We’ve all had dream bikes and all of us have most likely spent countless of nights thinking of those same bikes. The reality, however, is that a lot of people can’t always afford brand new bikes so we need to adjust to the market and learn how to inspect a used motorcycle in order to get the best out of the deal.
While there are quite a few articles out there on the topic, all of them fail to give you a compressed list of checkpoints that you can use and go through for any bike you ever want to get. Here, we will discuss the step-by-step process of buying a used bike, see which are the things that you be the most careful about, and learn how to determine whether the bike was being taken good care of or not.
Here is my list of the most important things that you need to do and check in a used bike before you buy it:
- First Impressions and a VIN-number check
- Checking the major components
- Checking the wheels and tires
- Checking the suspension
- Checking the electrical system
- Cold-start the bike and examine the engine
- Check the maintenance record
- Take it for a ride
- Additional things to check
If you’re also looking for a new full-face motorcycle helmet, I suggest checking out my Guide on that topic by clicking here! Now, let’s get a little bit deeper into each of those aspects of a used bike and see why they need to be covered…
First Impressions and a VIN-number check
The very first thing you should do when checking a used motorcycle is actually look at its overall appearance and condition. A lot of the times the bike will paint a pretty clear picture of how it was treated in the hands of the previous owner. If you look beyond the basic wash a careless owner would have given it, you might find some troubling signals such as suspicious repair attempts, dirt in hard-to-reach areas, and more. If the bike has had plastic fairings, you can easily spot whether their connection to the mainframe have been broken, or in simpler terms – whether the bike has crashed and the following repair has been sloppy. Other things that can be seen straight away from the overall appearance are headlight condition, tires, handles, and others, but we will talk about these individually a bit further down.
Next up, get on with the actual legal checks starting with the VIN number. Look for the numbers and make sure they aren’t re-stamped as would be the case with some stolen bikes. Bring along pictures of factory-made numbers in order to have an idea of what you’re looking for/at in case the other numbers seem funny to you. Once you’ve made sure that the numbers are legit, make sure that the title numbers are the same as the ones on the headstock. If you are really new to all this any title inconsistency should be a clear-cut sign that you should leave the deal right there and then. More often than not it is something minor but if you aren’t specifically set on that bike, it probably isn’t worth the headaches.
Checking the major components
The easiest and most important things you can check right away after all the legal stuff are the:
- Chain and sprocket
- Fuel tank, oil, coolant
- Brakes and clutch
Chain and sprocket
You can easily test the tension in the chain by pulling it with your hand away from the sprocket slightly up and away from the bike. If you manage to pull it from the sprocket’s tooth then it is due for a swap. Also, inspect the inside of the chain. It should be clean, shiny, and smooth to the touch. One sure indicator that both the sprocket and chain are due for a change is if all the teeth are bent over or leaning over to the side.
Fuel tank, oil, coolant
For the fuel tank inspection, you will need to bring a flashlight along with you. Once you glance inside, you should see the clear fluid and the metal inside of the tank. If you see darker fuel, it needs to be replaced and if you want to be on the even safer side of things, flush the whole system and change its filter. Also, look for sediment or debris mixed with the fuel.
While you should be able to trust the owner on telling you when the last oil change was, that often isn’t the exact case and they can alter the truth a bit in order to secure their sale. Most bikes, however, have a peek window at the side of their engine bays that gives away the color of the oil. Anything less than clean see-through golden-brown liquid means that it is time for a change just to be safe. If you want to find out more oils and their variations, visit my full buyer’s guide on some of the best motorcycle oils for this year!
With the coolant, you only want to see a sweet-smelling green liquid inside the coolant tank. Brown coolant can mean a lot of things and none of them are good or cheap to fix.
Brakes and clutch
Lastly, checking the brakes and the clutch is absolutely essential not only for your own safety but because these repairs aren’t typically the cheapest to do. Take the bike off gear and move it a bit forward. Apply the brakes gently and watch how the lever and brakes behave. The lever should be smooth and there should be no noise coming from the front brake disks. Upon release, that same level should return equally smoothly to its initial position. When the brake is released, the bike should be able to freely roll without any resistance coming from the front discs. If you want to get extra nerdy, you can bring a measuring tool and check the rotor’s thickness.
The clutch can be tested in a similar fashion. Sit on the bike and press on it. The bike should roll out and the level should be smooth when pressed and when released.
Checking the wheels and tires
While almost everybody checks the tires of a used bike, many people miss checking the actual wheels. In the front wheel, look for any missing spokes or ones that are broken or bent for that matter. Check if the bearings are okay and whether the trueness is on point. With the front tire, you should be looking at the tread depth and the condition of its sidewall. Also, check if the pressure is low since that will often indicate an issue or neglect.
The rear wheel follows the same procedure. For the tire, look for alignment. Even if it is pretty hard to spot a misaligned rear tire, the grossly misaligned ones will show immediately.
Checking the suspension
The suspension of the bike can be checked by straddling the bike and pushing down its front. Its forks should be silent when returning to their initial position and shouldn’t be doing it very fast. Check their seals and make sure there are no noises when you put pressure on them. There shouldn’t be oil around the seals but if there is don’t be afraid as this might just be a case of new seals needed. The rear shocks should also return you to your initial position smoothly without rocking you too much. Forks that have creases on them can signal potential crashes so you can run your fingers along their length and see for any bumps or creases. Bumps will normally mean rust which is okay.
Checking the electrical system
There isn’t much that you can see or check with the whole wiring of the bike but you can at least check the battery. A clean motorcycle battery shows you that the bike has been getting some love and has had its battery regularly maintained. Look for corrosion as that is a sign of an old battery that is due for its swap.
Along with the battery, you can check other electrical/lighting parts of the bike such as the:
- Kickstand safety switch
- Kill switch
- Charging system
- Turn signals
Cold-start the bike and examine the engine
Once you are ready to start the bike, make sure that the fuel petcock is on its correct (on) position and that the choke is set up properly. If you are in doubt about any of that, ask the owner to help you out. Don’t redline the cold engine and make sure that you know how much he revs it upon start. A good way to make him subconsciously show you how he does it is to let him start the bike instead of you. While the engine is getting to its normal running temperature, make sure you focus on any chugging, clacking, knocking, rattling, or other unusual sounds. A healthy engine should feel and sound smooth and shouldn’t smoke out of the exhaust. Blue smoke means that the engine is burning oil while white smoke means that there is a coolant leak somewhere. Both of these scenarios are bad for a street bike and you should probably consider leaving the deal at that point. Black smoke in both dirt bikes and street bikes means bad fuel/air mix which can be easily adjusted. In summary, street bikes shouldn’t have smoke coming out of their exhaust.
Now is also a good moment to examine the exhaust system. A cold motor will transfer more vibrations to the exhaust system and will make issues easier to expose. When the engine is turned on, you will be easily able to hear any leaks along the exhaust on that first start. Additionally, look for any minor or major dents in the exhaust header as these typically cause performance issues in the bike. If you have to, lay on the back and check everything from below.
Once you are under the bike, you will also have a good look at the bike’s mainframe. What you’re looking for are scrapes, dents, or cracks. These will tell you whether the bike has been in an accident, has bottomed out, or taken a tough landing somewhere. Your hands can also help you feel things your eyes won’t see. Slide them over the frame and feel out as much of it as you can.
Check the maintenance record
This should typically be part of the first step where you go through all the documentation but it is useful to do it last so that you can have an idea of what’s done and what hasn’t before he shows you any sort of documents regarding the maintenance of the bike. Maintenance records can be falsified and are hard to trust unless they are coming out of authorized and licensed bike shops. You can contact these and ask for the specific bike and they will most likely give you all the information you need. If not, ask the owner to do it for you. Any and all information about the service history can potentially save you a few bucks and let you know when it will be time for some work to be done.
Take it for a ride
I know that you’ve been itching to get to this step for a long time now. All your patience is probably rewarded at this point, especially if you’ve noticed some issues that you wouldn’t have if you had started the bike straight away. Make sure that the bike hasn’t been ridden or started before you. A cold start reveals much more about the condition of the engine than a warm start, as we already discussed.
On the road, you need to focus on a few things – clutch, transmission, tracking, handling, engine performance, and most importantly how big your smile is while riding it.
As I said earlier, the clutch shouldn’t be too tight. It should engage and disengage smoothly. Any slip in the clutch can point towards an expensive repair. The transmission shouldn’t be making any type of whining noises. Jumping out of gear is the biggest issue you can expect here and if it does either prepare for a hefty repair or negotiate a cheaper price for the bike.
As for the tracking, make sure the bike isn’t going left or right. With only lightly holding the steering wheel, the bike should be going in a straight line. This is also part of the handling. While there is no objective way to test a bike’s handling, the key here is for you to be content with it.
This is also a good second moment to focus on the engine and make sure there are no odd vibrations, noises, or other issues when you’re pushing it.
Don’t Be Afraid To Take It To a Shop
If something doesn’t feel right, don’t be too hesitant to ask if you can take the bike to a trusted mechanic. Those people check used cars and bikes countless of times a day and can give you a good estimate of what the condition of the bike is as well as how good it was taken care of. A good mechanic will also be able to give you a relative estimate of how much money you will have to invest in initial maintenance once you get the bike. As the previous bike owner decided to sell the bike, he might have postponed a few scheduled maintenances, therefore you need to know about them and cover them first things first once the bike is yours. That should always be at the top of your list since it will add up to the overall cost.
Knowing how to inspect a used motorcycle can not only save you money in the long run but also land you a killer deal for a bike that you’ve been dreaming for ages. It is best to make a checklist of your own either on a spreadsheet or on a written sheet and take it with you, making sure that you don’t miss a single step. Start with the first impressions and legal details and work your way into the mechanical part and the way the bike actually rides. If you are still feeling insecure about your evaluation of the motorcycle, don’t be afraid to bring it to a licensed mechanic for a more thorough look!