How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

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How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

Used motorcycles – they’re the best deals on two wheels, but can also be the biggest nightmares. The difference is knowing what you’re getting yourself into before you seal the deal. Check out our guide to what to look for when buying a used bike, so you can buy like a boss!


Why Buy Used?

Buying a motorcycle is as easy as walking into a dealership and signing a contract. Why go through all the trouble of buying a used bike in the first place?

  • Save big money. Finding and negotiating the right private party deal can save you thousands.
  • Avoid depreciation. When you buy used, the huge initial drop in value has already taken place.
  • Aftermarket upgrades. Upgrades don’t usually add much to the value of a bike, so you can find one with the mods you want at huge savings.
  • Get that bike you’ve always wanted. A lot of the best bikes ever made aren’t even manufactured anymore!
  • It’s more rewarding. Finding the right bike is like a trophy hunt – taking it home is an awesome feeling

Of course, there are some down sides. Investing time in the the search for the right bike and negotiating with sellers isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many buyers are also intimidated by the risk of buying a bike with hidden serious problems.

But the big key to maximizing the reward and minimizing the risk when buying used is educating yourself. From researching the market, to inspecting the bike, to negotiating a price, information is the best weapon you have as a buyer to get a great deal!


wife says motorcycle for sale
Another hidden benefit of shopping for used bikes – the wacky for sale ads.


The Buying Process

The process of buying a used vehicle is broken down into four phases: Research, Contact, Inspection, and Negotiation. Here’s a brief overview of what each phase involves.

  1. Research phase: deciding what you want, what to look for, and what the market has to offer. In this phase you are investing time into becoming an “informed buyer.”
  2. Contact phase: you start contacting sellers of bikes you’re interested in, and gathering important information on both the bike and the sellers’ individual situation.
  3. Inspection phase: You look over the bike to determine its condition and assess its value, and ensure the paperwork is legitimate and in order.
  4. Negotiation phase: working out a price you both agree to and sealing the deal!

Next we’ll go over each one in more detail.


Research Phase

This is the most important phase in the buying process. With used bikes, there is a wealth of information available to you via reviews, internet owners forums, and market research sites, and you can use all of this to arm yourself as a buyer.

There is even more information out there about used models than there is about new ones. Since they’ve been out for a while, you can get the low down from people who actually own and ride them, rather than just hearing what the manufacturer and magazines have to say. This will all work to your advantage.

The research phase is all about learning. You want to become an expert in the bike you want long before you ever meet a seller – and with all the information available on the internet, this is easier to do than ever.

Here are things to look for in the Research Phase:

General Used-Bike Buying Knowledge

  • What to look for when buying a used bike in general. We’ll give you as much of this as we can here, but it doesn’t hurt to research other sources as well.
  • General costs of maintenance. Learn what it will probably cost to replace tires, brakes, batteries, sprockets, get a tune-up done, and other basic needed maintenance. (If any of this needs to be done on a bike you like, you’ll want to know how much you’ll have to spend, and can negotiate accordingly.)
  • Title/Registration information. Know what it will cost to transfer title in your state, vehicle inspection requirements, and any oddball laws that might affect you – this is especially important with out-of-state transfers. (Example: In CA, you may not register a used motorcycle from out of state with less than 7500 miles on the odometer. So if you buy a bike with 3000 miles on it out of state and try to register it here…you’re kinda screwed!)


  • Manufacturer information. What years was it produced? What options/colors/special editions were available? What are the recommended maintenance intervals?
  • Owner-sourced information. What modifications or upgrades do owners tend to do, and what are the most desirable? What are common complaints about the bike? What are common problems owners have experienced, and how are they resolved? (Owner’s internet forums are the best place to find this info.)
  • Market trends. What are bikes the year/model you want going for on the market? Which mods or upgrades tend to raise the price? Which individual bikes have been sitting on the market a while, and which ones have been snatched right up? (Print out listings of comparable bikes for sale, and keep them handy for when you go to negotiate the purchase. More on that later.)
Quick Tip: Research owners forums to learn what problems are common to the bike you want, and how to diagnose them. Look for these problems specifically when you inspect a bike you plan to buy, and ask the seller what he or she has done about it to see how they respond.


girlfriend pregnant selling harley
Another gem from the classifieds.


Contact Phase

The contact phase is where you start calling or emailing individual sellers about the bikes they have for sale, and open a dialogue with them.

This is an intimidating process for many people; thousands of people browse ads online, but very few of them will actually call and talk to the sellers about the bike. This is a good time to start establishing a relationship with the seller, and get a feel for what they are like to deal with (and if you want to deal with them at all!)

This is also where you start getting information on the individual bikes themselves, and on the sellers’ personal situations. Here are things to look for and take notes on during the contact phase:


  • What modifications have been done to the bike? (Take note of these and research their value – there could be thousands of dollars in upgrades on the bike, or it could be a bunch of junk.)
  • Will the stock parts come with the bike? (Meticulous owners often keep all the stock parts. This not only adds value to the bike, but indicates that it was well-kept.)
  • When was maintenance done last, and are there service records to show it? (Detailed service records add value. Many riders do their own maintenance – but it’s easy to lie about also.)
  • Has it ever been dropped, and if so, how? (Many bikes have been dropped, and it’s usually not the end of the world. Mainly, you want to hear what they say about it, so you can verify it later in your inspection.)
  • What is the VIN, so you can order a vehicle report before you come see it? (These days, doing a VIN check is a common practice when buying any used vehicle. If a seller balks at this request, it might indicate that they have something to hide.)
Quick Tip: Listen to YouTube clips of bikes like the one you want to see how they sound. If you can find clips of bikes with problems, listen to those too. You might not know what the bike should sound like, but this can help you get an idea of what does and doesn’t sound right.


  • Do they have the title, and is it their own name? (If the bike is still financed, you’ll have to pay off the bank directly, and get the title transferred from them to you. If they don’t have the title for some weird reason, you should probably pass.)
  • Why are they selling? (The classic question that helps paint a picture of the owner, their motivation to sell, and willingness to negotiate.)

What not to do in the contact phase:

  • Throw out offers over the phone/via email. Also known as “would ya take’s,” sellers tend to get a lot of these (usually low) offers from dreamers with no money, or vultures looking for someone desperate to sell; serious buyers generally don’t do this.
  • Reveal how much you know. You may be a motorcycle expert, but this is a time to ask questions. Being curious and respectful (and maybe even playing a little dumb) is best when making first contact. This way you let the seller lead the way, and can see what they try to tell you.


wife says harley goes or I go
Decisions, decisions…


Inspection Phase

The inspection will, in most cases, be the first time you see the bike and seller in person. This is where all first impressions are made, and where you get to see if the bike is really as nice as it is in photos (unlike internet dating, a lot of times motorcycles are actually better looking in reality!)

You should bring a few supplies to check out the bike:

  • Bright flashlight: to get a good look at all the nooks and crannies
  • Nitrile gloves: so you don’t get your hands dirty looking at everything
  • Clean rag: to wipe grime away to get a good look (you can also use paper towels)
  • Clipboard and pen: with your inspection checklist, vehicle history report, and comparable sales (if any.)
Quick Tip: Print an inspection checklist, and tell the seller you’re going to go through it systematically during your inspection. This will give a seller the impression you’re going through a routine process, rather than just searching for reasons to knock down their price.

Here are a few of the most important things to check:

  • Cold start. Call ahead and ask the seller to not warm the bike up. You want to start it from cold, to see what problems it might have getting running. Touch the headers to verify it wasn’t warmed up. Start the bike, paying attention to how long it takes to turn over and fire up.
  • Rev it. Give the engine a few revs, quickly releasing the throttle; it should snap back quickly, and RPM should immediately drop back down to idle. Don’t rev too hard when its still cold.
  • Headlight. Watch headlight during starting and revving; it should maintain its level and not flicker
  • Exhaust Pressure. Put your hand over each exhaust outlet as the engine idles, to verify that exhaust pressure is uniform.
  • Brakes. Check wear indicators on brake pads (usually a groove down the middle of the pad) to estimate remaining pad life. Check rotors for a pronounced lip on the outer edge, which means it is worn down. If the bike is on stands, check to see that the wheels spin freely without any brake drag.
  • Clutch. Check the clutch for ease of pull. If you get to ride the bike, check to see how it engages and look for any slippage, especially in higher gears.
  • Forks. Wipe the forks clean and compress them. Oil residue on the fork means it has a blown seal. A fork that is very difficult to compress may be bent.
  • Chain & Sprockets. Look for hooked or unusually pointy teeth, which indicates excessive wear. Check chain slack. Both sprockets and the chain should be replaced as a set.
  • Tires. Check wear bars on the tires. Look for blocking off down the center, or cracking along the sides; both mean the tire needs to be replaced.
  • Matching VINs. Check to see that the VIN on the frame, the title, and the vehicle history report match. Engine numbers and VIN numbers almost never match, so don’t be put off if these are different.
  • Title. Check to see that the name on the title matches the name on the sellers legal ID.
  • Model-specific issues. Look for any indications of problems specific to that model of motorcycle (which you should have discovered during the research phase!)
Quick Tip: Low miles is no guarantee of a good bike, and a salvage title is no guarantee of a bad bike. Miles don’t destroy a motorcycle, hard use and lousy maintenance do. Salvage titled bikes can still be great bikes, but they will never carry the same value as one with a clear title.

There are many, many more things you can check out on a bike – what we’re focusing on here are the most important. These are the ones that are the easiest to check, and most likely to give you serious problems if you find anything wrong with them.


Negotiation Phase: Making the Deal

When you decide you want to make an offer for the bike, the fun part (or the terrifying part, depending who you ask) begins. Once you have inspected the bike, and haven’t encountered anything you consider a complete deal breaker, then it’s time to start talking price.

This is where you use the printed listings of other bikes for sale, and things you found during the inspection, to justify a discount under what the seller is asking. If comparable bikes are selling for less money in the area, use the listings to show the seller why you feel a discount is warranted. If the bike is priced as being in perfect condition but needs new tires and brakes, you can take the cost of tires and brakes off the sellers asking price, and offer that lower amount.

There are a million ways to negotiate, but easy ones that anyone to use are evidence-based strategies like these. Anything you can point to directly that justifies a drop in the price, especially if the seller can verify that information on their own, is hard to argue against.

A few more tips on negotiating a deal:

  • Don’t beat the seller up about what he is selling! This is an aggressive negotiation strategy common in other countries, but in the US it is offensive and can turn a seller off to dealing with you.
  • If you want a test drive, you may have to negotiate for it. It is very common for sellers to only allow test drives with cash in their hands, because the liability for them is high. If you want to see the bike in action, consider asking the seller to ride it around and run through the gears.
  • Appeal to the seller’s good side. You will generally have better luck appealing to a seller’s good side (e.g. “I really love this bike and want it badly, but this is all I have to spend”) instead of trying to beat them or their property up (e.g. “there is so much wrong with this bike it’s not worth even close to what you want.”)
  • Bear in mind the potential for litigation. It sucks, but that’s the kind of society we live in, so expect both sides to be very protective of themselves with respect to legal issues and liability.
  • Know what are “deal breakers” vs. “negotiation points” for you. For many buyers a bike that won’t start might be a reason to walk away; but for some, it’s just a way to negotiate a much lower price. Know what your absolute “deal breakers” are before you go – anything else is just something to use as a negotiation tool to bring the price down.
Quick Tip: Print copies of bikes for sale in your market that are similar to the one you want. When you go to negotiate a deal, bring the lowest priced ones with you and use them as a way to demonstrate that the seller’s price is too high so you can get a discount.


buying motorcycle vintage
Ah yes…the early days of Craigslist.


Almost there…

Once you’ve come to a price you can agree on, you’re ready to swap cash for keys and take your new ride home. But wait! Don’t part ways until you have a few important things in your hands. These are:

  • Title: signed over to you
  • The keys!
  • 2 signed bills of sale: one for you, and one for the seller. It should with the following information at a minimum: a vehicle description with VIN, final sale price, full name of buyer and seller, the county and state where the vehicle was sold, and any warranty or additional items that hay have been included.

That’s it for the basics of buying a used bike! More could be written about every phase of the buying process, but this guide is a good place to start. Remember, information is the best tool you have in your arsenal when getting your next dream bike at the best price possible, so make sure you do your homework.

The difference between a happy buyer with a sweet used bike and a disgruntled buyer with a lemon is knowledge and preparation – and neither of those things cost money, so get as much of them as you can!

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