Buying a Motorcycle for the Compulsive or Impulsive- Part II
If taking the bike to a mechanic is impossible, learn how to do some basic checks yourself.
There's a terrific resource for pre-purchase inspections here. If it looks lengthy and intimidating to you, you might want to spend the extra $2000 or so for a new bike! Buying new is worth every penny, if you can afford it. But many of us can't, or we just love the thrill of saving the extra money.
Write a checklist of items to inspect. Most importantly, you want to get an overall sense of a motorcycle that is clean and well cared-for. I just sold a 1993 Honda Shadow 600 that looked and ran like a brand-new bike. That's the kind of bike you want. Rather than focusing on price, mileage or year, look at the owner and how she cares for her possessions. A 300-point checklist is great, but you will find that after looking at five or 10 items, you will have a good idea whether the bike is worth buying.
Basic maintenance is key. Is the chain lubed or dry? Loose or tight? Shiny or rusty? Is the engine oil clean or dirty? Has the air filter been changed lately? Is the bike clean like a clean bike, or clean like a bike that just got a detailing? Are there scratches all over, or just from one tip-over? Are the tires bargain bin specials or tires you would want to actually ride on?
Speaking of tires, they really do tell you a lot about the seller. Learn how to read tire codes! If the tires are over five years old, find out why, and add the cost of new ones to the price you will pay for the bike! The same goes for tune-ups, chain-and-sprockets, and other wear items.
Reading Tires Dates
Reading the date on your tire is very easy once you learn it, and is very impressive to laymen. It can actually save your life, especially if you are buying a used bike, or getting tires mail-order.
It's simple: the date is final three or four-digit code stamped into the small oval area on the sidewall after the word DOT. The first two digits are the week of the year, and the last two digits are the last two numbers of the year. If it was made before 2000, it's just the last digit of the year, hence a three-digit number.
For instance, 1202 is the twelfth week of 2002: the last week of March. 109 is the tenth week of 1999, or possibly 1989. You should be able to figure out if the tire is a 1990's tire or a 1980's tire by brand and model, although Metzler has been making ME33's since about 1874. Don't worry about the tire being from the 60's or 70's: they didn't start using the code until sometime in the 80's. If you are wondering whether or not to keep a 1970's tire you should abandon motorcycling for something safe, like model yacht racing or breeding pot-bellied pigs in your tub. Of course, you have nothing to loose making a lowball offer on the motorcycle, as long as you do it with good humor and respect.
Now that you know how to read tire dates, you can pick the freshest tires at the motorcycle shop, or send stale tires back to the mail-order warehouses like a wine snob at the Olive Garden. You will briefly impress your friends when you tell them how old their tires are, and then become annoying.
So now we know the motorcycle is worth buying. How do we put the squeeze on the seller so we can get it cheaper?
An inexperienced and desperate seller will quickly reduce his price to make you happy and buy. A more experienced and less desperate one will be tougher to get concessions from. But is the bike worth the price? Will somebody else grab it first if you "think it over"? Remember, condition is more important than price. If you spend $500 too much, your regret will disappear as soon as you have another $500. If you save $500 by purchasing a lemon, you'll regret it every time you ride or even look at your bike. The regret will last until you sell the stupid thing to some other idiot.
Don't turn this into a battle of wills. If you want to beat the seller at something, challenge him to some one-on-one basketball. Chances are he has a hoop nailed up over his garage. But if he has a very nice motorcycle at a fair price, snap it up.
Of course, you have nothing to loose making a lowball offer on the motorcycle, as long as you do it with good humor and respect. Don't make it so much lower than your maximum price that you will look like a jerk when you do pop the extra $1000 out of your back pocket after you told the seller that you had to dip into your retirement fund to scrape up $3800. But sometimes people list a price way higher than what they really want to get for a bike. That's why it's a good idea to be educated: know what that year and model is selling for in your area. Sure, Honda Hawks sell for $1,500 in Alabama, but you're in San Francisco, so you pay more. If you don't like it, live in Alabama. See how you like that! (And you might: Alabama is a great place to live. If you're a banjo. I'm kidding. Banjos warp from the humidity.*)
Once you've agreed on a price, write a contract in clear, simple language if there's anything you and the seller have promised each other. Make sure each of you has a signed copy. Then, make sure all the paperwork is in order. Double and triple check the VIN and engine numbers- errors here can cause headaches with your DMV! Find out if there's any extended warranty or service plan. Make sure there is no lien on the bike, or that you have all the pay-off information if there is one.
You should have a good feeling about this whole transaction by now. I think buying used from a private party is a very satisfying way to buy a bike. You can save a bundle of money and make a good riding buddy. Be prepared to spend a little more than you'd like, be willing to travel a hundred miles or more, and make sure you look at a few bikes before you buy. And don't worry: if it's right, you'll know it's right, and don't be afraid to walk away from the deal that makes you uneasy.
Next: The belly of the beast: buying from a dealer.
* Seriously, I am kidding. Alabama is a great state, filled with very nice people, excepting the ones who are at this moment e-mailing me error-ridden homophobic hate mail. Don't worry, next week I'll make fun of Rhode Island.