How to Buy a Motorcycle – Tips For First-Time Owners

money for bike

Buying your first bike is an exceptional thrill and you will most likely remember it for the rest of your life. Knowing how to buy a motorcycle, though, is a bit trickier and requires a lot of preparation and planning ahead. From all the legal aspects to the choice of motorcycle and gear, there are quite a lot of aspects that you will need to cover. The ones that I will walk you through in this article are:

  • Making sure your paperwork is on point
  • Handling Insurance
  • Choosing the right motorcycle model
  • Pre-purchase inspection and test-driving
  • Inspecting the motorcycle once you buy it
  • Gearing up
  • Taking it slow

If you’re looking for a safe and reliable helmet to get for your first motorcycle, make sure you check out my guide on some of the best motorcycle helmets for safety and comfort. Now, let’s go a little deeper into each part of the purchasing process and discuss all the little details…

Making sure your paperwork is on point

In the USA, you need a motorcycle license to ride your bike in all states. Before that, however, you need to obtain the Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) which is a must-have in order to obtain any other license. If your new bike is going to have an engine smaller than 125cc then you can use your main driver’s license to ride it and you can skip on passing additional tests.

Apart from your own paperwork, you will need to check the motorcycle’s paperwork as well. The most important thing during this step is the VIN number. It is located on the steering neck of the bike in most cases and it will give you the full history of the motorcycle. This includes both maintenance records and potential troubles with the law (whether the bike is stolen, wanted, and other issues). You can call a local dealership and ask them if they can run a VIN check-up for you. You can also do a VIN-check on your own using special websites for that purpose. Some are paid, some are free but they all typically give you a detailed enough report to give you an idea of how the bike has been handled in the hands of the previous owner. Of course, none of that matters if you’re going for a brand new bike.

Handling Insurance

Before you can take your new bike on the road, you will need to handle the insurance. There are two possible scenarios here – the bike already has insurance that has to be transferred to your name or there is no insurance and you will have to sign one. Most states require insurance although Florida and Washington don’t, so if live in those states you can skip on this. Still, if you plan on journeying with your new bike, it still remains a must-do step. Typically, motorcycle insurance is much cheaper than one of bigger vehicles and is, on average, around 500 dollars per year depending on your bike type, engine size, and your state among other things.

As a general rule, the companies that insure your main vehicle typically offer discounts if you insure your motorcycle through them as well so start from there.

At the end of the deal, you should have the following documents – the motorcycle’s title, bill of sale, the license for the motorcycle, proof of insurance (which can be done after the sale).

Asking the right questions

To add on top of the first two steps, you need to ask a few very important and specific questions that will give you a better idea of the seller, his bike, and their history. Those are:

  • Why is the bike getting sold?
  • Has the owner crashed with the bike? If yes, what has been done to repair the damages?
  • Does the motorcycle have a clean or salvage title?
  • Is the title on the owner’s name?
  • Are there any ongoing mechanical or other issues with the bike?
  • How long has the owner had the bike?
  • Is he/she the first owner?

Of course, you can’t expect 100% honesty when asking these types of questions which is why you need to go through your normal check-ups such as a VIN check, insurance check, mechanical check, and others.

Choosing the right motorcycle model

Saleswoman at the dealer

When it comes to the actual motorcycle model, there are a lot of things that you need to think about. Some people might be inclined to a more impulsive purchase based on more superficial and easy-to-see facts such as visuals, power, and more. Others, however, will take weeks to research their ideal model based on all of its characteristics. Watching reviews helps a lot with that but nothing beats trying it out in person. Before you get to actually test-drive the bike, though, you need to go through three major factors:

  • Consider when, how, and where you will be driving
  • Choose the type of bike
  • Set your budget
  • New or used

Consider when, how, and where you will be driving

If you answer the questions of when, how, and where you will ride your motorcycle, you can easily narrow down the choice between a few potential candidates on your shortlist. When it comes to “when”, think about the type of weather you will be riding most of the time, as well as the time of the day in which you be riding. If this is going to be a commuter’s bike, then you can easily rule out sports bikes. The “how” mainly consists of the amount of fun you want to have. Cafe racers and the naked motorcycles have a huge fun-factor to them along with great handling and high speeds. Cruisers are more laid back and cannot be pushed too hard since they are harder to handle due to their overall dimensions. The “where” can be either normal roads or the track. For a track bike, sports bikes are a pretty clear choice, although you shouldn’t go for anything larger than 600cc for your first sports motorcycle. Cafe racers offer a good alternative for something you can use both on the track and on the streets for shorter journeys.

Choose the type of bike

There are 6 main types of bikes out there that should be on your short-list when picking a new bike. Those are:

  • Sport/Track motorcycles
  • Cruisers
  • Naked motorcycles
  • Touring bikes
  • Cafe racer
  • Off-roaders

The sportbike is often the most powerful or at least the fastest. They are lightweight and quite good at turning but if you’re a beginner a sports bike will definitely be more than you can handle. Cruisers are ideal for a first bike since they have a chilled-out nature that doesn’t necessarily bring a sporty feel but still has some pulling power if you need that. They are large and heavy and are primarily built for longer distances and comfort in mind.

Naked bikes and cafe racers are fairly similar to one another and are a good middle ground between sports bikes and cruisers. They are built for shorter speeds and are very easy to handle, making them ideal for beginners. Their unique stripped-down look also makes them quite popular with younger riders.

You can also check out some of the most common motorcycle engine types if you want to further narrow down your choice.

Set your budget

The major rule of thumb here is to plan on buying the bike twice or simply put – buying two motorcycles. This is because bikes aren’t usually as expensive as cars but they do still have maintenance and most of it is done on a yearly basis especially with bikes used by commuters. That’s why you need to find the ideal bike, see the average pricing for it and prepare double that. Of course, most of the time you will have leftover money from your budget but that is a far better scenario than getting a bike and not being able to afford to maintain it and keeping it in proper condition.

New or used

This is really a matter of two things – your personal preference and your budget. While there are some cheaper new bikes they are often underpowered and aren’t as exciting as some more expensive ones. As a whole, this is a century-old question that doesn’t seem to have an exact answer for every single rider out there. If your taste leads you to early 2000s bikes, then this is already set and settled but if you want something that you’re sure it will have a worry-free first couple of years of service then new is the way to go. KTM is a brand that offers quite a lot of new options at surprisingly affordable prices. While they aren’t exactly street racers, they are excellent for commuting and can take a beating.

More things to consider

Additionally, there are some rules of thumb that are considered a generally good piece of advice if you are struggling with your final verdict. First, look for a bike that is comfortable. Sure, nothing beats riding on a gorgeous-looking machine that accelerates like a small rocketship but 90% of the time you will spend thinking about your ride comfort. This is why the comfort of the bike as a whole should always be at the top or at least very high on your features list. The seating position, seat softness, handle position and angle, dampers, and other small details should all work in favor of driving comfort. If you are going to use your bike for daily commuting, this is definitely something you should consider.

The second most important thing, especially for beginners, is to not go all-in on the power of the bike. Sure 600cc (26 cubic inches) bikes are often referred to as “good for beginners” but consider that this is still touching race-bike territory and is extremely fast unless you are racing a Tesla on the drag strip. These bikes have far more than enough power and are, in fact, dangerous for beginners. Anything above 350cc is too fast for a beginner so keep that in mind.

Pre-purchase inspection and test-driving

Hands give the keys

While you can easily inspect the motorcycle for the most common issues, I always recommend new riders to take the bikes to a local shop for a pre-purchase inspection. Those can cost around 100 dollars but are well worth the money since the mechanic will tell you exactly what is wrong with the bike. In case there are are some undisclosed issues, you can negotiate a lower price to cover for that. On top of that, you can check the forums to see if the specific bike you’ve set your mind on has any weak spots that have to be checked at all costs.

If you want to read more of my thoughts on how to inspect a used motorcycle, head over to my fully detailed article on that topic!

Inspecting the motorcycle once you buy it

While you’ve already done all the basic inspection and should know about the bike’s conditions more or less, you should still pay attention to certain things in the first weeks of ownership. Pay attention to the ride quality, make sure that the ride is comfortable and there are no hard knocks, rattles, or other sounds that aren’t typical. This is the period where you will get quite acquainted to the bike and will start noticing the minor things like clutch and gear issues, break irregularities, and more. Taking your bike to the mechanic after a month of ownership will be very productive since you will be able to smooth out all the remaining minor issues you have with your new bike.

Gearing up

This is an aspect of your first bike that can easily add up to something quite expensive. At the minimum, you will need a motorcycle helmet but you also need other gear like gloves, a good motorcycle jacket, pants, boots, and more! All those things aren’t cheap by themselves but, as I already mentioned, they add up to more than a thousand dollars if you go with high-end brands and products.

Taking it slow

If this is your first motorcycle, you will have to find the right balance between having fun, enjoying your new bike, and progressing your skills. In the beginning, as you much as you’d want to, try to restrain yourself from going very fast, as you still don’t have good reactions and control over the bike no matter how confident you feel. Even if this isn’t your first rodeo, the new bike might surprise you in certain situations, so taking things slow for the first few weeks is really important.

Once you get used to your bike it might be time to start learning how to prepare for a motorcycle trip and choose the best motorcycle roads in the USA in order to plan the perfect vacation! Now, let’s answer some related questions that will further help you with the specifics of the whole purchasing process…

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there some ground rules I can follow for my first bike?

Yes, in fact, there are three common rules that every experienced biker will share with you – Don’t get more than 2 cylinders, no more than 800cc, and no Italian brands. 2-cylinder motorcycles are more than powerful enough for the needs of a beginner and the triple and four-cylinder engines are just way too fast for normal daily use. While you can find very big twin-cylinder engines, try staying in the 400-800cc range. Lastly, while Italian bikes are pretty amazing in almost any aspect, they usually suffer from long wait times for parts as well as abnormally high prices.

Which are the most reliable motorcycle brands?

While this question has no specific answer, there are brands that have outperformed others in terms of durability in the last few decades. Those are the Japanese brands – Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki. Among the surveyed bikes, around 15% of those have minor issues in their first 5 years of ownership.

What credit score is good enough to buy a Harley Davidson?

While the brand itself hasn’t published official credit score numbers, anything more than 670 is typically good enough for you to credit a new Harley.

Final Words

Learning how to buy a motorcycle might seem boring and as if you are overthinking the whole process but it will prove crucial to finding the right bike for your budget and needs. Make sure that you handle all the proper paperwork before you dive into the purchase process. Also, don’t shy away from asking different dealerships to verify certain information about the bike’s history when you get its VIN number. Furthermore, don’t rush the process of choosing the exact type of bike you want to go forward with, as well as the type of gear you will need to feel good riding it.