Buying a Used Motorcycle? Here’s how to evaluate one before you buy.

Deal or No Deal; How to Evaluate a Used Motorcycle

by Dennis Peterson

So you’re looking at a used motorcycle. Buying used is a great way to save money, but there’s a risk there as well. In today’s used bike market it’s easy to get stuck with a lemon if you don’t know what to watch out for.

It doesn’t take an expert to evaluate a used machine, but the more you know what to look for, the better your decisions will be. We have compiled this helpful guide to common used bike problems to help you determine which ones are minor, and which ones are deal killers. We’ve separated these issues into two categories which we call DEAL, or NO DEAL.

DEAL      Problems in this category are common with almost every used dirt bike. None of them require large outlays of cash or time to repair. Generally, the issues in this category are closed ended, meaning they are not likely to snowball or escalate once you get into the repair process. Also, most of these items can be repaired at home by an unskilled mechanic, so it’s not likely that you’ll have to spend money on labor to get them attended to.

If the bike you’re considering exhibits problems of this type, make sure to point them out to the seller BEFORE you negotiate the price. If you tell him that you’re going to have to spend the money to repair or replace these parts, you should be able to get him to reduce the price of the bike accordingly.

Bad plastic            Are the fenders, number plates, radiator shrouds or graphics badly scratched, faded or even cracked? New plastic is comparatively inexpensive, and you can really spruce up the looks of your new purchase by installing a few simple parts. Front fenders often start at $25 and they really make a difference in a bike’s appearance.

Minor loose or missing parts                A detailed race-prep will uncover tons of items that although small, are very essential. If the seller has his owner’s manual, take a look at all the items listed on the periodic maintenance chart. How’s the air filter? What does the plug look like? Are all the cables in good shape?  Repairs in this category usually will entail more labor than parts, so costs are nominal, but you can still use any deficiencies here to argue for a lower selling price.

Seat cover            Small rips in a seat cover won’t stay small for long. Seat covers are easy to install yourself if you have an electric staple gun, or take the seat to an auto upholstery shop; they can install you new cover for around $25 in labor.

Handlebars            Is there anything more annoying than bent bars? Well, yes, but bent bars are still pretty bad. You can buy steel replacement bars for under $20, so why put up with mangled ones. The same goes for grips and levers too.

Tires                Unless the tires on your used bike are brand new, you can probably expect to replace them right away. If you can’t change the tires yourself, this is a good time to learn. Expect to pay between $50 and $120 for a tire, depending on the quality, and add something for labor if you want to take the easy way out.

Chain               Progressing into the more expensive items, a worn out chain and sprockets can cost at least $125 to replace, and that’s for average quality components. Check the condition of the used bike’s chain carefully, and remember that you always want to replace the chain and sprockets as a set.

Fork seals            Often overlooked by the buyer, or swept into the corner by the seller, parts and labor to replace leaky fork seals can run well over $150. Bad seals are clear signals of neglected maintenance, so this is a clue that other items may have been uncared for as well.

Clutch              Worn clutch plates are easier to replace than most people think, and unless you ride a European bike the cost isn’t too bad either, usually under $75. But be alert for notchy clutch action, it may mean the hub is bad. To test a clutch for slipping, ride the bike at a walking speed in 5th gear, then give it full throttle while holding the brakes. If the clutch doesn’t slip under this maximum load-leverage test, then it’s probably okay.

Won’t run            Obviously a serious concern, but not necessarily a poison pill to your purchase hopes. If the engine has a good hot spark and has adequate compression (minimum 100psi on 4 strokes), then you might just have a minor problem after all. Best case: you buy the bike for a song, and can fix it with some fresh fuel and a carb flush. Worst case: well, we don’t have to tell you what that is, use your imagination.

NO DEAL      Problems in this category can be common with older or high mileage used dirt bikes. All of them require large outlays of cash or time to repair, with costs that exceed the market value of the bike. Issues in this category are almost always open ended, meaning that exact repair estimates are very difficult and hidden costs are very likely to appear. Few of these items can be repaired at home by an unskilled mechanic, so expensive professional help is normally required.

If the bike you’re considering exhibits problems of this type, it’s best to just walk away.  Unless you’re sure that the total outlay of cash including the purchase price and the cost or repair and refurbishment are substantially less than the market value of the bike, it just isn’t worth the risk, or your time to repair it. Just say no.

Engine mechanical noise            slappy pistons, clanky cranks, and loose camshafts all make a distinctive mechanical tapping noise. It sounds like something is trying to get out of the engine, and that’s bad. Real bad. You can use a big, long screwdriver as a stethoscope, holding the handle firmly against your ear while pressing the blade on different parts of the running motor, and this method will help you locate where the gremlins are living. But unless it’s something that can be cured with a valve adjustment, engine noise is always a bad omen.

Stuck cylinder             If it won’t turn over, expect the worst. Crank, bearings, piston, valves, gaskets, even a new cylinder. All of the above items are sometimes needed to repair a frozen motor. The parts manager at the dealership will be grinning when he does the estimate, and that’s never a good sign.

Missing or slipping tranny gears            Even if you’re lucky and you only need to buy a few gears, the labor bill for tranny repair is considered a complete teardown. Engine out of the frame, top end off, cases split, and every gear off the shafts. Ouch.

Broken frame               If it’s a steel frame, it can be repaired, but it never will be as strong as a new one. If it’s an aluminum frame, a busted one is a throwaway. And remember, a broken frame is a clear sign of abuse, neglect, or even worse, Freestyle!

Major missing components            Wheels, forks, swingarms, fuel tanks, all of these items are very expensive to replace, and they bring into question serious concerns about the treatment of the machine by its former owner. Anyone who really respects his bike will never allow it to be parted out. Insist on some proof of ownership, bikes with missing parts often turn out to be stolen.

Basket case motors            You’ll never find a mechanic worth his wrenches who will touch a basket case. Every technician has his own method of disassembly and marking of parts as he tears down a motor, and it’s so difficult to diagnose or rebuild one that comes in a box or basket that most shops will refuse to help you rebuild it. If the seller took it apart, then he can darn well put it back together himself.

(This article originally published in Dirt Rider magazine, 2007)