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What to look for when buying an used bike...

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Buying Used as verses to buying new...

   Just like a new car depreciates rapidly when you first buy it, the same is generally true of motorcycles. This means that a year old bike can be just like a new bike for much less cash. Unfortunately, it may also mean you're getting stuck with someone else's discards, and the bike may have mechanical problems or post-crash issues that you are not aware of (especially if it was repainted). This page is effectively a checklist of what to look for when buying an used bike, whether that bike is a few months old or fifteen years old. This list is by no means totally exhaustive, but is designed to help you know where to look if you are not a motorcycle mechanic. Things like cracked fairings aren't included in the list, because they are so obvious that you should be able to spot them immediately.


Printable Version

Check-out Checklist...

  • Bad Wiring: Take an multimeter set to amps and look for battery draw while the bike is turned off (by disconnecting the negative cables attached to the battery's negative terminal and running that connection through the meter to the negative terminal). A small draw may be accountable by a tank gauge and/or clock that never shuts off, or due to an alarm system, but at no time should the draw with the bike off & key out be more than about 1/10th of an amp (0.10 Amps max draw with bike off, key out).
  • Bad Charging System: system voltage below 12.9 volts or above 14.8 volts while bike is running at 3.5k to 5k RPM, as measured at any power location (light bulb socket or between the battery terminals).
  • Low Output Charging System, Weak Battery: check if headlight intensity varies at 2k RPM when blinkers activated or horn depressed; if so, charging system is weak and battery is weak -- and both may require repairs or replacement.
  • Bad battery: battery voltage between the positive and negative battery terminals under 12.6 volts when engine off and key out. Recharge battery if necessary and retest.
  • Controls: switches work as expected, including horn, blinkers, headlight high-/lo-beam selector switch, starter button, etc.
  • Gauges & Displays: Gauges & Displays: with bike on center stand and warmed up, place in 1st and run to 3k RPM -- tach should reflect this (Speedo as well, if the pick-up is not at the front wheel). Caution -- back wheel will spin up, which can also be used to test the back brake operation. If no center stand nor race stand is present or available, test while riding as well as possible (don't take your eyes off the road on a strange bike!). Look for burned out display bulbs when you first turn the key on (such as low oil pressure light not coming on with key on but engine off). Look for bad LCDs on LCD displays. Look for bad back-lighting by covering the display with a dark cloth or your hands and peaking through. Finally, look for the odometer and trip odometer to actually count up mileage accurately by comparing the before and after readings from your test ride.
  • VIN: Check the frame for the VIN and compare it to the listed VIN on the title paperwork and any maintenance records the owner has. A mismatched VIN can cause all sorts of problems, from being unable to insure it to being unable to pass inspection, and even being unable to register it. Since there is no good online source in the USA for reliable history checks on motorcycle VIN's, call your local police department and ask the desk sergeant to run the VIN before you complete the purchase (to make sure it's not stolen, etc).
  • Handlebars: put the front wheel between your knees, facing the bike, check the positions of the handlebars -- are they even? Do they line up with the wheel? If not, it usually indicates crash damage to the front end that has not been addressed. Also check the ends of the bars for signs of scrappage, indicating the bars have rubbed against the ground.
  • Fairings-off Frame check: look for places the powder coat is uneven or cracked, indicating unfixed frame damage, or recent repairs which may be a source of trouble. The frame supports the rider, the engine and the transmission, and a weakened frame is a recipe for disaster.
  • Front forks: Move up and down in their travel and check the fork tubes for oil rings or streaks, clicking noises -- if no movement, then forks are bad; rings or streaks means the seals are shot; clicking noises mean a fork repair or steering head bearing repair is in order. Forks should not sink significantly when pushed down lightly or when you sit on the bike on street bikes (not necessarily the case with off-road bikes); ones that do have old, weak springs and/or bad fork oil dampeners.
  • Steering Head Bearings: turning full left to full right and back, there should be no change in resistance, no clicking or notchiness in the motion. Clicking or notchiness indicates that the steering head bearing is failing or has failed, and is usually caused by either repeated drops from wheelie-ing the bike (as it lands) or a crash.
  • Wheels/Rims: should be straight even when eyeballed while spinning. Place a pencil on a box or can, then push it out until it barely touches the rim of the wheel. Spin the tire; the pencil will move backwards at the high point and let you see it readily compared to the other points in it's travel. Repeat for both wheels. Bent rims are almost always the result of crash damage of some type.
  • Swing Arm: like the frame, look for places the finish is bad/cracked, or the swing arm is bent when looking at it from the rear.
  • Steering neutrality frame check: during a test drive, tooling along about 20 - 25 mph, is the back end oscillating/weaving? If not, up the speed to 45 and totally loosen your grip on the grips enough that the bars can shake if they want to, basically hands forming a circle around the grip without touching it -- any head shake when grip is loosened? If it shakes immediately, then something is suspect; if it takes a few seconds to start shaking, check the front tire for wear, cupping -- if it is worn, this may be the source of the problem, otherwise suspect an uneven frame or steering component damage or wear (bad head bearings, bad forks, bad wheel, etc).
  • Leak-down compression test: This is the most crucial, as it tells you if the valves, cylinder walls, pistons and rings have integrity. Failing a leakdown compression test means major engine repairs in most cases, although a poor valve adjustment can cause it to fail.
  • Valve noise, general engine noise: well taken care of, the engine compartment area should sound fairly smooth even with a loud exhaust. Tapping, knocking, or grinding noises are to be suspect, and do not let the current owner tell you "this model does this". Well running engines with little wear don't make loud noises.
  • Smooth idle once warm: Give it 10 minutes from start to warm up properly, then look for a smooth idle and a smooth return to idle when the throttle is twisted and released. Unstable idle is indicative of fuel delivery, carb or injector problems, or air intake issues.
  • Transmission: Even parked on the center stand you can test this, but it's better done during a test-drive Run engine to 3.5k RPM, move up and down through the gears, letting the clutch out at each shift-change. Any problems engaging any of the gears in either direction, up or down? Any false neutrals? While riding, get bike to 4k RPM in 2nd or 3rd gear, then twist the throttle as hard as possible -- did the engine RPM's remain relatively stable and stay matched to the bike's motion, or did the engine spin up in RPM's, then start to dip again as the power started to get to the rear wheel? If it spun up for 1/2 second or more before the power started getting to the rear, this indicates a slipping or worn clutch.
  • Oil Pan, Oil Drain bolt: look for a leaking oil pan at the oil drain bolt due to stripping of the oil drain bolt receiver, and for leaking seals indicating recent attempts at engine work.
  • Oil cooler: Look for a leaking oil cooler or badly bent oil radiator fins, especially on oil-air cooled bikes (Katanas, Bandits, older GSXR models, some Triumphs, many BMW's, etc);
  • Coolant Radiator & fans (if present by design): Look for a leaking radiator or badly bent radiator fins. Look for cracks, dry rot or poor condition in the radiator hoses. Run bike for three minutes, then feel radiator hoses carefully to see if it's warm (indicates properly working water pump and thermostat). Then run until bike gets hot (as indicated by temperature gauge or 15 minutes or cooling fans kicking on, whichever comes first), and see if the cooling fans come on as they should. Note that not all bikes use water-based cooling systems, and the presence of fans does not automatically mean the bike does (California models of oil-air cooled bikes may have fans for pollution control reasons; fans installed for compliance with pollution control on oil-air cooled bikes normally run when you shut the bike off if the engine is hot, and not while the engine is running).
  • Coolant Overflow Tank (if coolant is present by design): Look for container to be intact and translucent enough to see the coolant level through it. Check coolant to ensure it looks healthy (bright green or fluorescent orange; should not be brown nor rust-colored). Check hoses leading to coolant tank for signs of wear, aging, dry rot or other problems.
  • Gas tank: open and look for presence of rust or other contaminants visible inside -- use a flashlight, not a lighter nor matches! Presence of rust indicates poor care in storage and need for either a replacement tank (usually in the case of badly flaking rust or places where the paint has bubbled up on the exterior of the tank) or a stripping & sealant coat (in the case of just surface rust spots). Remember that a tank that rusts through will leak fuel directly onto a hot engine in most cases, meaning you will find yourself riding a fireball.
  • Rear Sprocket: Look for uneven wear on one side of the tooth compared to the other, indicative of poor chain and sprocket maintenance.
  • Tire condition: including dry rot, cracking at the sidewalls, tread showing, low rain grooves or tires worn to the wear marks, or cupping/scalloping (when one side of a groove is higher than the other).
  • Brakes: calipers should move in their travels, hoses not cracking nor dry rotted, brake fluid something other than dark brown (nor darker) and not murky, and pad-wear even front-to-back. Test again on the road by using an unused piece of roadway and engaging each brake (front, back) separately and fully to see if it works correctly; watch for sounds or feelings indicating it is not releasing properly after use (dragging, caliper not retracting).
  • Exhaust: With the engine running, listen for leaks and pass your hand close to any junctions (not close enough to burn yourself, but close enough to feel if exhaust gas is puffing out of the junction). Some brands of exhausts are more prone to rust than others. If the owner has installed an after-market exhaust (muffler or full system), and you have inspections in your area, see if they still have the original exhaust to sell with the bike so you can insure you pass inspection in the future.
  • Fuel Selector Switch: should turn without excess resistance. Hard-to-turn fuel selectors usually indicate some contamination in the actual plumbing of the valve, indicating current or previous contamination in the fuel system.
  • Seat: Is it comfortable to you? Check for padding even, cover not torn. If the seat is leather, check for stretch marks getting ready to become rips or tears.
  • Chain: Look for presence of oil or lubricant indicating proper maintenance. No dirt, sand, nor rust should be present on the chain.
  • Locks/keys: Ensure all key-operated locks can be opened or used with the keys present, including the fuel gas cap, the ignition, one or both helmet locks (if the bike is so equipped), and any seat or tool kit release locks.
  • Goverment Inspection: Unless the bike is specifically being sold as-is for parts, if your area requires an inspection, make sure the inspection is up-to-date and that the owner agrees in writing to get it to pass inspection.


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