes since the 70s. Two from people I knew. I also knew the bikes very well and their level of upkeep. I was able to ride them both for many years with no problems. The only bike I bought from someone I didn’t know was a vintage T140 Bonneville. I knew what I was getting. I sold it after 6 months after I finally got it running. Needless to say a vintage bike is a labor of love. At one time I saw a number of used bikes that were only a couple of years old with hardly any miles on them. Guys bought them, rode them occasionally, grew tired of them and sold them. Those are the bikes to get. They almost always had impeccable maintenance records. There are deals out there. Be patient. You will find what you are looking for.

  • AltaBob

    I’ve bought 5 used bikes in the last 40 years and, other than tires and normal maintenance, haven’t had to spend anything on them in the first 2 or 3 years I’ve owned them! Got them all for less than half of new price, so am many dollars ahead!

  • Russ Archer

    With the plethora of owner forums out there, it’s really easy to research used bikes nowadays. Two of the best bikes I’ve ever owned were a used ’07 Triumph Speed Triple (40% less than MSRP new) and an ’04 BMW R1150R (50% less than MSRP new). I rode the Speed Triple for 6 years and put 15,000 miles on it. I rode the BMW for a couple of years and put almost 10,000 miles on it. I recently sold the Triumph for $1500 less than I paid for it and the BMW for the exact same amount I paid for it. Buying used was definitely the way to go for me.

  • Craig Hoffman

    I like to buy used bikes on the private market and not from dealers. They are cheaper that way, which is in line with the whole money saving idea of buying used, plus you get to meet the owner. I don’t just buy the bike, I buy the owner. Look at the garage and how they live in general. If the bike is dirty and the house is a dump, politely walk away.

    • TC

      Good advice. Buy from the original owner if possible, and ask to see the maintenance records. I bought a ‘used’ Olympia AST2 jacket last winter, the owner had 2 new BMW GS’s in the garage and the jacket still had the tags on it. Bikes were spotless as was the garage. I sold a Kawi GPZ1100 that I had bought new, and when the buyer came to get it, saw the bike and saw all the maintenance records, I thought he was going to hug me, he was so happy.

  • TC

    I lost track of how many used bikes I’ve bought. Stick with a later model with low miles and check for any crash damage, oil leaks, or evidence of abuse. I just bought an ’09 Moto Guzzi Stelvio with 2200 miles on it for less than half the price of a new one, and it was in ‘as new’ condition. Run, don’t walk, from any advertised as ‘lightly crashed’ or ‘easy fixer’. Bike parts are expensive, and you will always be better off spending a little more for a clean bike.

  • Speedwayrn@yahoo.com

    Buy your helmet, gloves, jacket, pants, boots first. Then what money you have left over is how much money you have left to buy a bike. If your not mechanically inclined stick with a modern fuel injected bike.

  • Peter c

    An advantage buying second hand to new is you are not subjected to dealer servicing expenses. If you can work on a bike yourself you will save a fortune and if not you can take it to your mechanic of choice.