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Buying a Used Bike - Things to look for


Honda CBR125

Buying a used bike takes a lot more effort than buying a new bike. It is very important to thoroughly inspect the motorcycle before signing the papers and handing over your money. If you don’t have the experience or knowledge to fully assess a used motorcycle, take someone with you that does, or have the bike inspected by a reputable dealer / mechanic. If you have doubts about the condition of a used motorcycle that you are particularly interested in, but the seller won’t agree to an inspection, look for another bike. You will likely have to pay for the inspection. This really only applies if you’re buying a bike privately. A reputable dealer should have inspected the bike and serviced it, but ask anyway to make sure. Some dealers may sell bikes on consignment, so the bike may not have been inspected, but that may depend on the individual dealer.

Ok, so what do you need to pay attention to when inspecting a used motorcycle? Start with the overall appearance. Does it looked like it has been cared for or neglected? Is it a clean and well oiled machine or is it grimy and beaten up? If the bike is clean and looks to be well taken care of is then that is often a good indicator of an owner that takes care of his bikes. That alone is not a guarantee that the bike is problem free, but the odds are better than a bike that looks like it was uncared for.

Tires and wheels: tires are good for five years at most, after that the rubber becomes too hard for adequate and safe traction, especially on wet pavement. Tire age is not as critical on a dirt bike as it is on a street bike. Older tires, at least on a motorcycle that will be ridden on the street, will have to be replaced even if there is still adequate tread left. Also look for cracks, cuts, punctures, uneven wear (cupping), etc. Inspect the rims - look for dents, cracks, evidence of multiple tires changes (tool marks on rim edge). Look for missing or broken spokes.

Chain and sprockets: these are high wear items. Look for worn, distorted or broken sprocket teeth. Look for an overly loose or tight chain. Is the chain well lubricated or is it dry or even rusted? Spin the rear wheel (or push the bike a bit at a time) to inspect the entire rear sprocket and chain. A kinked chain may have to be replaced, along with the sprockets. Slight kinking may possibly be resolved with a good cleaning and lubrication. Look at the chain adjustment marks. If the chain is at its adjustment limit, it will have to be replaced. A possible exception is if the bike has smaller sprockets on it, but an original length chain. If the chain can be pulled off the sprocket at mid point where the chain and sprocket make contact, it is worn. Sprockets and chain should be replaced as a set. If you run a new chain with old, worn sprockets or vice versa, the new item(s) will wear out quickly.

Brakes: check brake lines and mechanical linkages for damage and proper operation. Check for brake fluid leaks and break fluid level. Check brake pads (or brake shoes if drum brakes) for wear. Inspect the brake disks (rotors) for damage.

Suspension: check for smooth operation. Check for oil leaks. Fork seals can be replaced. The seals aren’t that expensive, but it could take a mechanic a couple of hours or more to replace them (you can save some money if you remove the forks from the bike yourself). Not all rear shocks can be rebuilt, and rear shocks can be expensive (several hundred dollars). Check for scratches and corrosion on the inner fork tubes (the smooth, shiny tubes that slide inside the outer tubes of the forks. If they are damaged they may have to be replaced.

Gauges, lights and horn: check that everything is present and in working order. This includes headlight, tail light, brake light (activated by front and rear brake), turn signals, running lights, 4-way flashers, indicator lights, fuel gauge, clock, temperature gauge, etc. What you need to check depends on what should be on the bike; a street bike usually has a lot more on it than a dirt bike. Light bulbs are cheap to replace, but gauges are not. Relays can also be expensive. Check the operation of all the switches.

Steering: check for smooth operation when you turn the handlebars. It helps if you can raise the front wheel of the ground. A notchy feeling indicates that the steering head bearings likely need replacing along with the races. The parts aren’t expensive, but the labor could be a couple hundred dollars or more (the major expense is getting at the bearings: removing fairings, handlebars, forks, etc.). Grab the forks and try to move them back and forth; if there is free play, the steering will need to be tightened, which is not a big deal and generally not expensive.

Exhaust: look for damage from hits, crashes or fatigue, corrosion or missing bolts. Look for modifications. Look for leaks. Is the exhaust system stock (original) or has it been modified or replaced with an after market system. If a different exhaust system is on the bike, has the fuel system been properly set up for the new exhaust? For instance, if the bike has carburetors have they been properly re-jetted? Is the exhaust system legal for the area that you intend to ride in? For example, if you’re looking at trail bikes, does the muffler have a spark arrestor? Is it within the noise limits for your area? An aftermarket exhaust system may be lighter and may offer slightly better performance than the original system provided that the bike has been set up correctly, but they can also be loud and make the bike run poorly. If the fuel system / intake system wasn’t properly set up, there is a possibility that the bike could be running too hot and engine damage may have occurred. You need to ask more questions about the installation and setup. In the end it may be a better system than the original one, and the bike may perform better than stock, but you may also end up with problems and a noisy and / or illegal bike.

Fuel / Air intake: has the air box been modified (larger hole cut in it; snorkel removed; other components removed or altered) or even removed altogether? Has the stock air filter been replaced with a different one? Is there an air filter in the bike, and is it the correct one (does it fit properly to seal out dirt)? Is it clean or dirty? If an oiled foam type of filter (the kind in most dirt bikes), has it been oiled or is it dry. This type of filter needs to be oiled in order to trap dirt. Dirt entering the engine will cause it to wear faster. It is common on some dirt bikes and dual sports to have their air box modified, and if done properly may improve performance (power, throttle response, starting). The carburetors should have been re-jetted at the same time as the air box was modified, or the bike will be running lean. An overly lean condition will result in higher engine temperatures which may lead to engine damage. If the air box has been altered, has it been altered in such a way that it is more susceptible to water getting inside (particularly important for dirt or dual sport bikes that will encounter water crossings (streams, deep puddles, etc.). Modifications to air boxes can often be reversed, or the air box can be replaced.

Fuel tank: Street bikes and most dual sport bikes have steel gas tanks, and they can rust, especially if the bike has not been stored correctly (if not ridden for extended periods of time). It may not be immediately evident if the tank is badly rusted as the effected area may not be easily visible. If they are badly corroded they should be replaced. New OEM tanks are expensive. Used ones may be found on eBay, etc. for considerably less. Dirt bikes usually have plastic tanks. Some users replace steel tanks with after market plastic ones. This may or may not be legal for street use in your area. If the stock tank has been replaced ask for the original tank. I bought a used Kawasaki KL250 several years ago. It was beat up, but it was cheap. I sanded down the gas tank in preparation for painting and discovered that the tank was corroded along the bottom edge. After I removed the corrosion I was left with about a 3 x 15 mm hole in the tank. Check for fuel leaks around the fuel valve (petcock) as well as the fuel line connection at the carburetor(s) and possibly the fuel pump. Fuel injected bikes tend to have the fuel pumps inside the fuel tank. While checking out the carburetor(s) look for damage to the screws holding the float bowl and diaphragm cover and damage or deterioration to the intake manifold and rubber boot between the carburetor and the air box.

Frame: look for missing bolts, scrapes and other damage such as cracks, bends and corrosion. A damaged sub-frame (rear part of the frame that supports the seat and rear fender) may be repaired or replaced. The main frame usually can’t be safely repaired unless it’s something minor like a cracked mounting tab or a tube under the engine that got damaged by rock for example. Frame replacement is very expensive. If the main frame is damaged, especially if there is a chance that it is out of alignment, look for another bike.

Evidence of a crash: scrapes on the foot pegs, handle bars ends, exhaust system, body panels, turn signals, rear brake and shift levers, etc. Broken or bent parts. A street bike can sustain significant cosmetic damage just falling over. Repairing that damage can be expensive. A crash can potentially make a bike unsafe to ride. Some damage can be safely and completely repaired, but some cannot. I wouldn’t buy a street that had been crashed; a minor tip-over or a low speed slide (low side) might be acceptable if the bike had been repaired or if the bike was priced to compensate for the damage. Scrapes and scratches and other minor damage on a dirt bike or dual sport bike are to be expected, but be wary of significant crash damage.

Seat: look for tears or cracks. Seats can be recovered or replaced, but there is a cost.

Engine exterior: look for oil or coolant leaks. Look for damage to the crankcase and crankcase covers. Pay particular attention to the area around the oil drain plug. Off road and dual sport bikes may have received damage to the cases if a rock was either hit or the bike was dropped in the rocks. Crankcase covers aren’t cheap, but they’re also not too expensive to replace. A crankcase is definitely very expensive to replace, especially once labor is factored in. While looking under the engine, look for damage to the frame tubes, especially on a bike that may have been ridden off-road. Check the oil level. Is it near the fill mark or it low? Check the oil itself. Is it clean or really dirty?

It may be advisable for a new rider with limited mechanical knowledge to stick with a bike that is stock (in original) condition or close to it. Improperly performed modifications may lead to problems in terms of reliability, performance or safety. Some modifications can improve a bike dramatically, however. If parts have been replaced, ask for the original parts to be included with the bike. The seller may or may not have them. A stock (OEM) exhaust system, for instance can be quite expensive to buy new, but sometimes can be found used and in good condition for quite a bit less.

Ask how the bike was maintained. Does the seller have maintenance records? Was it dealer serviced? How was the bike stored? Was the battery (if it has one) charged regularly during storage? Look for signs of incompetent maintenance such as damaged bolt and screw heads.

Starting the bike up: the bike should start easily, but it may require the use of a choke if carbureted. If the engine is already warm the seller may be trying to mask a cold starting problem. Some bikes may require a few minutes to warm up sufficiently to be ridden. A stock Kawasaki KLX250S comes to mind. If the engine turns over slowly the battery may be weak. Ask how old the battery is and when the bike was last ridden or the battery charged. A battery should be charged at least once a month, or maintained by a battery tender if the bike is in storage. The battery will deteriorate quicker otherwise. A quality battery can be well over $100; the cost varies with the model and capacity. While the bike is running listen for anything that sounds unusual, like knocking, grinding, missing, popping, backfiring or whining. Look for blue smoke from the exhaust, a sign that the bike is burning oil. For most motorcycles there should be no sign of blue smoke, but for a few motorcycles (some BMWs, for example) it is normal to see blue smoke when the bike is first started, especially if it has sat for a while. This is due to the engine configuration – cylinders sloping downwards when the bike is on its side stand; oils flows downwards and gradually seeps past the rings into the combustion chamber where it is burned shortly after starting the engine. Once running, the bike should idle smoothly, at least after it warms up a bit. If something doesn’t sounds right, have it checked out or look for another bike.

Test ride: take the bike for a test ride after first checking to make sure it’s safe to ride. Check the tire pressures. I was at a dealer once to test ride a demo bike with 700 km on the odometer that I had been told had been serviced. The front tire had only 10 psi when it should have been set to 22 psi. The chain also had about three times the recommended amount of slack in it. Serviced, huh? Yeah, right. This bike was not safe to ride, especially when the planned route included some highway riding. Shortly after beginning your ride, and before you get up to speed, test that the brakes function properly, i.e., you can stop. Continue your ride. Shift up and down through all gears. Cruise at a steady speed, accelerate and decelerate. Again look for blue exhaust, especially under acceleration. The engine operation should be smooth – no stumbling or lurching throughout the rev range. Some fuel injected bikes will surge a bit (a mild jerking sensation – acceleration / deceleration) when riding at a constant speed under minimal load. This is more apparent at lower speeds on level (horizontal) roads. It’s usually less or not even detectable at highways speeds. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something wrong with the bike. Note any handling abnormalities or quirks. The bike shouldn’t wobble or weave. It shouldn’t oscillate after hitting a bump in the road. It’s best if you can test ride more than one example of the particular model that you’re interested in. You can more easily evaluate whether a bike is performing or running as expected if you’ve ridden another one like it. I test rode three examples of the same model. I could feel some unusual vibration through the foot pegs of one, but not the other two. The bike that vibrated looked fine, but something wasn’t quite right with it.

Engine break-in: ask the seller how the bike was broken-in. There are conflicting opinions as to what the best engine break-in procedure is: the “Motoman Method” or the factory prescribed method. I’ve heard some reasonable arguments for both methods. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what the best method is. For my own motorcycles I use the method in the service manual as a guide. I stick close to the recommended throttle and rpm limits. I vary the engine rpm as much as possible (accelerate and decelerate). I load and unload the engine frequently. I avoid lugging the engine. I avoid idling the engine anymore than necessary. I try to avoid traffic congestion and ride on quieter back roads. I change the oil and filter more frequently than prescribed – at about 50-100, 500-600 and 1500 km. I perform the break-in maintenance at the recommended number of km. Ask if the break-in service was performed by a dealer, and if so, does the seller have the maintenance records. There is nothing wrong with owners performing their own maintenance provided it was done correctly. Ask the seller if he or she has the service manual for the bike especially if the bike was owner serviced.

The paper work: check the vehicle registration papers against the seller’s driver’s license and the VIN (vehicle identification number) on the bike. In some states or provinces, it may be that off-road vehicles don’t require to be registered. In that case, ensure that the seller has some proof that he in fact owns the bike. Get the VIN and registration info and check if there are any liens on the bike or if it has been stolen. You may want to check the vehicle history to see if the bike has sustained major damage in the past.

If everything checks out to your satisfaction, then make an offer. Your offer should be based on extensive research. Some brands or models will command a higher price than others due to a slower rate of depreciation and higher demand. Some sellers may price their bike at an unreasonably high price. Either they haven’t done their own research into what their bike is worth on the used market, or they may think that they might get lucky. Some sellers might not be motivated to sell; they’ll only sell if they can get a really good price (sell it to someone who hasn’t done their research). Other sellers may be very motivated for any number of reasons. It’s generally worth paying more for a motorcycle that is obviously in top condition, one that’s been well taken care of. One last thing to remember - “buyer beware”. If in doubt, walk away. There are plenty of good used motorcycles out there.


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