What to Check When Buying a Used Motorcycle - The Ultimate Checklist

What to Check When Buying a Used Motorcycle - The Ultimate Checklist

I've bought twelve motorcycles in the past few years, and over time, I learned to sell them for what I paid for them — sometimes even a little profit.

I learned a lot over course of buying and selling motorcycles, however, and most of it can be summarised in this: always use a checklist!

On my first motorcycle, a Honda CB900F, I didn't check anything. The forks, carbs and chain were all basket cases, and I paid $2,500 for something that should have topped out at $1K.

On later motorcycles there were other things I didn't check (and which the owner didn't know about), and I overpaid, too, both with money and with time. On a Ducati Monster 900 (buying guide here), the owner seemed to have no idea the regulator/rectifier was fried, and I had no idea what one was. On a Yamaha Virago 250, I didn't know that a 5 minute warm-up time for a motorcycle (in good weather) was a little unusual.

I learned. I now have a checklist, pieced together from a few other sources, and it has serves me well.

If want to avoid a ton of these... go electric! Check out the Zero SR/F, basically a Ducati Monster 1200 that's easier to ride.

Super quick summary of what to check for:

  • Does the motorcycle have any evidence of crash damage?
  • Is the motorcycle leaking any fluids?
  • Has the motorcycle generally been cared for?
  • Do you trust the seller?

Onward to the checks.

The checklist!

Never mind the bollocks; here's the download link.

This is what the used motorcycle inspection checklist looks like (download it with the link)

I'm sharing this as a Google Doc because I might make some modifications to it. If you have any ideas, comment below.

Most important parts of the checklist

The whole thing is important, but I want to explain the rationale for each part.

Every one of these tests could save you thousands of dollars. Because I mostly buy motorcycles in the $2-5K range, that's a huge difference.

Before you even inspect, do preparation, and make sure it's cold!

Before you even go, make sure they leave the engine cold for you to start it! And also while you have them on the phone, get a few questions answered.

Get the VIN and do a background check on it. Basic checks are free; you don't have to pay, so don't fall for those scams. Just find a service. You can also pay the DMV $2 for a full background check.

Make sure you show up knowing exactly what you're looking for. You know that it's for example a 1998 Ducati Monster M900, that a Monster M900 was indeed made in that year and it was an M900 (so this isn't some version with a different motor), and that it's a clean title.

Getting something wrong, like not realising the motor is not original, or that the tachometer is a weird after-market part, can cost you a lot of time and money later.

Do your research on a model. Like if you're buying an SV650, google "SV650 known issues" and then add them into your checklist.

Financials/paperwork

You need to know you won't have to drop thousands of dollars in the near future on scheduled maintenance, or critical repairs.

First, make sure the VIN on the chassis matches the one on the paperwork/title. If it doesn't, walk away.

Second, make sure that it's clean or salvage titled. This affects not just what you can do with the motorcycle, but how much you can sell it for. Anything but clean title is usually 30% less than the regular price.

Third, make sure the key works well. The barrel, and the fork lock, should both work fine and not look like they've been tampered with.

Fourth, do your best to avoid paying for immediate upcoming maintenance.

Find the manual for your motorcycle and check the repair schedule for major scheduled maintenance. If valves need to be inspected at 20,000 kilometres and it's at 19,000, then you can budget that in. (Valve inspections/adjustments vary by model, but cost about $500.)

After you've finished your checks, make an estimate for repairs and put that in here. For example if you need new tyres, that'll be about US$300 installed (or more or less, for a different motorcycle).

For example, I was once inspecting a salvage-title Triumph Scrambler (a motorcycle I love) with bent forks. I checked the replacement cost and it'd be around $3,000 + labour. Considering that (and other fees), it meant I could pay maximum $2,000 for the motorcycle.

The bent forks on this Triumph Scrambler meant I could pay significantly less for it.

Model-specific checks

Has the "doohickey" been replaced on your Kawasaki KLR650? If not, that's more work for you to do!

Do a quick google for a buying guide for your motorcycle (hint: I put a few of these together!)

You'll find out specific things like

  • The regulator/rectifier on a lot of old Hondas (like Honda FireBlades) and Ducatis tends to go
  • Kawasaki KLR650s need the "doohickey" modification done
  • Hondas may have noisy cam-chain tensioners
  • Triumphs can't stand using aftermarket oil filters

Just interesting things like that. Check for them all!

Stuff it comes with

You don't want to find out at the last minute that it only comes with one key. For me, that's one key I'll definitely lose!

Make a note of keys, spares, luggage and so on, and that it all works.

Something unusual is that a motorcycle with high miles is fine if it comes with evidence of being cared for, like if it comes with

  • All the keys
  • The shop manual
  • A log book of repairs and receipts
  • The toolkit that was under the seat
  • Spare parts, like bulbs, belts and so on

If a motorcycle comes witha ll that and has 50,000 miles, I'd value it higher than the same motorcycle with none of it at 20,000 miles.

Physical damage

This is where you try to find out not just if it crashed (which may be OK), but how honest the seller is. Or if they're clueless. Both are bad.

Look for evidence of damage on

  • The bar-ends (including if they're new)
  • The levers (clutch and brake), including if they're bent (but clean), or new (it's rare to replace them except on tricked-out motorcycles)
  • Bottom of the front forks (near the middle of the front wheel)
  • The footpegs — if they're bent or damaged. It's actually OK to have a bit of wear on them (because that just means the owner leaned!)
  • Fairings of course
  • Clutch or stator coil cover (more on naked motorcycles)

If they say it has never been down, but you find damage on any of those parts, they're either lying or ignorant. It's actually OK if a motorcycle has crashed, especially if it was just a low speed one. But if evidence points at it having gone for a slide... move on.

This is also where you pull out string to do a frame alignment check to make sure the rear and the front are tracking true.

Check the steering bearings: Finally, pull the motorcycle up onto a stable center-stand and test the steering bearings. (You can also do it on the kickstand if you're careful, but they might freak out.)

You're looking for "notchiness", especially in the middle. This will make turning and steering harder than it should be.

Great video on checking steering head bearings. On YouTube

Engine condition

Again, I hope the engine is cold! Check the temperature of the exhaust pipe to make sure.

If they've disregarded your instruction and the engine is warm, walk away. They've wasted your time. Annoying, but this is the number one reason I buy local, or from a dealer I trust. My time is worth a LOT more than wasting a day on deadbeats.

Start the engine and make sure it starts smoothly, and that it doesn't blow smoke. You don't want a top end repair as the first thing to do, unless you are basically getting the motorcycle for free!

Next, make sure it doesn't take forever to start up, or doesn't keep stalling. That means poor adjustment, which should make you question when it was last serviced.

Also check the colour of the oil. Just make sure it's clear.

Tires and Drivetrain

Tyres/tires...there's so much that can go wrong, and it can cost you so much.

  • Some people think it's fine if the tread is deep enough... it's not, if the tyre is old.
  • Some people think it's fine if it's a fresh tyre... it's not, if there are dents in the wheel.

Get the front and rear up on a wheel stand and make sure that the wheels are true.

You want to make sure

  • There's not excessive evidence of tracking (unless it's a track bike!). Especially common on racing motorcycles like the Yamaha R1... see that buying guide here. Basically, evidence of tracking is pilling (like little balls) on the tyres, which is from them getting hot and leaning hard. (Actually, having been tracked is fine. Just make sure they're honest!)
  • There's enough tread
  • The tyres aren't too old (no more than 7 years)
  • The tyres are the correct size
  • The tyres are pointing in the right direction
  • The tyres haven't been repaired (plugs in them)

If it fails any of those tests, you're looking at hundreds of dollars, which is all too common.

Controls

A lot can go wrong with controls, and while repairs aren't generally expensive, they're time consuming.

Make sure

  • Controls aren't sticky, that they're well lubricated
  • Every single switch and button works. Diagnosing wiring failures is crap.
  • The handlebars are true (hard to eyeball, so measure it!)
  • All the right lights come on when various things are pressed

Electricals/Charging system

I'll write up a complete guide on checking the electrical system soon.

But in a nutshell there are three things that usually fail

  • The battery (especially on a motorcycle that has been sitting)
  • The regulator/rectifier (these just fry over decades of current being put through them)
  • The cables (which generally can be loose, corroded, or broken)

The stator coil does fail, but more rarely.

Nonetheless you can check the whole thing works by checking the battery voltage when the motorcycle is off, when it's idling, and when it's at 3,000 revs. If it's above 12.4V when off, and under 14V when at 3,000 revs, you're good.

Suspension

Primarily — make sure there's no oil on the forks, or on the rear shock.

Secondarily, make sure there's a bit of spring in these! And that it's not too soft (which means you'll need new springs).

Leaky forks are a sign of neglect and/or wheelies. I mean, you can't blame a motorcycle owner for wheelie-ing... but man, fix your motorcycle!

Riding tests

There are a few things you can ONLY check if riding the motorcycle. For this reason, test rides are mandatory. Sure, you might have to give them all your cash, so only do it if you really trust them (and you know it's not a stolen motorcycle!)

Most important is that the clutch doesn't slip. Replacing the clutch is an expensive repair. Just put it in a fairly high gear, and let out the clutch when you're rolling, and see if it gets slowed down. If not, and the engine is revving without the motorcycle moving in the same way, the clutch is slipping.

Secondly, make sure the brake discs aren't warped. You don't want a shuddering braking experience. Very simply, if you brake and the motorcycle shakes, the discs are warped. Replacing brake discs is also a few hundred bucks.

Finally, make sure the steering is true. You can feel it, if it's really bad, or even just see that when you're going in a straight line, the handlebars are askew.

Apart from that, nearly every motorcycle I inspect is new for me (I like variety!) so it's a good chance to sus out if you'll be comfortable.

The only time a test ride isn't mandatory is on a new motorcycle, or an extremely expensive one from a dealer (like a near new Panigale).


Ok, those are all the thigns you need to check. A few more notes on using checklists for motorcycles

Why use a checklist to inspect a motorcycle (it's more than just "not forgetting")

There's more to it than just not forgetting everything.

Firstly, though, a checklist doesn't let you forget anything. When spending less than $5K on a motorcycle, nearly every major issue can add 10-20% to the total purchase cost... or get you a big discount.

For example, tyres. If you need to replace them, they'll cost you a few hundred very soon. Or forks; if they're weeping or pitted, it'll be a much more expensive fix. You can do these yourself, but they'll still cost you time, and you have every right to say you want a discount (or for them to be fixed).

Secondly, a checklist gives you a reasonable baseline to negotiate. If you know you can go to a dealer and get a fully serviced SV650 for $3000, and this person is asking $2,900 but you've identified $700 worth of repairs, you can talk him down to $2,300. There's not even any discussion to be had about it. It's infinitely better than every wishy-washy person who texts that they'll pay $X (usually a ridiculous amount) and never shows up.

Finally, a checklist makes you a serious buyer. Sellers like to sell to serious buyers, and know that if you say you'll offer them $X, it is probably worth that amount (or nearby).