From time to time, friends have asked me for advice about buying a motorcycle. They’re interested, but are bewildered with so much information on the internet and not knowing whom to trust or what is accurate or potentially misleading.
I am glad they asked. Having “been there, done that,” perhaps I can assist. I am not an expert, but having owned and ridden motorcycles for over 30 years, I am experienced.
First of all, I strongly recommend taking the Basic RiderCourse offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (provided you are in the U.S. If you are in another country, find a beginner or basic motorcycle rider’s course equivalent). Such a course is available usually through a state’s motor vehicle administration, many community colleges, and some private groups. Riders are provided a small bike on which to take the range practice and tests. Upon completion of the course with a passing grade, riders usually qualify to receive a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s permit.
Then consider buying a previously owned motorcycle. Sure, you can buy a brand new bike, but it is likely that you will ride this bike for two or three years, then want to get a bigger bike. A used bike in the 500cc – 750cc range, like a Honda Shadow or a Kawasaki Vulcan fits the bill for a good starter bike. A new bike is worth less than half of what you pay for it the minute you drive it off the dealer’s lot. A used bike saves money, and is a better value for starting out.
I do not recommend buying a “crotch rocket” or sport bike for your first bike. These styles of motorcycles require more skill and experience to ride than a simple cruiser. Also, sport bikes can be very uncomfortable by requiring the rider to be seated on it in a forward-leaning position. For similar reasons, I do not recommend a touring class motorcycle for a first bike, either. A Harley Road King or a Honda Gold Wing require a lot of experience to handle them while moving slowly or stopped, and can be intimidating to a new rider due to their size and physical requirements to move them.
To find listings of used bikes, I recommend using CraigsList.org, if it is available for your area. It’s free, and there are usually a lot of listings of mid-range bikes for sale. While you will see lots of Harleys for sale, I really recommend a bike with an engine displacement no higher than 750cc for a starter bike. There aren’t any Harleys made with an engine of that size. Remember: the bigger the engine, the heavier the machine, making it harder to handle. If you are unaccustomed to handling a motorcycle, you want to get one that you can ride and that you can handle maneuvering into parking spaces and while it is stationary. Big V-twins, like a Harley, tend to want to fall over and go places you don’t want them to go, so start small(er) first. You will be happy that you did.
eBay Motors also lists used motorcycles, but often those bikes are far away and there’s no way you could physically inspect it or test ride it. I never recommend buying a bike sight unseen, even from your favorite Uncle Biker Mike. Look at it, ride it, test it: that’s the only way to buy a used bike.
When you find a bike that fits your price range and size, get a biker buddy to go with you and check it out. Here is a little known but very important reminder: wear the gear that you plan to wear on the bike when you go to check it out and test ride it. That is, wear your leathers and boots, as well as bring your own helmet. You want to feel how your gear that you intend to use while riding fits with you and that bike. Also, simply, you will be ready for the test ride since you will be properly geared.
Don’t even think about showing up to check out a motorcycle while wearing shorts and sneakers. Also, even if your state does not require a helmet, bring one anyway and wear it while test riding the bike for your safety. Also, a seller shouldn’t accept the responsibility for allowing someone to ride his bike without a helmet, because if the rider crashed and got injured, the bike’s owner would have a measure of responsibility.
Ask the owner about how the bike has been maintained: how frequently has the oil been changed? Brake fluid? Transmission fluid? Belts? Has the bike ever gone down or been involved in a crash? Check it over for tell-tale signs of damage or repairs from a crash. If you see such evidence, be careful because obvious damage may be indicative of more serious problems.
Get on the ground and look under the bike for leaks. Look under the engine and especially under the place where the oil filter is, as well as the transmission. Both oil and transmission fluids are prone to leaking, so check under the bike as well as on the engine itself for signs of leaks, drips, or even dried fluids that leaked at one time or another.
Ask how the bike’s electrical system has worked. Does it always start on the first push of the starter switch? Do all the lights and turn signals work? If your state requires an inspection, has the bike recently been inspected and may you see the inspection certificate? If the owner can produce such documentation, then it is evident that s/he is above-board and honest.
Bring a tire pressure gauge with you. Check the tire pressure. Ask the owner to show you the label on the bike, or the bike’s owners manual, or the label on the tires so you know what the proper tire pressure should be. It is quite common that the pressure in motorcycle tires is a little low, as tire pressure is the most frequently overlooked regular maintenance requirement. Before test riding, try to get the tire pressure to where it needs to be if it isn’t.
Also, while looking at the tires, check for signs of unusual wear. Is there wear on one side of the tire more than the other? That could be a sign of riding on improperly inflated tires for a long time. See if there are any large rocks embedded in the treads. Ask if either tire has gotten a leak or hole in it, and how it was repaired (or if it were replaced.) Also, ask when the tires were last replaced. Look to see if quality tires made by a reputable company are on the both the front and rear.
While looking at the tires, examine the rims. See if there are unusual dents in the rim as it meets the tire. If the wheel uses spokes, look to see if the spokes are all straight, undamaged, and none are missing. Damage to rims or spokes could be an indication of the bike having been involved in a crash, or the tire having been damaged such as by striking a curb.
Sit on the bike and feel how it fits you. Can you reach the controls on both of the handlebars without stretching (or cramping?) Can you reach the rear brake peddle and the gear shifter without stretching or cramping? (Ask yourself: is your gear getting in your way? Too tight? Boots too tall? You really don’t know how leather gear works with a motorcycle until you actually try to ride one with your gear on.)
The fit of the bike to you — your body and your height — is incredibly important. If it doesn’t fit well, then you’re not going to ride it. Don’t let the owner tell you about after-market products that can adjust the fit of the bike for you, such as a new seat or shocks. Listen, if the bike is already two to five years old, you’re not going to keep it for more than another few years anyway, so investing a lot more money to adjust the fit isn’t a good investment.
While sitting on the bike, look down the fork. Is it straight? A bike that has been down may have a twisted or damaged fork, which can be costly to repair. A fork that isn’t straight will cause the bike to be off center and not ride correctly, particularly at highway speeds.
Check the mileage. Ask how the bike has been ridden. A bike ridden for many short trips has incurred a lot more engine wear than a bike ridden for fewer longer trips. Bikes are made to be ridden, but frequent stops and starts are hard on an engine, and cause it to wear much quicker than a bike that has been ridden for longer trips. The total number of miles is not quite as important as the total number of trips — especially short trips. So ask about that. If the owner is factual about how the bike has been ridden, then you’re building confidence in him as a seller. If he isn’t giving you detailed information, than he may have something to hide.
Ask to see mechanical maintenance records, and if the state requires it, annual inspection certificates. If the bike has been serviced regularly and usually at the same location, that’s another good sign. Sure, an owner may change his own fluids (oil, brake, transmission), but repairs beyond that, such as belts, cables, electrical, etc., should be done by a professional, and there should be records to validate that.
Ask about the brakes and how recently they were serviced. Usually brakes require servicing a bit more frequently than other parts nowadays. (During a test ride, listen for squeaks or squeals. Try both the front and rear brakes separately and listen for rubbing or unusual noises.)
Ask about the battery. Most motorcycle batteries last just two or three years. Ask how old the battery is and when it was last replaced.
Ask how the bike has been stored for the winter. If it were stored in a garage or heated storage facility, that’s good. Even better if a trickle charger were kept on the bike’s battery during prolonged periods of non-use. If the bike were kept under a cover out in a parking lot, then that’s not so good. Bikes kept out-of-doors while not being ridden for months can develop some serious problems that you can’t see, such as condensation inside the gas tank causing it to rust from the inside out. Or gumming of the fuel lines, or a host of other maladies. I would shy away from a bike that was stored out-of-doors for long period.
Prepare for a test ride. If the owner wants a deposit, offer to let him hold your car keys instead (but you keep the registration in your possession). Look, if you want your car back, you’re going to return the bike. If he wants money just for a test ride, then back off. Something’s wrong.
You may choose to meet for a test ride at a parking lot. That’s a good idea, because you can have room to practice turns, stops, starts, and the braking. Do a couple emergency stops, and make sure the bike remains true and straight, and doesn’t skid. (If, as a new rider, you are uncomfortable doing that, have your buddy do that for you while you watch.)
If you liked the answers to the questions that you asked and if the test ride went well, then you’re about ready to make a purchase. Ask to see the bike’s title. Only consider buying a bike that has a “clean” title. Never, ever, accept a bike’s title that has anyone else’s name on it than the person you are dealing with. And never do a title transfer without indicating the real name of the owner and the buyer, their addresses, and the actual mileage. Don’t allow the mileage to be under what’s true. There are various reasons why a seller or buyer would want to leave the mileage off of a title during transfer, but that is never a good idea. Doing so can catch up with you when you want to sell the bike when you’re done with it, and put you in a position of claiming more mileage on it than you put on it, thus lowering its value and any return you may get on it in a future sale. (In many states, stating inaccurate actual mileage on a title during transfer is illegal.)
It is a very good idea to use a bill of sale or contract to conduct the sale. If the owner can’t produce one, be prepared and have one ready. You can find a sample motorcycle bill of sale on the Internet just by searching “motorcycle bill of sale.” Download it and adapt it for your needs.
Hope this helps. Get out and ride!
P.S.: Only after writing the information above did I find a more thorough Used Motorcycle Buying Guide by Adam Glass. None of the content in what I wrote above was taken from Adam’s copyrighted work, though there are a lot of similar ideas and concepts (but Adam’s is more comprehensive as he has been working on it for a number of years.)