Buying a used motorcycle can be a daunting experience, especially for those still new to the game. It can feel like there's a never-ending list of things to check for, and you start to worry that you might be overlooking something important.
The key to buying a used bike is to go in with a game plan. Your instincts will only take you so far. How exactly will you know the bike isn't a piece of junk? What are you supposed to look out for?
Well, fear not because we've got you covered. In this article, we'll run through everything you need to inspect on a used bike, and even provide a downloadable checklist so you don't have to remember it all off-hand.
Arming yourself with a checklist is the best way to keep yourself from forgetting anything important, otherwise, you're just stumbling in the dark. So play it smart and you can grab a motorcycle on the cheap that will hopefully last for years to come.
IMPORTANT QUESTIONS WHEN BUYING A USED MOTORCYCLE
A few probing questions will tell you a lot about a motorcycle's story. Ask the seller some of these questions and the overall picture will soon start to become clear.
HOW MUCH IS A USED BIKE WORTH?
A bike's value will depend on the make and model. The best way to determine if you're getting a good deal is to check out what the rest of the competition is offering. Scour places like Bikesales, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace, and Justbikes to see what a particular model is selling for.
How are you getting the bike home once you buy it? If your plan is to drive it home, make sure you have a valid driver's license for a motorcycle. Just because you own a bike, doesn't mean you can drive without one.
Do you have a mate with a licence who's willing to give you a hand? If you drove your car to the meetup, this is a handy workaround. Another option is getting a trailer, which should probably be your last resort because of the extra work involved.
Can the seller drive the bike to your place? With a bit of cash incentive, they might be up to it.
Keep in mind that in any case, once you buy the motorcycle it's now legally in your name. That means any accidents will be your responsibility, so call up your insurance company of choice and get your new baby insured before you even think about pulling out of the driveway.
WAS IT RIDDEN REGULARLY?
Ask the seller how often they rode the bike. Was it left sitting in a garage for months at a time? An inactive bike can lead to problems like battery discharge, fuel system issues, and rust/corrosion.
While you would normally look for second-hand items that have been used as little as possible, motorcycles are a different story. Regular riding helps keep the battery charged, and the fuel system clean and keeps the bike's mechanical components in good working order.
HOW WAS IT USED?
Try casually asking the seller about their riding habits. Did they use the bike to transit to work every day, or are they purely weekend riders? Did they hit up any tracks with the bike?
The more heavily a motorcycle was used then the more wear and tear it probably has, so size up what kind of rider the seller probably is.
HOW WELL WAS IT MAINTAINED?
Any motorcycle needs the occasional touch of maintenance to stay in good working order. Did the previous owner perform oil changes and clean the bike as needed? Ask if they have the bike's maintenance history, which will tell you when it next needs a service and any issues that might pop up in the future.
Don't forget to perform an eye test as well. You should be able to size up how much love was given to a motorcycle just by looking it over. Compare the bike's condition to the owner's story and make sure they match up.
WHO OWNED IT?
How many previous owners has the bike had? Is the seller the only one who's had the bike, or has it been passed around a few times? A bike that's had multiple owners is probably a red flag.
Multiple owners mean you can't get the full story of a bike's condition, not to mention additional wear and tear. It also raises the question of why more than one person was keen to get rid of it.
HOW WAS IT STORED?
Did the previous owner keep their bike in a garage or out on the street? Motorcycles accumulate wear and tear from the elements if they stay outside for long periods of time. If it was kept outside, did they cover it up properly to protect it from the elements?
It's certainly not a dealbreaker. Heaps of people leave their bikes outside, and you might plan to do the same. But it's still a handy piece of knowledge when considering a bike's condition.
VEHICLE HISTORY REPORT?
A vehicle history report (VHR) is an all-encompassing document that tells you a bike's ownership history, accident/maintenance history, and title history. So a pretty handy piece of info if the owner can provide it.
Obtaining a VHR normally involves paying a fee, so if the owner doesn't have one on hand then you'll need to come to some sort of arrangement. Also keep in mind that while VHRs pack a lot information, they don't necessarily have all the details. Some issues with a bike might not be reflected in the report.
WHY ARE THEY SELLING IT?
You should definitely ask why the seller doesn't need the bike anymore. Are they upgrading? Do they not ride anymore? Moving house and no longer having the space?
Have your wits about you and make sure the situation doesn't seem fishy. If their story doesn't make sense and you're getting a bad feeling, know when to walk away.
We'll run through everything to look out for below in finer detail, but you can download a quick and free checklist to bring along for the big day. This should help avoid the anxiety of trying to remember every little detail during an inspection.
DOUBLE-CHECK THESE ON YOUR MOTORCYCLE INSPECTION CHECKLIST
The checklist above is great to bring along when you're inspecting a bike, but if you're looking for more detailed info then be sure to check out this expanded version:
MAKE SURE THE BIKE IS COLD BEFORE YOU INSPECT IT!
Anytime you inspect a used motorcycle, call ahead and make sure the seller doesn't start the bike before you get there. You want that thing ice cold!
The reason for this is that it's easy to mask starting and running problems on a warm bike, so you need the engine cold. Feel the jugs and the pipes for any signs of heat. A seller who's reluctant to let you start a bike cold, or even worse tries to trick you into thinking it hasn't been started, is probably trying to hide something.
FINANCIALS AND PAPERWORK
Paperwork is something that can't be avoided when buying a bike, used or new.
You will need the motorcycle's title. The process of a title transfer will depend on where you live, but it usually involves both seller and buyer signing the transfer form, a roadworthy certificate, and a transfer fee.
If a seller tells you they don't have the title on them and promise to send it later, don't take their word for it. If a seller couldn't get organised enough to get the title on the day, you run the risk of getting burnt when they don't deliver.
Ask for a written receipt for extra security. The templates for motorcycle receipts can easily be found online, so make sure to print one out and bring it along. Don't rely on the seller to remember.
Does the seller have a roadworthy certificate? If they don't you should take it as a red flag. Not only are they expensive to get yourself, but it leaves you wondering why they didn't bother to get one in the first place.
Don't forget about insurance either. Once you buy the motorcycle it's now legally in your name. That means any accidents will be your responsibility, so call up your insurance company of choice and get your new baby insured before you even think about pulling out of the driveway.
IS THE SELLER THROWING IN ANY EXTRAS?
If a seller is giving up riding for good, you might be able to score yourself a helmet and some riding gear in a sweet package deal. Maybe you have this stuff anyway, but if it's your very first bike then maybe you don't. Just make sure it all fits! Remember, you can't legally ride without a helmet.
PHYSICAL DAMAGE TO THE MOTORCYCLE
Look over the bike's body for any signs of damage, which could be a sign of a crash or that the bike has been tipped over. Check for scratches or dents on the side panels and the tank. Also check the foot pegs, engine fins, handlebars, and any general signs of major damage.
The engine is a bike's beating heart so make sure it's in ship shape. A visual inspection for signs of damage and wear should be your first step. Check for cracks, oil leaks, rust, and corrosion.
Next, inspect the bike's oil. Pay attention to the colour and consistency. Fresh oil should be clean and free of contaminants, whereas dirty or discoloured oil can indicate neglect or poor maintenance.
Likewise, make sure the fluids are all at appropriate levels. This includes the coolant, brake fluid, and transmission fluid. Low fluid levels can be a sign of neglect or poor maintenance.
Check the exhaust system for any rust or damage. A damaged exhaust can lead to engine problems later down the line.
Lastly, listen closely when the bike starts for any unusual sounds. The engine should start smoothly without any knocking, rattling, or other strange noises.
CHECK THE TIRES
Motorcycle tires aren't cheap to replace, so make sure they're in good shape or it might cost you down the line. Fresh, matching tires are a good indication that the owner took a lot of care with their bike.
Inspect their general condition and look out for any bald spots or cracks. They should have even wear and still have 1.5mm of tread remaining. When you take a test ride the tires should roll straight without any wobble.
This is where a torch/flashlight really comes in handy. Check the tank opening for any rust or debris, and make sure the inside is clear. The fuel tank needs to be checked very carefully. Anything inside the tank can make its way through the bike and stuff your carburetor, which controls the air and fuel entering the engine.
CHAIN AND SPROCKET
At some point in a motorcycle's life, the chain will need to be replaced, possibly multiple times. Regardless, you should inspect the chain on a motorcycle you plan on buying because replacing a worn chain is another expense that you could be accumulating.
You can check a chain by gently pushing it along its sections. It should move relatively freely without feeling like you're forcing it, and there should be no rust. Check the sprocket teeth on the chain as well to see if they've been worn down.
Test the brakes and make sure they're completely functional. You can do this by sitting on the bike and pulling the brake lever. They should engage as soon as you pull the lever. They should respond fairly quickly. If you need to pull them far to get a response, the bike could have brake issues.
Have a look at the brake pads as well. Check their thickness and ask if they've been replaced recently.
When you take it for a test ride, pay attention to the bike's suspension. It shouldn't be wobbling while you ride, and the front tire should align at 90 degrees with the handlebars. You can also check a bike's suspension the old-fashioned way: with your eyes. Does it look straight? The rear wheel should be parallel to the front wheel.
Another way of testing the suspension is to sit on the bike and pull in the front brakes while leaning down. If you feel a bit of give in the forks, that means the suspension is working without issue.
While the best way to test a motorcycle's battery is with a battery tester, a visual check will tell you the most obvious signs of damage. We don't all have battery testers lying around after all.
When checking the battery, the major things to look out for are broken terminals, cracks or bulges in the plastic casing as well as leaking fluid or discolouration. While you're at it, check the brake lights, high and low beams, and the horn.
However, you should know that battery terminals can naturally get corrosion over time. In most cases you can simply clean the battery and keep using it, so keep this in mind before you decide that a battery has gone bad.
HAVE YOU GOT THE GEAR?
You'll need a motorcycle helmet to legally ride a bike, and that goes for pretty much anywhere in the world. While that's the only piece of gear that's legally required, the truth is that you'll need a bit more protection to stay safe out there.
You're 35 times more likely to be involved in an accident on a motorcycle according to Motorbiscuit, so the gear that you wear matters. Just check out our crash storiesif you need proof that motorcycle gear works.
Most riders wear motorcycle denim pants and a genuine riding jacket every time they ride. Normal denim and everyday clothes will be instantly ripped to shreds in the event of an accident, so don't make the mistake of thinking that will cut it.
You don't need to look like you've joined the Hell's Angels every time you gear up. The current market for riding gear offers plenty of casual, flexible styles that look just like everyday clothes. Check out our awesome range of motorcycle clothingto see what we mean.
THE TEST RIDE
Now you can get down to business. Take that baby for a ride before you even think about forking over any cash. Looking the bike over is all well and good, but there's no substitute for jumping on and seeing how it actually rides.
On a test ride, you can see how smoothly the bike actually operates and handles. It's a chance to see the brakes and gears in action and test how reliably they actually work. Take it around the block a few times until you're completely satisfied.
Don't just go up and down the street. Make sure to take plenty of corners to test the bike's turning. Take your time and feel the bike out. You'll hopefully be spending a lot of time on your new toy, so be damn sure it's up to the job.
How smooth and responsive are the brakes? Operate both the front brake lever and the rear brake pedal several times to make sure they hold up. Try shifting through gears as well to make sure they transition smoothly.
Once you're in high gear, it's a good chance to see if the clutch slips as well. While riding straight ahead the bike should also track true without going left or right.
If you're a new rider, some sellers might be uneasy about letting you on their bikes. If that's the case, bringing an experienced biker friend might help smooth things over. The extra benefit of this is your friend might have a better handle on how well the bike runs than you might.
Some sellers might be completely against the idea of a test ride, which is never a good sign. You might need to offer some collateral like a driver's licence to put them at ease, but it's up to you how trustworthy they seem.
If they won't let you ride the bike under any circumstances, no matter what you offer, take it as a sign to walk away. There's no good reason you shouldn't be able to test the bike, and if they won't let you on it then they most likely have something to hide.
THE IMPORTANCE OF USING A MOTORCYCLE CHECKLIST
Nobody likes feeling like a sucker, so arm yourself with the right knowledge to avoid getting played. You've obviously made the right move by researching ahead, but there's a whole lot to remember here so bring along a physical checklist as your own form of insurance.
Even the pros can still do something. Whether it's your very first bike or you've been in the game for years, bring along a decent checklist to make sure you're not buying a lemon.
WHAT IS GOOD MILEAGE FOR A USED MOTORCYCLE?
When sizing up a bike, it's important to understand what is good mileage for a used motorcycle. This will provide a solid frame of reference when weighing up a bike's value.
What's considered good mileage can vary depending on the make and model of a bike, along with the type of motorcycle rides the bike was used for. Dirt bikes usually don't last more than 20,000 miles, while a well-maintained sports bike can go up to 100,000 miles and beyond.
As a rule of thumb, used bikes within the 20,000 to 30,000-mile range are considered to be in pretty good nick. Once that number creeps up to 50,000 miles then the value decreases.
Yes, 200,000 miles is a lot for a motorcycle. Not just a lot, but a whole lot.
A bike won't necessarily die if it's ridden that many miles, but you won't get a whole lot out of it either. While some high-end bikes that have been well maintained can reach seriously high miles, you'll be taking a risk by purchasing a bike with that much usage.
But hey, maybe it's your very first bike and the thing's an absolute steal! You'll just have to weigh up the risk and decide whether it's worth it purely as an entry-level bike.
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF A USED MOTORCYCLE IS GOOD?
So how can you tell if a used motorcycle is good? What exactly are you meant to be looking out for?
The most obvious thing you can start with is an eye test. Check the bike over for any dents, scratches, or other signs of physical damage. Look for rust absolutely everywhere: the engine, the exhaust pipes, the fuel tank, and the chains.
Obviously, you'll need to take the bike for a spin before handing over the money. Take as much time as you need to test the handling, making sure to take plenty of corners. Run through all the gears to make sure they transition smoothly and check both brakes to see how responsive they are.
There's way more detail mentioned above about what to look for, so if you gave the main article a miss, we highly recommend checking out that info.
HOW MANY MILES IS TOO MANY FOR A USED MOTORCYCLE?
So exactly how many miles is too many for a used motorcycle? Again, this depends on the make and model, but generally speaking, you'll want the number to be at least under 30,000, and preferably under 20,000.
It all depends on what you're buying. Dirt bikes generally don't last beyond 20,000 miles, while well-maintained touring and sports bikes can go up to 100,000. In saying this, a bike's lifespan also depends on how well the previous owner looked after it.
IS IT WORTH GETTING A PRE-PURCHASE INSPECTION?
If you're new to the motorcycle game and a bit unsure about things, is it worth getting a pre-purchase inspection? Yes, for newer riders it's certainly a good idea.
A pre-purchase inspection is performed by a qualified mechanic who can thoroughly look over a bike's condition. They'll give an expert opinion and find anything you might have otherwise missed.
This will give you a pretty solid idea of what you can expect out of the bike, and help you make an informed decision. It will also give you some solid bargaining power. The seller knows they can't pull anything over you, and you know exactly what the bike is worth.
The only downside is obviously the cost. But for newer riders, this can be a big game-changer and take a lot of the hassle and uncertainty out of the buying process. Ultimately, you'll need to consider your own situation and decide if the extra cost is worth it.