How To Buy Used Motorcycles

Before you buy used motorcycles, a gentle word of advice if you are a first time dirt bike buyer. If you are a 63kg short-ass like me, don’t be tempted to buy a thundering 450F moto-cross bike and expect to ride technical tracks.

You will hurt yourself, damage the bike and end up hating the sport. Select a bike that is commensurate with your abilities, physique and aspirations. Get advice from buddies, read the magazines and search the internet for hints and tips as to what bike would suit you.

Once you have started to make appointments to view bikes, specify to the seller that the bike must be cold when you arrive. How easily a bike starts from cold, and how the motor sounds during warm-up is a good way of judging the condition of the motor, an important indicator when you buy used motorcycles, but more of that in due course…

Take notes when you buy used motorcycles

Remember to take notes of what is going to have to be repaired on the bike so you can get quotes later to help you judge whether the bike is going to be worth it. Remember the evils of over-capitalisation. It is very easy to buy a cheap trashed bike and assume that the repair costs will be reasonable. Repair costs are never reasonable, and serious damage can result in you spending twice as much as the bike is worth.

Luckily, these days there are some spectacular bargains to be had, if you are careful, and think with your brain rather than your petrol head.

General Condition

The general condition is the first check when you want to buy used motorcycles. Have a quick look over the whole bike to evaluate whether the bike has been cherished or neglected.

Look for broken clutch and brake levers, torn seat cover, worn out grips damaged plastics etc. It is normal for a dirt bike to have a certain amount of damage, but what you are looking for is whether the damage will make the bike dangerous or uncomfortable.

If the previous owner has been riding a bike in that condition, you will have to assume that maintenance tasks have also been neglected, and you are probably looking at a time bomb.

In the same way don’t be fooled by “woman bikes”. This doesn’t mean that it’s been hardly ridden. It actually means

  • the bike has been constantly over-revd to make it up the last step of the climb
  • the bike has been trashed left, right and centre due to the missing leg length
  • there has been little to no maintenance whatsoever

When you buy used motorcycles and the bike looks good superficially, you can go a little deeper, starting with:

Rims and spokes

Put the bike on a pit stand so that the wheels are off the ground. Check the rims for dents. Any enduro bike will probably have a couple of minor dings, you are looking for serious damage and cracks in the aluminium. Check for rusting on the spokes which may indicate that the spokes are weather seized onto the nipples, and will have to be replaced.

Wheels, brake pads and discs

Wobble the wheel from side to side to check wheel bearings. If you can see any play or hear a click, wheel bearings will have to be replaced. Check that there is some meat on the brake pads, and that the brake disc is not worn paper thin, or is visibly bent when the wheel is spun.

Chain and sprockets

The chain should run silently when the rear wheel is spun forward and in reverse. Any clicking from the chain or hooked, worn or broken sprocket teeth will indicate that replacement time is close.


Check fork leg seals for weeping, and check that the rear shock is not leaking oil where the shaft emerges from the shock body. Check fork leg seals for weeping, and check that the rear shock is not leaking oil where the shaft emerges from the shock body. Lift the back wheel vertically upwards, and feel for any clicking from Heim joint or shock bottom bearing.

Ask if there has been any work done to the suspension. If the springs have been changed to suit the riders’ weight, ask if you can have the original spring with the bike.

If it is an enduro bike all you want to hear is that it has serviced regularly. Preferably you don’t want bikes where the suspension internals have been modified. Chances are it has been messed up. To get it back to standard is often an expensive undertaking.

On the other hand when you buy used motorcycles it can be a bonus if a proper suspension specialist has been looking after the suspension. It will save you money in the long run.

Finally, put the bike back on the ground and with your foot, push down on the foot peg. The bike should sink down equally at the front and rear without pitching forwards or backwards. If it pitches, the suspension is either shot or badly out of adjustment, and may need specialist attention.


Put the bike back on the pit stand, and turn the handlebars from side to side. Any stiffness or notchy feelings means that the headstock bearings will have to be overhauled. From the front of the bike, grab the fork legs and push backwards and forwards. Any fore-and-aft play will have to be investigated.

Check around the headstock and swingarm pivot for cracks in the frame. These days it is extremely unlikely that the frame will crack, but check anyway.

From the rear of the bike check to see that the sub-frame is not skew. If you can see under the bash plate, check that the bottom frame rails are OK. A bit of damage is normal, a broken frame rail or cross tube is serious.

Two-stroke motors

With your foot, push down slowly on the kick starter. If you feel very little compression, the bike may need a new piston and rings. Now, start the bike up on the kick start rather than the happy button. If the bike takes a lot of kicking to get going, again there may be a problem with piston and rings.

When the bike starts it is normal to hear a faint clicking from the front of the motor, but as the bike warms that clicking should fade away. If the clicking persists, suspect worn rings. Note that some bikes, e.g. Kawasaki KDX have a high pitched rattle when hot or cold, new or old.

Shot main bearings in the motor will manifest themselves as a hissing sound that rises and falls in pitch as the motor is blipped. Repairing damaged mains is expensive, and can be a deal breaker. Check that the exhaust pipe is not crunched, or cracked where the pipe emerges from the motor.

Four-stroke motors

These days many four strokes have a built-in decompressor, so there is no point in using the kick starter to evaluate the condition of the piston and rings. However, start the bike up using the kick starter. The bike should start from cold within seven or eight kicks. If the bike is very difficult to start, and will only start on the starter motor or when pushed, suspect internal valve trouble. That can be very expensive to fix and may be a deal breaker.

With the motor running, check the exhaust pipe for puffs of smoke which may indicate a worn-out motor. As with a two-stroke, main bearings will hiss when they are worn out.

Test ride

If the owner allows you should test ride the bike when you buy used motorcycles. You will be able to check the following:

  • that the clutch engages smoothly, without juddering. That would indicate that the plates are burnt;
  • that the bike accelerates smoothly without boggin or hesitation;
  • that the gearbox feels precise and light, with no false neutrals or any jumping out of gear;
  • that the brakes are strong and quiet and there is no sponginess at the levers.

With the bike nicely warm, check motor and gearbox for any oil or coolant leaks.

With all the checks detailed above completed, you will be in a good position to make an educated decision as to the value of the bike you are looking at.

Lastly, if you can, always take a knowledgeable buddy along with you when you buy used motorcycles. With a different set of eyes its easier to assess the bike.

Good luck and ride safe!

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