Buying a used motorcycle from a private seller or dealership? Whether you’re buying a bike at an auction like Mecum, turning to online listings, or buying a used bike from a local seller, it pays to know what to look for when buying a used motorcycle.
This used motorcycle buying guide covers what to look for when buying a used bike, questions to ask the seller, and more.
Table of Contents
What to Look for When Buying a Used Bike
Ready to buy a used motorcycle? Here’s an overview of the most important things to look for to make sure you know what you’re getting.
Is the Seller Trustworthy?
Buying from a dealership can seem like the safest option because they need to protect their business, but remember that dealerships often take used motorcycles as trade-ins. They may only make minimal repairs, if any, and price the bike based on the blue book for motorcycles with a mark-up.
Buying a motorcycle from a private seller is a great option for finding the bike of your dreams and potentially a better deal.
No matter where you go to buy a used motorcycle, make sure you trust the seller is legitimate.
Before moving forward, know what to look for and watch out for scams. Here are some useful tips for avoiding untrustworthy sellers and fraud.
- If you’re buying a used motorcycle online, use a reputable site, but don’t assume fraudulent listings don’t get through!
- Check the listing carefully for red flags like blurry photos, details that don’t add up, or something that seems too good to be true.
- Check the average price range for the model and consider how the bike’s condition and mileage affects the price. Does it seem too good to be true? If the bike’s price seems too low, the listing should give an explanation like a salvaged title or major repairs that are needed.
- Read the seller’s reviews, if there are any, and do an online search for the dealer or any address or phone number associated with the listing to see if it’s been flagged for fraudulent activity.
- Do a Google reverse image search of the photos in the listing to make sure they aren’t stock photos or stolen from another listing.
- Beware of people who claim they are an agent representing the seller or anyone claiming they aren’t the actual owner of the bike. You should also avoid sellers claiming the bike is stored somewhere else as a reason they can’t provide further photos, videos, or information.
A reputable seller will usually have a good number of quality photos, including close-ups of any damage. The listing should give a detailed description of the bike including its history and known problems.
When it’s time to pay for your motorcycle, be wary of sellers who only accept Western Union, Zelle, or money transfer services for an online transaction. Use a service that offers protection like Escrow.com or even Paypal. When paying through an online platform, keep in mind credit cards offer better protection against fraud over debit cards.
VIN & Title
After making sure the seller and listing look good, the next step is verifying the motorcycle has a clean title and checking its history.
Check with your state’s title agency or motor vehicle department to find out the requirements for transferring title and registering a vehicle, especially a vehicle you buy out of state.
If the bike isn’t registered or has an out-of-state title or registration (not the seller’s state), make sure you will be able to get it registered and titled in your name.
Before completing the purchase, get a copy of the front and back of the title to make sure everything matches and you will be able to title and register it. Check that there is no lien holder on the title. If there is, verify they have signed off on the title. The motorcycle’s VIN number and license plate number match the title.
You can usually find the VIN on the headstock. The VIN numbers should not show signs they have been tampered with or that the number is restamped. If you’re buying a used motorcycle with a high rate of theft, it’s not a bad idea to compare the VIN to pictures of factory-stamped numbers.
There are many things to check when buying a used motorcycle that can indicate its overall condition, even without an inspection – although it’s still a great idea to have the bike inspected, especially if you aren’t familiar with the bike or mechanics.
Start by assessing the bike’s general appearance and condition. Does the bike look cared for? You may see matching tires and a good paint job that’s been waxed. A bike that’s been very cared for will have wear items replaced like the seat, no rust, and no signs of neglect. If you see signs that something has been left unrepaired for some time, the bike probably has issues you can’t see.
Later, we’ll go over a list of what to check when buying a used bike to assess its condition.
You shouldn’t put too much stock in mileage as a bike with more miles that’s been cared for is better than a bike with very low mileage that’s been neglected. There are bigger factors affecting longevity like how the bike has been used, how well it’s been maintained, and how it’s been stored. However, mileage does affect value and gives you an idea of which components will need to be replaced soon.
What’s a lot of miles for a motorcycle? For most bikes, 40,000 to 50,000 miles is considered high mileage. For smaller sport bikes, 20,000 to 30,000 is getting pretty high. Sport bikes operate at higher rev levels, accelerate fast, and brake hard which means they reach “high mileage” sooner than touring bikes and cruisers.
When properly maintained, most motorcycles can easily get past 100,000 miles.
On average, riders put around 3,000 miles on a bike per year. Sport bikes often get fewer miles on them, but it’s not uncommon for touring bikes to get 10,000 miles per year.
Here are factors you should consider when assessing mileage and why motorcycle mileage alone doesn’t tell you much.
A bike designed for beginners will probably have deferred maintenance issues and some damage from drops while a bike geared toward experienced riders will probably be better maintained.
Touring motorcycles are designed to put on miles and can easily get to a much higher mileage than other bikes. They’re more likely to have a lot of highway miles which are easier on the chassis and drivetrain than city miles and their low-revving engines don’t have to work very hard. Air-cooled motorcycles usually have shorter lifespans.
Whether it was ridden regularly
Be cautious with a bike that has very low mileage and has spent a long time in storage. It will probably have issues when it’s put back in service due to dried seals, leaks, moisture accumulation, and general degradation.
How it was used
Was the bike frequently forced into the redline or warmed up slowly? Was it ridden in sand and dirt? Does it have an air-cooled engine that was used mostly in the city?
How well it was maintained
Maintenance is arguably more important than mileage! If it hasn’t been maintained, even very low mileage won’t mean anything because the bike can have serious and expensive problems.
Who owned it
It’s ideal to buy a bike from its original owner. Multiple owners isn’t necessarily a problem, but it makes it more likely that its maintenance history is unknown and some owners have been more lax with care and storage than others. If the bike was owned by an older, seasoned rider, they have probably been more on top of maintenance and more conservative with the throttle.
How it was stored
Was the bike kept in climate-controlled storage or exposed to the elements? Was it prepared for storage or mothballed? If it was simply garaged and not used for a long time, there may be a cascade of problems like clogged carburetor jets, seized pistons, a rusting gas tank, and bad fuel.
If you’re buying a used motorcycle that you can inspect in person, it’s very important to inspect the bike while it’s cold – especially with an older bike. Before going to see the bike, let the seller know you want to see it while it’s cold and actually verify the pipes are cold. If the seller struggles to get the bike started while it’s cold, or it sounds like rocks in a blender, be prepared for potentially costly issues.
Vehicle History Report
Before you make your purchase, it’s a good idea to get a vehicle history report. A popular choice is Cyclechex which can turn up:
- Reported damage
- Reported accidents
- Last recorded odometer reading
- Salvaged or damaged titles
- Rebuilt titles
- Stolen salvage titles
- OEM equipment and recall information
It’s $25 for a single report or $50 for three reports.
Used Motorcycle Inspection Checklist
If you’re able to inspect the motorcycle in person, make sure you know what to look for when buying a used motorcycle. This buying a used motorcycle checklist covers some of the most important things.
Body & Paint
- Look for signs of damage or deferred maintenance. Do you see any rust or cracks? How does the chrome look?
- If you see shallow or non-parallel scratches or minor chips, it’s probably from a tip-over. Long, deep, and parallel scratches and cracks are sustained in a crash.
- Look down the centerline to see if anything looks off or asymmetrical like mirrors at different angles or a tilted windscreen.
- Check for other signs the bike has been crashed or put down hard. You may see dents in the fuel tank from the handlebars, dents or deep scratches in the exhaust pipes, or cracked plastic that’s been covered with aftermarket stickers.
- The oil and brake fluid levels should be good.
- Check the brake fluid color – you want to see clear, pale yellow or honey-colored brake fluid, not black or dark brown.
- You should not see any signs of leaks. Look along the radiator and at connections. Check the suspension forks for leaking seals, and check for engine oil leaks.
- Look inside the fuel tank with a flashlight. Check for a milky coating, rust, or loose sediment on the inside of the tank.
- There are some things to keep in mind. Plastic gas tanks on late-model bikes should look milky white inside. This milky coating on a metal tank means it’s been recoated which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
- Dark gas means it’s been sitting for some time. The bike probably needs the fuel system cleaned.
- Look for seal leaks at the forks and any bends, scratches, or damage in the legs.
- Ask how long it’s been since the fork seals have been replaced which should usually be done every 20,000 miles.
- When bounced up and down, the suspension should move silently. Binding, squeaking, or clunking are bad signs.
Battery, Electrical, Cables & Wiring
- Make sure you pop the seat to take a look at the battery and wiring. If there are only factory connectors, that’s fine. If you see a lot of connections to the battery, pay attention. Do you see a lot of wire in a single color, vampire connectors (also called vampire clips or wire-tap connectors), or electrical tape? It might be a sign you’re going to face costly electrical issues.
- Cables should all operate smoothly without visible fraying. If you feel resistance or hear scratching when you squeeze a lever, a cable may be bad.
- Test the headlights but note they won’t come on until the engine is on with some bikes. Be sure the oil pressure light turns on when the ignition is turned on and goes out once the engine starts.
- Check for a damaged ignition switch. Motorcycles are often stolen by jamming a screwdriver into the ignition switch.
- With the bike in neutral, roll it forward while gently applying the front brakes. There should be smooth engagement. As you release the brake lever and roll the bike forward, the brakes should not drag.
- While in neutral and standing in front of the bike, squeezing the front brake lever should prevent the front wheel from moving.
- Test the rear brake with the bike in neutral. If it has a drum brake, check the wear indicator needle to see if it’s within the usable range.
Those pegs or rounded sticks on your footpegs throw up sparks when you lean too far and give you an indicator before more expensive parts are damaged. If you see the hero blobs have been ground down or are missing, it may be a sign the bike has been ridden hard or used on the track.
Levers, Bars & Footpegs
Check these for damage which indicate the bike has gone down. They should have an age that matches the bike. Along with road rash, there are a few indicators to look for. When levers hit pavement, they tend to curl. This curled or curved look is a clear sign of damage, even if the road rash was buffed out. If you see aftermarket pegs and levers, it likely means the bike was crashed.
- The owner should know how many miles and years are on the tires. Ideally, a well-maintained bike has matching tires with at least 1/8” of remaining tread.
- If the tires look flat with longitudinal grooves, it’s a sign of burnouts.
- Look at the edges of the tires on a sports bike for feathering, or minute surface ripples, or pilling, which resembles tiny rubber blobs, both of which can indicate the bike was ridden at the track.
- Check carefully for dry rot which looks like very fine cracking.
Wheels, Chain & Sprockets
- Check for dents on both sides of the wheels.
- Check that the sprocket teeth are symmetrical without wear that makes them hooked.
- When pulled backwards from the point near the rear sprocket, the chain should not pull off the sprocket enough to expose even half of a sprocket tooth.
These issues don’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t consider buying the bike, but some indicators may be deal-breakers for you and your budget. They’re especially concerning if they indicate the seller wasn’t forthcoming about how the bike was used or its condition.
If a seller tells you he had a tip-over and tried to fix the damage, curled or reshaped levers or a mirror that’s been replaced aren’t red flags. If nothing is mentioned, they may be a warning of a dishonest seller – or damage that occurred with a previous owner.
Out of State? Get the Bike Inspected
If you’re motorcycle shopping online and won’t be able to inspect the bike in person before buying, it’s a good idea to have it inspected. Arrange with the seller to have the bike inspected at a nearby dealer or bike shop. A third-party inspection will ensure you get unbiased results about the bike’s condition.
Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Motorcycle
Along with the above things to look for when buying a used motorcycle, you’ll definitely want to quiz the seller. The more information they can provide, the better.
- What’s the bike’s maintenance history? You can feel more confident if the seller has kept records on the bike’s maintenance or can give you fairly specific information about how the bike has been cared for. Did it get regular oil changes and inspections? Was it winterized and stored properly?
- Has the bike ever been down? If they say it hasn’t but you see signs of crash or tip-over damage, it’s a possible red flag.
- When was the oil changed last? The oil should be changed every 6 months or 5,000 miles.
- How was the bike used? The seller may have used the motorcycle primarily for pleasure rides or to commute. It may have been used primary for off-roading, racing, or frequent long-distance rides.
- Was the bike ridden in the winter?
- What accessories and customizations have been added?
- Has the clutch been changed? If the bike is high mileage, it might be time for a new clutch, if it hasn’t been replaced yet.
- How long has it been since the fork seals and suspension fluid were changed?
- Is there anything wrong with the bike?
- If you were going to keep it another year, what work would you do on the bike?
- Why are you selling?
Taking a Test Ride
A test ride is a good way to check for issues with the bike before you buy, but make sure it’s safe. If the bike hasn’t been ridden in a while, taking it out for a ride can be dangerous. Don’t take a bike out for a test ride without a pre-ride safety check.
If you’re going to test ride a bike, remember to bring your riding gear.
During a road test, pay attention to the transmission, clutch, and engine. You shouldn’t hear rattling or knocking sounds. The transmission should engage smoothly and not jump out of gear. The clutch should be adjusted correctly without dragging or slipping.
Used Motorcycle Price Guide – How Much Is a Used Bike Worth?
How do you know when the price is right? You can use a used motorcycle price guide to check the value of the bike based on condition – but remember that blue book value isn’t everything.
Here are the two most popular used motorcycle values guide options.
- Kelley Blue Book is the classic blue book for motorcycles.
- NADA provides new motorcycle pricing and used motorcycle book values.
Keep in mind every company provides motorcycle blue book values based on their own scoring method. The blue book value gives you an estimate about the bike’s value on the private market.
KBB values are based on auction prices and sales transactions with values that reflect local conditions. Their values also consider market trends and seasonal adjustments. They do not suggest private purchase values though!
NADA values are based on reviews of 1+ million monthly sales transactions and consider overall condition, mileage, vehicle history, and local market supply and demand.
After researching the bike’s blue book value, consider the bike’s condition and known issues. Have problems already been taken into consideration in the asking price? After inspecting the bike, you may do general research to estimate the cost of repairs and adjust your offer price accordingly.
How to Get it Home – Riding or Motorcycle Transport Service
Once you’ve made your purchase, it’s time to get it home. Depending on your state laws, you may be able to legally ride it home with the bill of sale and title – but don’t make assumptions.
Most states give you a grace period of a few days after buying a bike to get it registered. In some states, the tags or plates stay with the motorcycle, not the owner.
Of course, there are many cases when riding the bike home simply isn’t a good option:
- The bike isn’t registered or your state has strict laws
- The motorcycle isn’t running or you’re unsure about the safety
- You couldn’t get insurance yet
- You’re buying a motorcycle out of state and don’t want to/can’t travel there and ride it home
In these cases, motorcycle transport services are your best option. You can arrange for a motorcycle shipping company to pick up the bike from the seller’s location and transport it to you, a bike shop near you, or their closest warehouse location. Motorcycle transport isn’t as expensive as you may think, and it’s the safest way to make sure your new bike reaches you in the condition you expect.
Federal Motorcycle Transport ships over 5,000 motorcycles per year with industry-leading service. Trusted motorcycle shippers for more than 30 years, about 70% of our business comes from referrals and repeat customers thanks to our fast, reliable shipping and competitive rates.