What to look out for when buying a second hand bike

We all would like to drive that brand new super bike or cruiser straight off the show room floor, however one’s finances doesn’t always allow this or in other cases it is unwise to buy a brand new motorcycle if you are only starting to ride. In those cases it is sometimes better to buy a secondhand motorcycle instead. This is some good news for your budget on the pro side, but with all pros there must also be cons. The con in this case is that secondhand motorcycles carry history, history that may not be in the favour of a new owner. Here are some tips and tricks to determine whether the history of a machine is worth the asking price.

First of all it should be stated that all the information contained in this article is merely a guideline to purchasing a secondhand motorcycle and it is not a fireproof method in avoiding future costs from purchasing secondhand. Furthermore it is important to stress that unless you are planning to buy a secondhand motorcycle or wreck as a project bike, a prospective buyer should pay special attention to the condition of a secondhand motorcycle in order to avoid unforeseen costs in the future. A further important consideration by any purchaser is not to jump on and buy the first bike he or she sees.

If you are not so experienced in bike inspection you can ask a friend to go with you when inspecting a motorcycle. A friend can help you spot flaws and keep you from overspending. A companion is also helpful when you need a counterweight for wheel inspections on a center stand or holding the bike at strange angles.

Before meeting for the inspection.

When you find an advertisement that peaks your interest in a specific motorcycle there are a few things to do before going to physically inspect the bike.

The first of this is to do some research. Use the internet and biker friends, try to determine what the characteristics of that specific model of motorcycle is. Further try to determine whether that model of motorcycle will have some flaws appearing as it starts to show its age. Further try to determine whether replacement parts are easily obtainable. This will also help your budget as parts that are harder to come by generally also carry a bigger price tag.

The second important step is to contact the seller in order to arrange a meeting where one can inspect the motorcycle physically. An important request to the seller is to have the motorcycle running ready but not pre-warmed before the inspection, if applicable. The reason for this will be discussed later on.


During the inspection it is important for the prospective buyer the thoroughly inspect the machine before deciding whether to purchase it or not. This time should be used to inspect the bike from end to end and look out for some of the following key points. A portable light source is really helpful in this situation, bring a torch or use the light feature built-in to most modern phones.

Firstly, check that the motorcycle is straight. This can be done by viewing the centerline of the motorcycle. Check that the swivel point for the steering, center of the tank, seat and tail all align in a straight line. If the line is not straight there may be some damage to the frame of the motorcycle which may be irreparable. Further check that the front and rear wheel track in a straight line, as a bent swing arm will cause the rear of the bike to crab (track to the left or right of the front wheel, causing the bike the ride askew). Also check that the front shock absorbers on either side of the front wheel are straight. Although these items are replaceable they are sometimes costly.

Secondly, check the panels (fairing), tank, frame and exhaust for signs of a drop or fall. If marks are found the consistency and depth thereof can be “read” to determine whether the motorcycle was dropped or if the rider has taken a fall. Shallow, irregular marks may be an indication that the motorcycle has been dropped. Deeper, parallel marks or gouges may be an indication that a rider may have fallen with the motorcycle.

Thirdly, inspect the tyres and brake rotors and calipers. Check the tyres for tread depth, surface cracks, surface rot or any other defect or damage. Although tyres are easily replaceable, the condition of these parts can be used as a bargaining tool as certain tyre sizes are relatively expensive. However, if you want to buy a bike you can ride away immediately, the condition of the tyres should be reasonable.

When checking the brake rotors and calipers keep an eye out for the following items. The condition of the rotor surface should be smooth and not be too worn down. Rotors or discs that have been worn down by several millimeters should be replaced. Furthermore, check the remaining braking material left on the brake pads. Minimal or no material at all can cause damage to the rotors and brake calipers. Visually inspect the brake lines for signs of leakage or perishing.

Thereafter, inspect the clutch and braking system. Pull on the clutch lever while the motorcycle is in gear to determine if the clutch disengages correctly. If the bike is still hard to move, check the condition and tension of the clutch cable. If the bike rolls freely give it a slight push and test the front brake by pulling on the lever. This should stop the bike from rolling immediately. Repeat the process by pressing down on the rear brake pedal, the result should be the same.

The next point of inspection is the condition of the chain and sprockets. When checking the sprockets, ensure that the sprocket “teeth” are still at a reasonable hight. The rear sprocket should be in plain view, however a light will come in handy when checking the front sprocket as it is usually hidden under a cover or behind a section of the frame. The chain should be well lubricated and be set to the correct tension, as per the manufacturer specifications. Chain and sprockets should be replaced as a set, as these items form a specific wear pattern. If only one component is replaced it may cause these components to wear out faster, as the wear patterns do not match.

If it is a shaft driven motorcycle, one can check the gap between the shaft components by putting the motorcycle in gear and rocking the bike back and forth, if the parts are worn one would see a large distance of travel by the rear wheel.

One can also check the condition of the shock absorbers by quickly applying weight to the front and rear respectively and quickly removing it. If the motorcycle should drop a fair distance when weight is applied, and bounce back to the correct height once weight is removed. If the front suspension is easily bottomed out, its is a clear indication that the front shock absorbers are leaking.

Further inspect underneath the motorcycle for any signs of fluid leakage. The most common areas for leaks are arround the sump plug, the mounting point for the external water pump (if applicable), around the head/valve/cam covers, any engine covering plate located over the charging unit or gearbox covers. In the most common cases the cause is merely a worn out seal, however it can also be an indication of warping of the panel/cover. Also check for leaks in the radiator and connecting hoses. Losing cooling fluids can cause long-term damage if the engine is not cooled properly. It is important to check the front shock absorbers for leaks, check the area where the shock piston enters the shock housing. This area should be dry. If the area appears to have an oily residue it may be an indication that the shock absorber seals are worn and the shock absorber are now leaking.

Next one should inspect the electrical system. Turn the ignition to the on position and check that the electronics are functioning. Ensure that the headlights(high and low beams), tail lights, indicators and horn are functional. If any of the lights are not functioning, check the condition of the light bulb or the corresponding fuse in the motorcycle’s fuse box. A quick turn of the starter, with the engine kill switch set to stop, will give you an indication of the battery condition. The starter should easily turn the engine.

Now it can be discussed why you requested the motorcycle to be running ready but not pre-warmed. An engine that is warm starts more easily than a cold engine. Therefore, as a prospective buyer you would like to determine how the engine starts from cold as this will be the case when you have purchased the bike. Start the bike, the bike should take slightly longer to start compared to a warm engine, but it should not take longer than a couple of seconds. If this is not the case there may be some issues with the engine components.

If the engine fires, ensure that the oil pressure light turns off, indicating that the correct oil pressure has been reached. Listen to the engine for any noise that sounds out of the ordinary such as tapping or scraping. Any noise out of the ordinary may be an indication to failing components or damage within the engine.

Test drive

If none of the warning signs mentioned above are present, and the prospective buyer is satisfied with the condition of the motorcycle after inspection, a test drive is a good next step. However many sellers may be reluctant to allow a test drive out of fear of the prospective buyer damaging the motorcycle in an accident or fall. However a test drive is the most effective way of determining the feel and ride condition of a motorcycle. One learns more from a machine during a test drive than an inspection.

If the seller allows a test drive, pay attention the following. The motorcycle should feel firm on the road, there should be no sensation of slipping or wobbling. acceleration should also be smooth and constant. No spluttering or “dead zones” during acceleration should be observed. Braking should also be smooth and constant, the braking force should feel balanced. During a test ride, pay attention to the sound of the machine as well. There should be no spluttering or back firing. A consistent engine sound should be observed.


If you, as the prospective buyer, are satisfied after the inspection and possible test drive that the bike is in good condition, and that this is the type of bike that you would like to purchase, it is time to make an offer. However, if there are flaws present, and you are willing to fix or live with those flaws, you may use these as a tool in negotiating price. In all fairness, one should receive some discount for goods not up to standard.

After concluding the deal, the next logical step is for you to register the vehicle depending on your region’s laws regarding the subject. Some areas require the vehicle to first pass a roadworthyness test before the vehicle can be registered. Conducting a thorough inspection as described above can save you costs, and give the vehicle the best hope of complying with the test.

Ride safe and enjoy the journey.



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