18 Unusual Tips & Tricks for Buying a Used Motorcycle

When searching for a used motorcycle the usual items to check off are the model year, mileage, condition and asking price. And to be thorough there are many mechanical and electrical systems checklists you can use in the evaluation. I went a bit further and put together this interesting list of neat trick and unusual tips for you to use on your next used motorcycle inspection.

1.0  The Advertisement

Photos – did the seller bother to clean up the motorcycle, and take a decent set of photos? Is there junk and garbage all around, did the bike just get hauled out from under a pile of debris for its photo-op? Does it look like it stored outside? A negative overall. Does the ad indicate it is currently being or recently been ridden, or has it been in storage? Bearing and bushings can develop flat spots if the bike sits too long in one position, especially if on the kickstand. Unless properly stored the process of oxidation attacks surfaces, fuel & fluids, gaskets, and rubber parts. A machine improperly stored for a long time, or just parked and left unridden will need extra care to get it back in shape. There will be additional costs involved.

Content – does it deliver the facts and what a buyer wants to know? The ad content doesn’t have to be perfect, but at least should reflect some pride of ownership. I have seen some really silly ones like “Bike for Sale”, period – no brand, size or model – what is going on in this seller’s mind? I don’t think I really want to find out.

Other phrases that make me a little cautious;

  • “just needs a carb cleanout”
  • “price goes up in…”
  • “needs gone”
  • “recently purchased, plans changed”
  • “should be no trouble to certify”
  • “ran perfectly before…but now won’t start”

2.0  Seller Evaluation

Take mental notes of how the seller takes care of their other possessions. Their car, yard, home and themselves. All point to the type of person who may or may not attend to regular service on the motorcycle you are looking at. If everything is a mess then it would be a small miracle that they would only care for the motorbike differently.

Evaluate the reasons the seller provide for selling their motorcycle. There is no right or wrong answer – some can be a little suspicious. Some just don’t add up, like “moving out of the country”, but oddly they are only selling this one motorcycle.

“Upgrading to a newer bike”, already bought a newer model. Alright, I can believe it – ask a bit about the new motorcycle. Selling bike to “buy a truck”, or whatever makes sense. If the person is selling for an older family member or as an estate sale, there could be a good deal available.

3.0  Bring a Stick!

Seriously. This is an old school trick; the stick is used as a stethoscope to hear the sounds coming from deep inside the engine. You can actually buy a mechanic’s stethoscope, that is basically a stick with two earpieces.

A nice piece of wood, like a section of a broom handle, works well. A section of a hard plastic rod can be used (not hollow tube). You can use a hammer, outing the metal head to your ear – you just need to be able to capture the sound and transmit it to the inner ear.  Just don’t use anything metal to avoid scratching surface. Try it out first on any motorized equipment nearby. The range of sounds that you hear are is amazing.

A healthy engine has a lot going on inside. You will hear a lot of different sounds from rotating and moving mechanical parts. On an unhealthy engine, you may hear out-of-harmony and random sounds. For example, a  deep clunk, or odd pitched sound that doesn’t fit in with the overall mechanical “orchestra” could be a problem. These sounds will typically increase as you get closer to the suspected problem area.

A failing valve or bearing will sound very different than its neighboring parts. Some practice is required, but you can definitely identify sounds that don’t belong.

4.0  Feel the Engine

If it is warm have concerns. Did the owner warm it up to mask hard starting or noises that go away once it’s warmed up? When you arrange to see the bike, specifically ask for them not to start it until you get there. If they did anyway, be concerned.

5.0  Fresh Oil Change

While this could just be a contentious owner changing the oil and getting everything ready for selling the bike, I would be a little skeptical. Can they show you regular oil changes were done? Otherwise is this hiding the fact that they didn’t change it on schedule so decided to do it at the last minute? Look the seller square in the eyes when you ask why they changed it, any sign of concern coming through may indicate there is more to the story than just clean oil.

Be one step ahead – know what viscosity and type of oil is a need for the bike. Ask the seller what brand and viscosity they used. Be suspicious if they can’t tell you, or just blurt out the incorrect spec.

6.0  New Parts & Old Parts

A bunch of new parts, or obviously different parts (from another bike) can indicate a recent accident and subsequent repair. Items like turn signals, hand levers, foot pegs, mismatched painted parts, fresh paint or touch-ups, especially on one side of the motorcycle could indicate a recent crash. While a low-speed fall over is not the end of the world, a more serious accident could have done unseen damage. Forces during an accident are transferred across the motorcycle and can damage the frame, transmission (through the shift lever), front forks, and wheel assemblies.

And – always ask the seller if they are including any extra parts or accessories with the bike. Do this before negotiating the sale price so it’s a bundle, and the parts don’t become a bargaining chip the seller brings out or even tries to get extra for. Have a good look at them for damage and wear also.

I always ask if they have a manual – if not I wonder how did they do routine checks and Maintainance (or did they).

7.0  Check both VIN’s

Look at the engine & frame VIN (vehicle identification number). There are always two and they should match? In your research – know where VINs are located on the models you are looking at. Matching VIN’s indicate the bike is stock and is the same as it came from the factory. If the engine has been replaced it will have a different VIN than the frame. The replaced motor could easily have many more miles on it than the odometer indicates. Take some pictures with a smartphone for later for easier viewing and reference for later.

8.0  Research a Lot

Do your research – knowledge is power. Spend a good amount of time reading over all aspects of the bike. Look for owner reviews in forums. Many popular models have dedicated user groups and forums – a fantastic resource. Gold Wings and touring Harleys even have multiple user group forums to check out!

Come prepared with knowledge so you can spot a deal when you see it. And on the flip side – how to spot a deal that’s maybe too good to be true. Know all the major issues with the brands and model you are looking at. For example, the frame cracking issue with Gold Wings.

Price Guides – they are good for rough estimates, local conditions, and seasonality have a lot of influence on price. Guides are good for relative pricing comparison between year and manufacturers. To really get to know prices in your area – spend time checking your local want adds, over time you will have a very good idea of local prices.

9.0  Smartphone – Handy Tool

Smartphones are super handy for a lot of things – when it comes to used motorcycles the camera functions is a nice feature. Take a lot of pictures, keep them as a group related to each motorbike you look at. After looking at a few machines your mind will tend to scramble things you saw.

Also, use it to take pictures in hard to see places, like under the bike, hidden motor and frame areas. When you have a look on a larger screen you may notice things you didn’t or could see during the inspection. You can also use your smartphone’s flashlight feature when needed.

10.0  Mechanical Inspection?

Ask if you can arrange for a mechanic’s inspection, even if you aren’t going to do it. Notice the seller’s reaction when you ask – do they have a negative or odd reaction to this request? They might be thinking of some serious issues that a mechanic would surely find. They may just not want the hassle of letting you haul, or have them drive it to a shop. If the asking price and condition are good, it runs great and it’s a popular model this option may not even be possible. But asking costs nothing.

Of course, if you actually want to have a mechanic inspect it, which is a good idea – plan ahead. How will it get to the mechanic?  The best way is to get the seller on board with the idea is to be serious – give them a decent cash deposit, with the remainder to be paid on successful mechanical inspection. I also confirm that I will give the inspection results to the seller, regardless of going ahead with the purchase, or not. This makes it a win-win, the seller will at least know exactly what the issues are, if any, for any inconvenience involved.

11.0  Bring a Penny or a Dime

The seller may advertise that there is a “new set of tires” on the bike, however, they may actually have had a significant amount of use, but still could look fresh. So, bring a tire tread depth tool, to accurately determine how much tread and life is left. If you don’t have have a tire gauge a US penny, or Canadian dime will do. Absolute minimum is tread depth remaining is 2/32″ or 1.6mm.

If you don’t have a gage – you can use a US penny. Insert the penny, with Lincoln’s head down – if the tire surface is flush with, or above the top of the head on the coin – the tire needs replacing. If you live in Canada, use a dime, the top of the Bluenose’s mast is the limit. If the mast top is flush or above the tire surface, time for a new tire.

Also, check the tire wear indicators built into the tires, many times tires wear unevenly. With heavy touring bikes, that covers a lot of highway miles the center wears faster. If the center indicators are at their limit the tire is scrap, even if there is lots of tread depth left off-center of the tire.

Tires have an age-limited too. Tire’s useful and safe lifespan is a recommended 5 years from the date of manufacture. Beyond 5 years the effects of oxidation can cause tire rubber compounds to turn brittle and crack. To determine when it was manufactured look for the “DOT” code on the side of the tire. The last 4 digits of the DOT code number indicates the week and year of manufacture. The format is “WWYY”, for example, 2419, is the 24th week of 2019.

For more valuable tire info check my post on motorcycle tires here –  Should  I Replace Both Tires at the Same Time?

12.0  Tire Pressure Gauge

Check both tire’s pressure – with an accurate tire gauge made for motorcycles. Buy a good quality tire pressure gauge, you should have one anyway. If the tire pressure is significantly different than the bike’s specification this indicates the owner is careless on the most basic level, so what else have they been neglectful about? Definitely a warning flag.

While checking the pressure, check tire condition. Once again, come prepared – know what a set of tires cost.

…AND don’t forget to call a local shop and get the installation cost.

13.0  False Neutrals – The End Folks

Motorcycle transmissions are complex, and most motorcycles (Harley’s excluded) use a unit type design, where the engine and transmission share the same housing (and oil). If transmission problems arise the cost is typically so expensive to fix that it might be the end of the road for that motorcycle. It may even be more economical to replace the entire engine-transmission assembly as a unit.

Test any used motorcycle for false neutrals. A false neutral occurs when the gear change mechanism is worn or damaged in a way that allows the gears to fall into a state where they are not engaged. When this happens between gears the drive train is disengaged and effectively in neutral. If this happens on acceleration with full throttle the engine can over rev causing more potential damage.

I owned a Honda CB750 that developed this condition and it was a bear to drive. It may have been caused by the poorly designed kickstand that allowed it to fall over while parked far too many times. The falls bent the shift lever and transferred a shock to the shift forks inside causing internal transmission damage. The end result was an unpleasant and often dangerous to drive a motorcycle, that slipped into false neutrals unexpectedly at the worst times, with the revs going to redline (eventual engine damage on the way).

To test simply shift normally, but try moving the shift lever as lightly as possible. You are trying to coax the transmission into revealing that its false condition. If you can do this you do not want this motorcycle, period.

14.0  Always Walk Away

If you don’t want it, and even if you do want it, always WALK AWAY!

The first case makes sense – “thanks for your time, it’s not what I was looking for…” and then you leave.

However, if you do want it, it’s time to use some psychology to get the best deal possible. When you have decided “yes” it’s time to begin negotiating…walk well away from the motorcycle, and don’t look back, or glance at it again. Ideally, walk back towards your vehicle as if you are on the brink of leaving the scene. You are signaling that you can take it or leave it, there is no emotional attachment (although it may be screaming inside of you!). This strengthens your position greatly, and the seller doesn’t catch you wistfully glancing at the “must-have” motorbike sitting there.

Do not hesitate to walk, period. If, for example, you first see or hear the machine in question – and it’s a complete fail – just politely indicate it’s not for you and leave. Why waste your time any further – you are not being impolite, at that moment you have decided that there will be no purchase – so end it. And if the seller has grossly mispresented the motorcycle it’s on them, period.

15.0  No Warning Lights?

Watch for all warning lights to briefly illuminate when the ignition key is turned (and of course, if any stay on). If you notice any or all are not doing the “self-check” then question if they have been disabled. Is there something being covered up, or perhaps an electrical issue – bottom line they should work.

16.0  Bring A Friend

Almost anyone will do, preferably they have some mechanical knowledge, and better yet motorcycle experience. The friend can help you see more things, and provide a sounding board to help evaluate the bike’s condition. There is strength in numbers too unless the seller brings out a friend also.

17.0  No to Hitches

The benefit of having a trailer hitch already installed far outweighs the potential negatives. You will never know how much weight was towed (or even dragged at some point), for how long or at what speed. Pulling a trailer puts stress on all moving parts of the tow vehicle, including the engine and the brakes. If you don’t need or want one and, or worse have to take it off, why bother?

18.0 After Market Pipes?

Stock exhaust pipes often get changed to obtain better flow, and “richer” sound of course. When installing higher flow exhaust pipes re-jetting the carburetor(s) or remapping the EFI “computer” is required. If not done the bike will run lean (too much air versus fuel). Running lean can cause overheating and eventually extreme engine damage can occur.

Be cautious when new exhaust pipes have been installed. Check for any signs of running lean and overheating (spark plugs, and running temp very high). The best defense is a mechanical inspection, and specifically, ask your mechanic to check for potential overheating. 

Summing It Up

Finding a great used motorcycle can be time-consuming. But if you begin with narrowing down the prospects, starting with the advertisement, then take a step by step approach you will be rewarded with a great deal. Be sure to include a thorough inspection checklist (there are many good ones online). Follow a good pre-purchase checklist, and use these tricks and tips that you find helpful. This approach will provide far better results. 

And the hardest advice to follow – don’t let your emotions guide your choice. If you have any doubts get them cleared up, if not move on. Remember –  there is always another motorcycle available in the marketplace.

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