5 Things You Need to Know About Buying a Motorcycle

John L. Stein
by John L. Stein
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From safety to condition, service history and more, assessing a bike to buy requires some good knowledge and critical thinking. Here’s a start

Photo by rjankovsky/Shutterstock.com
Photo by rjankovsky/Shutterstock.com

Does the adage, “Look before you leap” sound familiar? It should, for anyone who loves jumping across gaps or over cliff sides. But philosophically, it’s also smart when you’re buying a motorcycle, new or used. Not only because examining the product may save you from expensive repairs later, but because closely studying your purchase motivations will help you buy the bike you need. Trust Motorcycle.com on this – getting the right machine for your skill level, and for what you want to do in the sport, is crucial. Read on for some useful tips on what to buy, and how to do it.

Motorcycle.com thanks Yamaha for sponsoring this new rider series.

I – Assess for Safety

In reality, the five things you should know about buying a motorcycle are: 1) Safety; 2) Safety; 3) Safety; 4) Safety; and 5) Safety! Yes, plenty more matters but let’s cover this important topic first, since a long and enjoyable riding career has safety as its most crucial underpinning. This includes your licensing, training, riding habits, and practices – and naturally, the bike itself. For the moment, let’s focus on the machine. If you buy new, it’s a reasonable assumption that the motorcycle is in safe condition: The tires will be new and inflated correctly; the chain will be properly adjusted; and the brakes will be in good order. So far, so good.

Photo by rjankovsky/Shutterstock.com
Photo by rjankovsky/Shutterstock.com

But what happens if you buy a used bike? If you buy from a dealer, ask them for records that show the bike is up to date on its service needs, and a completed safety checklist. If they refuse, shop elsewhere, because you need and deserve to know that whatever machine you buy is safe. This is harder when you buy from a private party. Here, you have a few options: Ask to see the service records; tell the seller you want the bike assessed by a dealership; or at the least, bring along a qualified bike friend to inspect the bike.

II – Overall Condition

Let’s assume for this section that a new bike is in perfect shape, serviced and ready to ride. (Plus, it’ll have a warranty.) Duh, so obvious! This being the case, let’s switch to buying used. While many riders want to find a low-mileage used bike (we sure would!), know that miles on the odometer should not necessarily be an impediment to buying a bike that you like – if the bike’s service needs have been met. But abuse or neglect is of concern because every service or maintenance need that the previous owner has ignored, you’ll sooner or later have to correct. And that takes time and money.

To safeguard yourself, before you buy, survey the bike from front to back, and from top to bottom. Look at the cosmetics including paint, plastic, and chrome, examine the tires, look for crash damage, and check the chain and rear sprocket for wear. (Tip: Pull the chain away from the rear edge of the sprocket. On a good chain, the links won’t move much, but they will on a worn chain. Also, severely worn sprocket teeth are asymmetrically shaped – like a dolphin’s dorsal fin – instead of symmetrical. Hope that makes sense!) You can also examine the color of the engine oil and brake fluid (lighter is newer, darker is older).

5 things you need to know about buying a motorcycle

More advanced analytical steps include checking the steering and swingarm bearings for binding or slop, for how the brakes function, and for smooth, light operation of cables and controls. With the engine running, test the electrical systems including lights (both headlight beams), turn signals, brake light, idiot lights and horn. There’s more, but this is a good start.

III – Service Status

Some owners stay on top of their bike’s condition like a rottweiler on a pork chop. Others – not so much. The aforementioned tire wear, a dry, rusty, or loose chain, perhaps a torn seat or scratched paint, and a generally dirty or unkempt presentation speak volumes about the bike’s care. To ward off evil spirits here ask for the service records. If you’re lucky, they will be all there in a chronological file. A mumbling, evasive answer from the seller or just a few scattered papers will forewarn you of potential pitfalls. Deal with a straight-up seller; you’ll be glad you did.

IV – Match Your Skills

So, you want to move up from an eBike to something with a bit more punch. Well, do not pass Go and collect $44,995 to buy a Ducati Panigale V4 R. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Motorcycling is like flying, in that you don’t jump from a Cessna 152 to an F-35 in a single bound. Choose your first bike commensurate with your cumulative riding skill and experience. If that’s zero, fine. Get a lightweight learner bike that keeps you in town, keeps your speeds down, and lets you go practice in every open parking lot, neighborhood, and cul-de-sac.

5 things you need to know about buying a motorcycle

Fortunately, over a decade ago the motorcycle industry reawakened to the idea that it needed new riders to replace Boomers aging out. The result is a sweet array of affordable 125cc to 250cc learner bikes. Just a few street examples include the Honda Trail 125 ($3,999) and XR150L ($2,971), Kawasaki’s KLX230 ($4,999) and Z125 Pro ($3,399), and the Yamaha TW200 ($4,899) and V Star 250 ($4,699).

V – Fulfill Your Purpose

We’ve just discussed a half-dozen new street-legal motorcycles from about $3k to $5k (and that’s just a fraction of the choices). But have you considered making your first motorcycle a dirt bike? There’s lots of merit here, because in the dirt, you don’t have to worry about automobile and truck traffic, traffic signals and signs, pavement, curbs, and utility poles – none of that. You can spend hours – days and months even – just enjoying the outdoors and most importantly, learning and perfecting skills on natural terrain.

5 things you need to know about buying a motorcycle

We’re convinced that dirt is the best teacher for motorcyclists. It’s a pragmatic one, too, because if you fall over, there’s no one else to blame: It’s your duty to pick up the bike, dust yourself off, and consider what led to the fall. Did the front tire hit a sand patch or rock, did the rear wheel sideslip into a rut, or did you just lose your balance in weird conditions? It’s all good because you’re learning.

With the right bike, the right gear, and an easy, patient riding pace, in the dirt, the knowledge gained is beyond terrific. And good news, virtually any vehicle with a trailer hitch receiver can accept a motorcycle rack, so you can haul your bike to a riding area with ease. See you there!

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John L. Stein
John L. Stein

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Join the conversation
  • Jig77856295 Jig77856295 on Sep 29, 2023

    If you want a street legal bike, you better check the cost of insurance first or could end up paying through the nose to ride it. At the extreme end, one years insurance for a 20 something yr old and certain crotch rockets can be as much as 1/3 the price of the bike. Ouch.

    • Eric Eric on Oct 02, 2023

      Check around. I got progressive insurance and have full replacement bike coverage plus 5k gear and 5k for additional parts installed all for less than 600 a year. My current bike is a ducati desert x

  • Eric Eric on Oct 02, 2023

    Best tip I've ever got about motorcycles is "buy new" since I've ditch the old bike (DR650) I now buy a new bike every other year and have had zero issues with the bikes.