Advice How to What we can afford

How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

Tips and advice for anyone diving into the murky and terrifying world of used-bike buying

You might remember last month I asked for your help in creating a new regular feature for TMO called “What We Can Afford.” Based on your responses, I’ve averaged the magic savings number to 171.42. Let’s make it easy on ourselves and round down to £170; that’s a pretty good amount to set aside each month for a used bike but we’re going to have to wait a bit before we can afford something that actually runs. So, before we start looking for a bike let’s take some time to teach ourselves how to look and how to buy.

Get Your Hands on TMO Gear

If you’re like me, the idea of buying a used vehicle gives you all kinds of anxiety. So much so you might avoid it, choosing instead to either sink too much money into the “safety” of buying a new moto, or – in the extreme case of my 21-year-old self – just sort of giving up on biking altogether. But listen: it’s OK. Bikes are just things, and the people selling them are just people. There are a lot of good bikes out there, and there are a lot of good people. With a little calm-headed effort you can develop the tools to at least identify the former.

One of the reasons I started the What We Can Afford series is the fact I’m personally looking for a used bike. I’ll admit it makes me uneasy. But let’s get through this together. I’ve bent the ear of friends far more intelligent than me, quizzed dealerships and scoured the interwebs to compile the best used bike buying guide I can manage. Because I live in the United Kingdom, this advice is geared to folks buying in said country but the vast majority of it is applicable everywhere.

Revzilla: How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

Do Your Research

For many, this will be the boring part, but it may help to settle your emotions – be that nervousness or excitement*. As GI Joe used to remind kids in the ’90s: knowing is half the battle. So if you walk into a sale with a good sense of what you want and what you’re looking for, you’ll inherently be more confident. Meanwhile, the same process will help keep you from enthusiastically (stupidly) throwing your money at the first bike you see.

Before you even get that far, though, it’s good to sit down and be honest with yourself about what kind of bike you want. Your budget (more on this below) will partially determine your options, of course, but spend some time seriously thinking about what kind of riding you do, what you’ll be using this bike for, and how long you hope to hold on to it. The guys at Revzilla did an article not too long ago about what to consider when choosing a bike, which can help you in this, but the most important thing is self-honesty. Are your mechanical skills and financial resources limited? Maybe don’t buy an old Ducati. Generally prefer quiet rides on B lanes? Perhaps a Suzuki GSX-R1000 just isn’t your thing. Planning to ride year-round? A Triumph Bonneville T120 will disappoint you.

FortNine: Five Tell-Tale Signs of a Bad Used Motorcycle

Once you’ve figured out what sort of bike you want, begin narrowing your options. This is where the research really starts. Spend some time on several (not just one) used bike sites determining what’s out there within your budget. Identify the makes and models that interest you most, then hunt down old reviews, forum posts and so on, to give you a sense of the strengths, weaknesses and value of each bike. Google is your friend here. Look up stats and specs and use online tools like Cycle Ergo to give you a sense of what living with each bike might be like.

It’s up to you, but I’d say that ultimately you want to whittle things down to three or four motorcycle make/models. For example, in my own personal search, I’ve narrowed my list to the Honda VFR800F, Honda VTR1000 and Honda CBF1000 (Spot the guy who’s putting reliability at the top of his priorities). Those won’t be your choices, obviously, but the point is that focusing on a handful of bikes you know well helps prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed by choice. You’ll save time and energy looking for specific bikes that you know are suited to your needs/wants/interests. Doing this may also stop you from jumping at the “deal” that turns out to be otherwise.

Research Shows Thing I’ve Been Saying for Years is Wrong

Once you’ve settled on your list, spend even more time researching. Try to determine common issues with each bike. If you’re going to be working on the bike yourself, try to get a sense of how easy it will be to find parts; check out YouTube videos to get a sense of what it’s like to do certain jobs. Try to develop a strong sense of how the bike should look so you’ll be better able to identify issues.

When you’re certain of the bike/s you want, it’s time to start looking for them. In the United Kingdom, most dealerships put their stock online. And, of course, there are the larger used bike websites like AutoTrader, MCN Used Bikes, and, if you’re feeling brave, eBay. The positives and negatives of these sites are an article in and of themselves, but let’s just focus on the fact they provide photos and basic information. A number of sellers will use high-resolution photos, or have them on offer if you get in touch. Some offer walkaround videos. Use these tools to weed out the stinkers. If the pictures show a bike’s registration, you can check the bike’s MOT history for free online. If you’re feeling particularly committed to a bike, you could run an HPI check.

Once you’ve determined all that you can on your own, it’s time to get in touch with the seller. From this point on, it’s good to remember the adage, “there are plenty more fish in the sea.” If at any time things don’t feel right, walk away. Do so politely – it’s nice to be nice – but you should never feel bad about protecting your money.

Bennetts Bike: Used Bike Buying Checklist

The Money, Honey

Set a budget and stick to it. This is extremely hard to do – I know – but you’ll be so much happier with the overall experience if you can manage to get through it without bending yourself financially. Most used bike sites have searches that allow you to limit results by price; try to avoid the temptation to look at bikes that are “just a little bit” beyond your finances. And definitely don’t be the idiot who looks at bikes outside of his budget thinking he’ll be able to haggle his way down. Everybody hates that guy.

Because people tend to stop paying attention to certain things when they’ve decided to sell their bikes, your budget should include the cost of doing a full service and paying for any consumables – such as tires – that you’ll need to replace in the first three months of ownership. The advantage of doing your own work becomes pretty obvious here. You’ll also want to consider the costs of registration, insurance, MOT and all the other paperwork necessary to ride the thing around without being hassled by the po-po.

Lastly, I understand the temptation, but it’s my opinion that you should try very, very, very hard not to pay for your bike with a loan or credit card. I’ve done that and had it backfire. Ultimately all you’re doing is paying more for the bike and putting yourself at risk of heartache. There have always been risks involved in borrowing money; those feel even more present in the modern world. Things may feel OK but the truth is: it’s entirely possible you will lose your job tomorrow. Having to give up a bike and watch your credit rating go up in flames just makes things worse. Equally, it is possible that, despite your best efforts, you’ll end up with a lemon. Imagine how much angrier at yourself and the world you’ll be if you’ve paid a premium on a piece of shit.

Revzilla: How to Buy a Bike From a Dealership

Inspecting The Bike

Before arriving to look at the bike make sure the seller knows you’re coming, otherwise you may arrive to discover the bike’s already been sold. Tell the seller you want to inspect the bike cold – this is standard practice, because problems better reveal themselves with a cold bike – and make sure that he or she has all of the relevant documentation for sale. In the UK, it is really important they have the V5 document. No V5 no buy. If they tell you that it’s “really easy” for you to get the V5 from the DVLA they are lying. Nothing is easy with the DVLA.

You should come equipped with a small flashlight (ie, “torch” in UK parlance), a rag for wiping away bike grease, a rag for wiping your hands (or a few pairs of nitrile gloves) and a checklist of the things you want to inspect. You can find a number of checklists on the interwebs; I use this one from the team at BikeSocial. Another option is to use the UK government’s MOT checklist.

It’s a good idea to bring an actual flashlight or work light rather than relying on the light from your phone because you’ll be holding it at all sorts of angles as you inspect the bike. Some people also suggest bringing along a voltmeter for checking the battery and a tire depth gauge. It’s up to you whether this is too much, but certainly showing up prepared lets the seller know you mean business. If you’re doing a test ride (which you should), come equipped with riding gear. But make sure your clothing allows you to crawl around and contort when inspecting the bike. Each person has his or her own technique for inspection, but I prefer a process that sees me circling the bike several times, to give me a better chance of spotting every little thing.

Bennetts Bike: How to Tell if a Used Bike Has Been Crashed

Paperwork: Check the bike’s documentation first. There’s no reason to look at a bike that doesn’t have the correct paperwork. Make sure it all corresponds to the bike in question, checking the VIN on both the engine and frame. Make sure the key(s) turns the bike on – though don’t yet start it – and that it works in all the places it’s supposed to work: such as unlocking the seat, fuel cap, panniers, etc.

First Impressions: Quickly look over the bike and ensure it is more or less in the condition you expected based on the photos. Private sellers in particular may have used old photos in their ad. A tiny, tiny proportion of unscrupulous sellers will have doctored their photos. Either way, if the bike before you is not the bike you were expecting, feel free to walk away. The seller has misled you on a very basic level.

Fairing and Bodywork: Inspecting both with your eyes and hands, check the fairing and tank for scratches, scuffs, breaks or signs of shoddy repair (If, like me, you wear a wedding ring be sure to take it off so you don’t create new scratches). Make sure all the bolts and fasteners are present and in good enough condition that you will be able to remove the fairing for maintenance. Be alert to sections of fairing that are in better condition than others – this may suggest a crash or drop. Give each piece a gentle tug to make sure it’s not loose. Don’t forget to check the fenders.

Tires and Wheels: Check the date of the tires and make sure they’re in good enough condition to last until your budget can replace them. Check tread depth and look for uneven wear. Be sure to rotate the tires fully in doing this. Run your fingers along the rims, looking and feeling for dents or scratches. Check the valve stems. Check the condition of brake disc bolts. Wiggle the wheels to check for any signs the bearings might be off. Look and feel for scratches, dents or warping on the brake discs. Make sure there is enough life left in the brake pads.

Final Drive: Inspect the condition of the chain or belt, look for signs of excessive wear or inattentive maintenance. Belts should be free of cracks, chains should be free of kinks, reasonably clean and lubed. Check the condition of the sprockets and sprocket bolts. If the vehicle has shaft drive, check for any leaks.

Hit the Floor: Lie with your back to the floor; it’s time to inspect the part of a motorcycle no one pays attention to. It’s OK for this area to be a little mucky, but you’re looking for corrosion or damage. Look and feel along the frame, underside of the engine, under the swing arm, etc. Feel behind the exhaust. Check the oil drain plug to make sure it isn’t leaking and that the bolt isn’t stripped. Feign a heart attack to keep the seller on his toes.

From this point on, make your way slowly around the bike, starting at the front and going counter-clockwise, inspecting things top to bottom.

Facing the Bike: With the front of the bike facing you, again inspect the front fairing, windscreen and headlight. If indicators stick out, gently pull on them to make sure they’re secure. Do the same with mirrors. Run your hands along the forks, checking for oil, and inspect the fork seals. Check to make sure bolts are in good condition and the fork legs are free of excessive pitting, scratches, etc. Now inspect the radiator, oil cooler and other forward-facing items to ensure they’re in good condition.

The Right Side: If you have access to the frame, inspect it both with your hands and eyes. Opinions differ on whether it’s acceptable to remove fairing when inspecting a bike. I suppose it depends on how much money you’re spending. You’re going to check the engine separately, but certainly run your eyes and hands along it to check for any obvious issues. Check the footrest and brake lever. Check the passenger footrest. Look for things that may be missing; often a seller will remove aftermarket panniers/top box before a sale and will use cheap replacement bolts in place of the originals that they threw away three years ago thinking they’d never need them.

The Rear: Once again inspect the integrity of the tail light and indicators. Check the undercarriage area beneath the seat. And now’s a good time to fully inspect the swingarm – an expensive part of the motorcycle that is often abused and neglected; check for twisting or signs of crash damage.

The Left Side: Follow the same steps as on the right side, checking rider and passenger pegs, levers and so on – using both your hands and eyes to check for flaws. Remember to be on the lookout for missing, furred or stripped bolts that will become your nightmare when it comes time to service the bike.

The Top: Starting at the back of the bike, check the seat and tank for tears, scratches, dents, etc. Make sure it’s secure. Back up at the front of the bike, make sure the handlebars are straight, and check to make sure the steering head bearings are good. If the bike has aftermarket electric bits, such as heated grips or a GPS, check for any lazy wiring. Look at the bar ends, levers and so on for signs of a drop. If it looks like a bike has been dropped, it has been dropped; if the seller is not willing to admit this you should be very wary. What else aren’t they telling you?

The Engine: Your eyes will have glossed over the engine many times by now, but take the time to thoroughly inspect the powerplant. There’s only so much you can tell about a cold engine, of course, so you’re looking for obvious warning signs. Check the condition of all bolts, especially those that you’ll need to turn with some regularity, such as the sump plug and coolant drain plug. Pay attention to engine cases: if they are of a newer look/feel than other parts of the bike it may be a sign they are replacements after a slide.

Fluids: Make sure brake fluid, clutch fluid and coolant levels are all correct. On many bikes, oil in a cold engine won’t appear in a sight glass, so don’t worry about that just yet.

Fire it Up: It’s now finally time to start the engine. You’ll be starting and stopping it multiple times, a trick that helps to expose weak batteries and starter motors. 
1) On the first start up, check the bike’s lights while the engine is running. Switch the headlight from low to high beam and back. If the bike has a separate daytime running light, switch to that as well. Make sure the indicators and hazard lights function correctly. Make sure the brake light comes on when squeezing the front lever, then pressing the rear pedal. Honk the horn for fun. Stop the engine using the kill switch.
2) Start the bike a second time and turn your focus to the dash. To the best of your ability, make sure all of the necessary lights illuminate as they should. If the bike has a modern menu, scroll through it. Make sure trip meters can be reset and so on. When you’re done with this, put the sidestand up, pull in the clutch, put the bike into first gear and stop the bike by putting the sidestand down.
3) Start the engine again (remembering to take it out of gear first). If the bike has heated grips or a heated seat, set those to high. Slowly walk around the bike, listening for anything out of the ordinary from the intake, engine and exhaust. Check for any smoke coming from the engine. White smoke can mean a world of problems. Brown or black smoke usually mean less expensive issues (dirty air filter or dirty fuel system). Assuming the bike has a radiator, you’ll want to keep the bike running until the fan kicks in. This will give you a chance to make sure those heated elements work, that oil appears in the sight glass, and that the bike idles at expected revs. When you’re done, stop the bike with the key and make sure the steering lock works.

Take it For a Ride: It’s finally test ride time. Treating the bike like the thing it is – something that does not (yet) belong to you – take the bike out to make sure it moves through all the gears correctly and that there are no issues with the brakes/suspension, etc. Remember that this is not the time to ride the hell out of the thing. Save that for when you’ve actually bought it.

Revzilla: How to Inspect a Motorcycle

Buying The Bike

Checking a bike thoroughly eats a lot of time. It can be awkward but the best advice I’ve heard is to try to use this time to build a rapport with the seller. Your attention to detail and demonstration of genuine interest is going to communicate to the seller firstly that you’re not there to waste their time and secondly that if the bike has any issues there’s a good chance you’ll spot them. Faced with these realities, many sellers become a little more forthcoming/honest. Others will double down on their fibbing; if you catch someone telling a lie more than once you should consider walking away.

Equally alarm bells should ring loudly if someone tells you that something needs doing on the bike and that it’s easy/cheap to do. If that were the case, why haven’t they done it already?

That said, I’m not a fan of the adversarial approach. For the benefit of my mental health I try to hold the view that the majority of people in this world are not evil. They’re not out to get you. I think it’s good to keep that in mind when interacting with sellers. They may fudge on details here and there but I don’t think it benefits you to go into a buying experience with your knives out. Be intelligent, but be kind.

Aftermarket stuff is swell but remember you’re not here to buy a Baglux tank cover, you’re here to buy a bike. For the most part, accessories and aftermarket items should not be seen as dramatically adding to the value of a bike. Keep in mind, too, that this stuff is used. Oxford heated grips are nice but if they were put on a bike six years ago how nice are they really? In particular, you shouldn’t swoon for an aftermarket exhaust. That was someone else’s idea, not yours.

“What? No, it’s never been crashed…”

The Online Option

Increasingly – especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – motorcycle dealerships are offering riders the opportunity to buy bikes online and have them shipped to their homes. You know, just like pretty much every other product. In the United Kingdom, Superbike Factory and Motorbikes 4 All are some of the largest, best-established dealerships doing this but you’ll find that quite a few more are quickly jumping on board.

Members of the Old School will probably already have given themselves heart attacks from jumping up and down and screaming “NO!” at this idea – and certainly it’s a path on which to proceed with extreme caution – but there are some advantages to doing things this way. Especially if you live in the United Kingdom, where the law is on your side. A motorcycle bought online is subject to the same rules of distance selling as everything else bought online, which means you have up to 14 days to cancel the sale after delivery. Some dealerships will offer an even longer space of time.

This way you can go through all the checks mentioned above in the comfort of your own garage/shed/driveway, at your own pace, without the stress of having a seller hovering around you. You can use more tools to check the bike, even put it up on a stand if you’re so inclined. For bikes with full fairing, this method of buying provides an opportunity to dive really deep – something you probably couldn’t do in other situations. I can’t imagine someone letting you tear apart a Triumph Sprint GT in a showroom, for example. But really, it’s hard to learn anything about how that bike’s been treated without doing so.

Five Motorcycle Life Hacks

The catch here comes in the fact that although you have the right to cancel the sale, you’re almost certainly going to be stuck eating the delivery costs. Some dealerships will offer free delivery to you, but I’m not aware of any who will pay to have the bike sent back. Depending on where you are and where the bike came from, this could cost you a fair bit of dough.

So, you’ll probably want to be pretty sure you want the bike. A good dealership with a good reputation can help you get most of the way there, sending you dozens of high-resolution photos, warts and all, as well as a video walk around that shows the bike being started and running. Dealerships familiar with internet sales have salespeople who are dedicated to responding quickly to emails and calls, answering whatever additional questions you might have. Add all that to your own extensive research of a model and you may feel confident buying a bike this way. 

True, doing things over the internet makes it much more difficult for you to haggle over price but there are a number of advantages beyond the ability to inspect the bike in your own time.

Eight Skills to Work On as a New Rider

Firstly, there’s the fact you don’t have to deal with a salesperson face to face. I’m the sort of person who fights the urge to crumble in front of salespeople because I want people – sales or otherwise – to be happy and I want them to like me. This desire has definitely bit me in the rear from time to time; I’ve found myself agreeing to things I later regret**.

Related to that, shopping online can help slow things down. You don’t feel pressure to make decisions immediately and you can more readily explore your alternatives. You can circle your room, go for a walk or even sleep on decisions.

Thirdly, it broadens your options. If you go about buying in the traditional way you’ll generally not want to search for bikes too far from where you live, lest you waste a great deal of time and money travelling to see the thing. And that means that you are largely restricted to the past tastes of the people in your region, which may not be a great thing. For example, here in South Wales the people are lovely but they have a habit of being rampant cheapskates. So, the bikes they buy are budget and the bikes they get rid of are budget machines from a long time ago. I often joke that South Wales is where old Bandits come to die. But let’s say I don’t want one of those; then I need to search further afield.

Lastly, you’ll find that a lot of dealerships working online are keen to throw in little extras – automatic three-month warranties and PDI checks, as well as sending the bike off with a full 12-month MOT.

What Did I Miss?

This article is 4,500 words long but I have no doubt I’ve managed to leave out one or two vital pieces of information. So, if you have any tips on buying used, please share your experience/knowledge in the comments below.

* Or, as in my case, it may just make those emotions worse because you’re spending all your time thinking about bikes.

** Which explains the 17 years I spent working as a drag queen in Thailand. (No, not really)