A Guide and Checklist for Buying a Used Motorcycle

A Guide and Checklist for Buying a Used Motorcycle

In an ideal world we’d all have a selection of brand new bikes in our garage. From the latest dirt missile to the most powerful adventure bike on the market, they’d be lined up in the man-cave, box fresh and ready to ride.

But back in the real world, we can’t all afford to fork out the considerable amounts for new metal. Yes it would be nice, but the reality is that a good proportion of us will go for second hand motorcycle purchases, allowing someone else to take a hit on the initial depreciation on the brand spankers.

NEW BIKES - MMM. Image Bike Bandit

But if you are going to buy a used, pre-owned, pre-loved or second-hand motorcycle there are a lot of different ways to buy and a multitude of ways to get burned. So in an effort to make the buying process a whole lot easier, we thought we’d put together a list of the important things you need to bear in mind before you part with the Benjamins.

So here is the Ride Expeditions Buying a second hand bike guide ….


Before you start looking around for your next purchase, you need to decide what bike you actually want and what your realistic budget is, and whether those two things go together. If you are looking to get a year-old Africa Twin and you’ve only got £5k, then you are wasting your time even looking, but if it’s a 2013 EXC300 you’re after and you can go up to £4000, then you are far more likely to find the bike you want.

Do your research beforehand so that you know the rough price that you should be paying for the bike you want. Only go above that if the bike is truly exceptional or comes with a massive list of useful aftermarket accessories or spares.



So your next problem is whether to go safe and head for the dealerships or take your chances on the private market. Both have their advantages and both have their pitfalls, so it’s impossible to say one is better than the other.

On the dealer side of things, one of the main advantages is that if there are things wrong with the bike, you can get them to agree to sort them if you intend to buy, which is unlikely for a private sale.

The other major factor is that you have theoretical legal protection if the bike you have bought turns out to be a complete lemon. In most countries, consumer law will protect you from buying things that are not fit for purchase, and most reputable dealers will usually do their best to sort out any realistic issues you have. That said, if you buy a second-hand crosser and it goes bang after a month of racing, don’t expect your man to give you your money back – realistic is the key word here!

But for this right to recourse after your purchase, there’s a price to pay and buying second-hand from a dealers will mean you will pay substantially more than a private sale. Motorcycle dealerships make far more money on trade-in bikes than they ever do on selling new machines as they buy cheap and sell expensive every time. If a used bike is really cheap in a motorcycle shop it’s that price for a reason!

As with private buyers, there are good and bad dealers out there. Keep away from the wrong ‘uns and support the good ones, particularly if they are small independent businesses. If you don’t, they won’t survive and we’ll be stuck with just the megastores…

BUYING FROM DEALERS REDUCES RISKS – Image Central Florida Powersports

For a private sale there are much higher risks. Not only of buying a bad bike, but also of buying a bike that does not and never did belong to the person selling it. You have to trust your instincts here, so if things looks wrong, they probably are wrong.

You need to establish really quickly whether you trust the seller enough to part with the cash. Ask yourself :-

  1. Do they look like a motorcyclist?
  2. Can they answer all of your questions about the bike?
  3. Is the bike stored in a clean garage surrounded by quality tools?

If the answer to all three is no, you should be walking away.

Oh and while we are here, never buy a bike from a house that has a sofa in the front garden. If they fly tip their own property, what are the chances they kept up to date on valve clearance checks ?


The wonders of the internet can easily lull us into thinking that the world has shrunk. When a simple eBay search can bring up bikes from all over the world, it’s easy to forget that 400 miles is still 400 miles, and buying a massive distance away from your home increases the risk of you buying the wrong bike.

Why so? Because if you have driven that distance to see a bike – whether from a dealer or from a private buyer – the chances of you buying it have naturally increased, because otherwise you’ve wasted a full day and all that diesel to come away empty-handed. And the seller will know this, which will in turn reduce both your bargaining power and their willingness to negotiate. If you walk away, they’ve lost nothing but you are close on £100 down on the deal which will thus reduce the money you’ve got to spend on the bike you do buy. This is not smart thinking.

Try to find a bike that is reasonably close to your home – that way you may already be aware of where the dodgy areas are without driving halfway across the country to find out. It also means that if the bikes all good you can haggle and come away with the prize and if it’s wrong, you’re no worse off.

Up here for thinking – down there for dancing!


However you buy, there is no substitute for thoroughly inspecting any bike before parting with the greenbacks. Online dealer listings and auction sites make it really easy to purchase without doing this and the risks are vast. A bike that looks like a minter in the photos can turn out to be a munter when you see it, and if you’ve already paid the money, getting it back could be really protracted and difficult.

If you are determined to buy online, don’t part with your cash until you have done all the necessary checks, seen the bike, heard the engine running and checked that everything the seller has said about the bike is true. If it’s not, be prepared to walk away and don’t become unduly worried about receiving a negative rating – it’s better than being saddled with a shed.


So whether you are buying a second hand motorcycle private or from a dealer, you should be thoroughly checking out the bike you’ve come to buy. Don’t assume that all bikes in a dealership are perfect – they are not so you need to do the checks. It’s easy to jetwash a bike and cover it in silicone spray, but bear in mind that in the trade that same spray is often known as ‘Bullshit Spray’…

So what should we be looking at?


As the most expensive component on the motorcycle, the motor is key. If it’s not right, the rest of the machine makes little difference. You need to hear it starting, running and ideally take it for a test ride so that the engine gets up to full operating temperature and you can make sure all gears engage correctly, all electrical components are functioning and you are generally happy with what you are going to shell out for.

Four-strokes should not smoke at all and in reality, two-stokes should not smoke too much. Throttle response should be crisp and immediate, clutch action should be smooth and progressive and the transmission should not be jerky or noisy.

If the owner claims to have carried out recent rebuilds, find out why and ask for receipts that show the work was done by a reputable company.

If the owner will not let you ride the bike – as is likely with an off-road bike – then ask them to run the bike up and down and go through the gears. If they say no – you might need to ask yourself why!


Any second hand motorcycle you buy should show absolutely no signs of frame damage. Any indication of impacts, cracks or repairs  – do not buy. Have a look from the back and the front and try to spot whether anything is out of line. Is the subframe twisted, are the forks straight when the handlebars are, does the saddle sit correctly on the frame rails? Check around the headstock and major weld points for any signs of stress.


OK so it’s going to be difficult to test this without a test ride and for pure off-road bikes don’t be surprised if the seller or dealer won’t allow you to rip down the road and risk never being seen again.

But what you can check on the suspension is for smooth action, that there are no squeaks or grinding noises, and all the components look cared for. Forks should be entirely free from oil and any pitting on the stanchions and should move freely. It’s not a big job to change fork seals, but it’s a pain and even more so on a big adventure bike.

As for the rear shock, this could similarly move freely and show no signs of leaks. A new unit or rebuild will cost, so if you see problems either don’t buy or use it as a major bargaining point if you are entirely confident what the problem is.


You need to be checking all the bearings on any bike you’re looking to buy whether dirt bike, adventure motorcycle or road bike. Starting with the round bits, that means grabbing hold of both wheels and trying to rock them sideways on the spindle. If they won’t budge, that’s good but if they move it’s not. Changing wheel bearings is not difficult, but it’s an indication whether the seller has looked after they machine as much as they say. Another bargaining point if you’re sure that’s the extent of the issue.

Head bearing can also become worn and notchy. On roads bikes they tend to stay in the same position for miles on end so tend to wear wear in the same central position, whereas for off-road bikes these bearings take a lot of pounding so will wear quicker all round.

So with the bike upright, hold the front brake on and rock the bike back and forth to check there is no play in the headstock.

If the bike has a centre stand, put the bike on it and with the front wheel off the ground – get the owner to push down on the back of the bike – check the bars move left to right easily and without any sign of tight spots or notches. Then move to the front of the bike, and again with the front wheel off the ground, hold the bottom of the forks and see whether there is any movement in the steering head when you try to rock the forks back and forward.

For off-road bikes, do these tests with the bike on a paddock or push-up stand.

Like the wheel bearings, its not a major job on a small off-roader, but if you have to do it on a fully faired adventure bike, this is major surgery that will take hours if you do it yourself or cost a fortune if you get a dealer to do the work.



The more a motorcycle gets used, the more the chain and sprockets wear. Any second hand motorcycle you buy should not need these replacing straight away, but if you are buying a motocross bike or pure off-road machine, don’t get hung up on a bit of wear – this is inevitable and relatively cheap and easy to fix.

For road and adventure motorcycles, a full replacement could be costly so ideally this shouldn’t be something you have do immediately after buying. As with the MX bikes, don’t get too hung up on this as long as what is on the bike is in reasonable condition and consistent with the rest of the bike.  But if the sprockets are hooked and the chain knackered and rusty, chances are that’s what the rest of the bike is like under those shiny plastics.


All the cables and wires on your prospective purchase should be in good condition and do exactly what they should. Throttles should snap back as the manufacturer intended, clutches should be smooth and progressive and any other associated cables should be free running and functional. Replacements are so cheap on most machines, there’s little excuse for not replacing. If the seller says the decompressor cable is stiff, there’s a chance that the decompressor is at fault not the cable, so beware.

Electrical wires should all look original and unmolested, not exposed or badly repaired and all electrical components should be in working order from the off.


As the bits that are going to bring your new bike to a stop, the brakes are an important part of the package. Check that all discs are the correct thickness, unwarped and free from scoring. Pads should have plenty of braking material left on them and fluids should look new and light in colour, not brown and murky.

Check over the hydraulic hoses for signs of wear and leakage, make sure all the bleed nipples are in place and don’t look seized.


Let’s not overthink this. The wheels should be in good condition, run straight and be free from dinks. The tyres are maybe less important, unless on a road bike they are thrashed to chicken-strips in which case the owner has been caning that engine to the rev-limiter.

In general tyres can be quickly and easily replaced, but factor this into your offer if you will need to do this before the bike is rideable.


Bodywork is singularly the worst indication of the motorcycles condition. New fairings and plastics on bikes might make it look pretty but that can hide a multitude of sins underneath. With off-road plastic kits costing less than £100, a seller can easily smarten up a tired motorcycle with a fresh set and if he’s really trying to fool you, a cool set of graphics might just seal the deal.

Don’t be dazzled by pretty colours and don’t necessarily be put off by scratched panels – it’s what is underneath that matters.




Ride Expeditions run fantastic motorcycle tours in amazing locations. From blasting the dirt roads of South Africa to riding the jungle trails of Cambodia, we've got it covered. Fancy it?

OK so if all the above checks out, it’s time to name your price and do the deal right? Not quite ….


The worrying amount of motorcycle thefts in just about every continent means that buying a bike carries a shedload of risks. Even if the current owner of the motorcycle is totally legit, the bike may have been stolen or written-off some time ago. Only by doing the correct checks can you be as sure as possible that the second hand motorcycle is legitimate and up front.

Trusting the owner is all well and good, but if it subsequently transpires your new bike is stolen property, the feds will take it off you without a second thought.

So you need to do those background checks – HPI or equivalent – to establish whether the bike is still on finance, whether it’s ever been an insurance write-off or if there is anything in the history that rings alarm bells. Off-road bikes are more tricky, but finance deals are still based on a frame and engine number so can be checked.

Rocky Mountain ATV/MC


With so many motorcycles purchased on finance, the second-hand market is filled with bikes that people still owe money on. And here’s the tricky bit – if money is still owed on the finance agreement, the motorcycle still belongs to the finance company, not the registered keeper. Remember that the V5 document or equivalent is NOT proof of ownership, so the fact the guy you are looking to buy from has a log book in his name, this does not mean he necessarily owns it.

This is the major advantage of buying from a dealer – they will have carried out a check to see if there is outstanding finance on any motorcycle that they take in part exchange and if so, deducted that amount from any purchase price from the owner. So for a private sale, finding this out is absolutely essential because if you buy a second hand motorcycle with an outstanding balance and the previous owner does not pay off the loan with the money you gave them for the bike, then the bike remains the property of the finance company – period.

Within the motocross market this is a massive minefield as owners tend to upgrade year on year, so inevitably there are lots of bikes sold with existing finance. All the more reason to spend time doing your research, doing the background checks and maybe buying from somebody you know locally, rather than somebody you don’t 300 miles away…


If you are buying privately you need to see as much paperwork as possible. For a registered motorcycle this will obviously start with the log book and MOT as appropriate for your country, but don’t take this as gospel. Make sure the engine and frame numbers match to what it says on the paperwork or it may be a ringer. A string of previous MOTs and receipts for work done is good news.

For unregistered motorcycles, you will want to see as much supporting evidence as possible that this bike belongs to the guy stood in front of you. Previous purchase receipts, proof of purchase, receipts for work done – all these are catnip to establish a chain of ownership. Look at the frame and engine number and check they correspond to any paperwork. Avoid assumptions and do the legwork to check what they are saying rings true.

Oh and if the owner says he’s just changed the power band, he may not be somebody you should trust …




Don’t go to buy a bike on your own if you can avoid it. Take a friend who knows about bikes and who will look past the shiny bits and be the voice of reason. They will also be useful as the ‘bad cop’ in haggling over the final price if you decide to buy, not to mention being essential back-up if something goes Pete Tong.


Buying expensive things from the back of vans is never a good idea, and bikes are no different. If you really have to do it, then make sure its somewhere public and covered by CCTV. Ideally always buy from the owners house and ensure you go inside to do the paperwork – it might not be their house or their bike!


Take down details of the property you are buying from, any vehicles on the drive and be generally aware of where you are and who is around during the deal. If you are not happy with any element of the transaction, abort the mission and get the hell out!  If seriously worried, tell the police and let them sort it out.


Cash is just about the most reliable way to buy privately, but makes little difference to dealers – it costs them to bank it! If you are parting with large amounts, then definitely don’t be on your own. The seller should give you all the paperwork and a written receipt with their information on as proof or purchase.

DECISIONS. DECISIONS! Image Billau Motorcycles
So – did we cover everything? Is there anything that we missed? Let us know and help a brother out …


5 comments on “A Guide and Checklist for Buying a Used Motorcycle

  1. Tyres – “unless on a road bike they are thrashed to chicken-strips in which case the owner has been caning that engine to the rev-limiter”
    In some instances this maybe correct. But not always…

    A few years back I bought a nice new shiny Fazer 600 (was actually in 2002 😮 ) Anyways, I took the back lanes route home. I managed to get the bike cranked over and had no chicken strips showing. I certainly wasn’t on the rev limiter as I was running this new bikes engine in correctly.

    Basically, you don’t need to spank a bike to get rid of those chicken strips.

    1. OK – point taken Dave but if you are selling a bike, then having thrashed tyres is not going to encourage a buyer. As a buyer, we’d be suspicious – as a seller, you should maybe realise it doesn’t look good and replace with new rubber. Either way this is a general guide intended to help people look for the warning signs on a used bike, so considering a motorcycle with signs of enthusiastic use should cause a potential buyer to investigate further.
      Thanks for the input – it’s great to have feedback


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