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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.