What to look for when buying an used bike...
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.
CRASH DAMAGE, FRAME & SUSPENSION:
- 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
- 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.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION:
- 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
- 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
- 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).
OTHER GENERAL MAINTANENCE & MISC. ISSUES:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.