Let’s face facts head-on, buying a used motorcycle is a gamble, one that even the most experienced riders, mechanics, and enthusiasts can end up losing.
It’s true if you gamble enough times you will inevitably stumble upon a so-called “diamond in the rough”, but at what cost? Most of us don’t have the time, income, or luck for such an endeavor.
However, if you’re financially strapped buying a “lemon” could mean the end of your riding days, anything that can help increase the odds that this doesn’t happen is a welcome addition to my book.
When you look on internet search engines for advice, you typically find responses such as “make sure you get it inspected first” or “get them to show you all the maintenance receipts“, and in a perfect world that would be great, but that isn’t how things usually work.
With this in mind, I have written this guide to give you some practical information and resources that anyone can use to purchase a used motorcycle.
The first section, Choosing the right motorcycle will run you through choosing the right motorcycle for you. If you already have this figured out you can jump to the next section called Going to buying a motorcycle
Choosing the right motorcycle
The first 3 things you need to consider when buying a used motorcycle are, what is the purpose of the motorcycle, what are some necessary attributes this motorcycle needs, and how much are you willing to spend in the end?
Answering these 3 questions thoroughly and honestly will give you a solid foundation to build upon and can give you direction when it comes to buying the right motorcycle.
Take out a blank piece of paper and write this at the very top. What is the purpose of this motorcycle? Now list as many things you would like to use this motorcycle for.
These can be things like transportation to and from work, touring across the country, camping, or just a Sunday drive. Take a look at the list below and see which ones fit you.
|Purposes and uses|
|Transportation to and from work|
|Cross country or long-distance touring|
|Side of the road campsite camping|
|Road track riding|
|Long-distance off-road riding|
|Dirt track riding|
|Off-road trail riding|
|Rock and stunt crawling|
|Show and shines|
|Group or awareness riding|
Now that you have this list, try and narrow it down to 3 – 5 items. Think about what is most important to you and if they can all be achieved with 1 motorcycle.
For example, riding to work, occasional touring, and leisure riding can all be accomplished with a sport-touring motorcycle.
However, finding a motorcycle you can ride to work, go ice racing with, and enter a show and shine event can be a bit of an unrealistic goal.
Here is what my list looks like.
- Transportation to and from work
- Occasional shopping
- Leisure riding
Side of the road campsite camping Cross country or long-distance touring Road track riding
You will notice that while I did have some pretty big aspirations for what I wanted my motorcycle to do such as long-distance touring and track riding I decided the most likely scenario was a motorcycle that could get me from point A to B with a bit of storage.
That was the purpose of this list, to see what you would use the motorcycle for and not get sucked into buying a motorcycle just because it can do something.
Now is the time to choose what you would like this motorcycle to do or have. The purpose is to see if what you want your motorcycle to do and what it can actually do are aligned.
For example, if you want a motorcycle for jumping and off-road track riding but you want to be low so your feet can touch the ground, chances are you won’t find anything that can meet both of those conditions.
Motorcycles that take jumps need a suspension with a long movement (travel) so that they can absorb large impacts when jumping, lowering it to accommodate a 5-foot person defeats the purpose by making the suspension almost useless.
On the other hand, if you want a motorcycle for leisure and riding to and from work and you want to modify it to fit your 5-foot stature there are some options available to you.
The shorter movement (travel) suspensions of these types of motorcycles allow you to lower the frame and/or modify the foot controls to suit your individual needs.
Below is a list of modifications or accessories to consider, just like the exercise for finding the purpose of your motorcycle, write down, on that piece of paper from earlier, all the attributes, modifications, and accessories you would like.
|Attributes, Modifications, and Accessories|
|Frame and/or suspension lowering kits|
|Handlebar risers and/or lowing kits|
|Windshields or windscreens|
|Frame sliders or protectors|
|Security or anti-theft devices|
|Bags or luggage racks|
Now, try to eliminate any that seem unrealistic just like the first exercise. Don’t be afraid to consult the wisdom of the Internet if needed.
For example, your internet search engine will easily tell you that sportbikes don’t typically have raised handlebars or large windshields.
Take a look at my list below. You will notice I wanted a throttle lock at first but then after leaning towards a sport touring motorcycle I noticed how expensive it was and decided against it.
- Passenger comfort
Once you have this done set the list aside, you may want to consult it later on in the process.
It is time to realistically look at what you are willing to spend on a motorcycle. This should be the total cost you want to spend all said and done. This includes any accessories, modifications, and repairs needed.
What I would recommend is to take that number and divide it by 2. That is the number you want to start with when looking at a used motorcycle. This helps when looking at different options.
For example, if you have some options or accessories that you want or need you now have a budget for that.
In the same way, if the motorcycle needs some maintenance work, you have the money available to address these issues.
Or if the bike you are looking at has some of the options or accessories you want you can consider paying a bit more for the motorcycle because you won’t have to find those options and have them installed.
To begin your research, try a simple internet search engine query and look for user forums about your soon-to-be motorcycle and check out some of the threads. Owners know their motorcycles.
This will give you a rough idea about what to expect in the lifespan of the motorcycle in question.
Plus if you see too many concerning titles saying “starting issues”, for example, you might want to rethink your choice.
To help further you can try to find someone that has one and see if feels right to you.
This will let you know what maintenance or service items will need to be changed and when these need to be performed.
This can help make sure you have the funds to keep your motorcycle in good riding condition.
Now is the time to decide on what bike you should get. Take out that sheet of paper, consider all the things on it.
For some, the answer will be exactly what they thought, others a surprise, but for most people, all this can do is narrow it down to a few options.
Also, see if you can get a service manual for your motorcycle or at very least the “periodic maintenance interval chart”. This will give you an idea of what service and maintenance are ahead of you giving you a glimpse of the future.
In the end, go with your gut, confidence is a large part of riding so make sure you’re confident in what you want to ride.
Going to buying a motorcycle
When buying a used motorcycle there are a few things you need to check to reduce the odds of picking a proverbial “lemon”.
A compression test (if possible), idle sounds, fluids, control feel, and a test ride are the most important things to check when going to look at a used motorcycle.
Items such as clutch, brakes, bearings, and tire conditions are all things you need to take a look at and consider when looking at a used motorcycle because they will all cost money to fix and will add to the final cost.
First off make sure you can do a compression test. Although the majority of motorcycles have their sparkplugs easily accessible, on some motorcycles, it is just not practical to do.
Next, look up the stock compression numbers. These can come from online sources found on the manufacturers’ sites or from trusted motorcycle forums.
However, the best way would be to use the service manual, which many of them can be found for free online. Try using the letters “pdf” at the end of an internet search engine query or check https://www.manualslib.com/.
Next, find out what sparkplug tool and a compression tester adapter are needed. Gather these tools up or borrow them from someone, grab a set of automotive booster cables. Make sure to bring everything with you when you go.
You may be pushing some personal boundaries just by asking to do a compression test. Asking to borrow their tools to do it might not go over so well.
Steps to perform a compression test on a motorcycle
- Remove the sparkplug cap from the top of each sparkplug.
- Remove all the sparkplugs and place the caps back on them.
- Use the booster cables to clamp onto the sparkplugs and ground them to the frame of the motorcycle
- Place the compression tester into one of the open sparkplug holes.
- Open the throttle to its widest position.
- Crank the engine over for 3 to 5 seconds or if it is a kick start 5 kicks will do.
- Take the reading and bleed the air out of the gauge with the button or knob on the tester.
- Remove the tester.
- Repeat steps 4 to 8 for the remaining cylinders.
- Compare the results with the specifications you found earlier and see if they are within range.
Another thing to look at is the difference between cylinders. If one is out by more than 10% of any other cylinder this is a bad sign.
A compression test will give you a good impression of the health of the motorcycle’s engine and for me is a must before buying a used motorcycle.
Please keep in mind some people might be offended if you ask if you can perform a compression test but most of the time it’s not an issue and for the seller, it is good for them to know these numbers too.
Have a look at the fluids used, this can give you an indication of the condition the motorcycle is in.
Shine a light through the brake and/or clutch fluid reservoirs. If the color of the fluid gets darker near the bottom this could mean the brake fluid is contaminated and there could be unseen damage in the brake system.
Another is coolant, scally or particle-filled coolant can indicate issues in the cooling system.
Also, check the oil, see if it looks shiny as this can be an indicator of worn internal parts.
Listen to the engine while it is warming up. This should be smooth and constant. Any hesitation, surging, or struggling to run is a big warning sign that something is not quite right.
The same goes for idling after warm-up. No hesitation or surging should be noticed. All these are signs of a tired motor or worse one that has been modified outside its intended use.
I have seen this a lot with early 80’s models where the airbox has been removed and added low restriction exhaust pipes. Sure, you might like the look and sound, but getting them to idle properly is a daunting task.
How the controls feel can give you an indication of the major features of a motorcycle.
The travel of the clutch lever before disengagement can give you an idea of how much wear the clutch, clutch cable, or hydraulic hoses have. If you can pull the clutch lever to the bar, that could be an indication something is wrong.
The sponginess of the brake levers can give you an indication of the health of the brake system. A spongy feeling or late engagement of the brakes can indicate the lines, fluid, and seals need to be replaced.
Go for a test ride. This is the best way to tell if you will be comfortable and confident with the motorcycle.
As stated before motorcycle riding has a lot to do with confidence, if you’re not comfortable you won’t be confident.
To me, this is one of the biggest deciding factors when buying a used motorcycle.
Considering how big a gamble buying a used motorcycle can be, having the right information increases the odds in your favor.
But with so much information out there about buying a motorcycle, it can almost seem impossible to know where to start.
Hopefully, this guide makes that job a little easier.
As always feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns, or topics you want to be covered.