Buying Used Bikes

What should you look for?

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Anyone who's taken their carefully hoarded twenty-nine dollars and ten cents out of their piggy-bank and set out in search of the Ultimate Riding Machine will know (or will soon find out) that there's no hope of getting anything decent through a dealer for less than a gazillion bucks. If you have limited resources, you'll need to buy second-hand from some guy down the street, which is fine if you know him and the bike, but what should you look for if you don't?

This guide by Bruce Clark, which I lifted from the archives at great personal risk in a daring late-night heist, might give you a few clues about how to avoid the worst lemons. Note that he's talking about the American market, but the same principles hold true world-wide.

Good Luck!

If you're new to motorcycling or you're not into greasy clothes and skinned knuckles, this list probably seems intimidating and excessive. If you are only spending a few hundred bucks on the bike in the first place and you'll never be very far from home, you probably should just check the stuff that doesn't require special tools or facilities. On the other hand, if you're paying more than 1K for the bike and you expect to do some touring, it might be cheaper to pay a dealer 50 to 100 bucks to run these checks for you than to find out about problems the hard way on the road. In other times, you might have lost a good deal by delaying long enough to get all these questions answered. Right now, though, it's a buyer's market (at least where I live) and you have quite a bit more leeway (and leverage).

I recommend the following as good bullet-proof bikes for newbies: Honda CBxxx, Kawasaki GPZxxx, Kawasaki KZxxx, Yamaha Seca xxx, Yamaha Maxim xxx, Suzuki GSxxx. (The xxx means this bike came in several engine sizes; for example, Suzuki GS500, GS550, GS650, GS750, etc.)

  • Find out the riding habits of the current owner. If the bike is used only for a short commute on a regular basis, it may not get warmed up enough to evaporate moisture in the engine and exhaust system and rust and lubrication contaminants will result. If the rider spends a lot of time in hot stop-and-go traffic, the engine may frequently be subject to excessively high temperatures.
  • Look for low odometer mileage. Bikes seem to have about half the odometer mileage of cars in the same model and year class.
  • If the seller claims the bike has never been down, check the lower engine parts, brake and clutch lever ends, handgrips, footpegs, pipes, and case guards for telltale abrasions. Make sure the handlebars are aligned exactly perpendicular to the bike longitudinal axis.
  • Don't buy anything older than 10 years unless you're willing to spend lots of time and energy finding parts.
  • Look for rust in the gas tank.
  • Look for missing hardware, e.g., nuts, bolts, brackets, cotter pins.
  • Check for pitting, gouges, or fluid seepage on the front forks. The upper tubes should be pristine.
  • Check cables for binding and wear or improper routing.
  • Block up the engine so the front wheel is off of the ground and check for play in the front forks (grab them and try to move them front to back or side to side. There shouldn't be any play if the steering head bearings are any good. Rotate the forks and check for smooth movement, if you feel bumps or catching, the steering head bearing races may be worn or notched. Be sure the front tire rotates smoothly, doesn't squeak, and is not bent.
  • If the bike has air shocks, check the pressure with a gauge. Make sure you can pump them up to their maximum and that they will hold thatpressure.
  • Ask to see the owner's manual (if the owner doesn't have the manual, maintenance may not have been done when it should have been).
  • Check chain play and adequacy of lubrication of the chain. Look for sprocket wear (clean off a few teeth and check quality of metal finish and symmetry of features). Check for chain wear or have someone check it (good shops have wear gauges or can eyeball it fairly accurately.) .
  • Check the brakes for sponginess and loose feel. If the bike is more than five years old, the original hoses may be due for replacement. Look for brake fluid leaks at cylinders, calipers, and hose connections. Check fibre pad thickness (most pads have maximum wear indicators that tell you when pads should be replaced). Operate brake levers and hold them operated for a while to check for weakening of resistance to the applied pressure.
  • Ask owner if brake cylinder kits have ever been replaced. Yamaha recommends installation of new cup seals every two years.
  • Find out if brake fluid has ever been replaced. Dot 3 fluid absorbs about 5% water per year and should be replaced at least every two years (Yamaha says every year.) .
  • Check for smooth finish of brake discs.
  • Find out if fork oil has every been replaced.
  • Find out if owner(s) has done self-maintenance. If so, does current owner have a torque wrench? Does he/she know what a torque wrench is? Over- torqued fasteners and stripped threads are no fun.
  • Does the bike have a tool kit and does the tool kit appear to be all there? .
  • Pull spark plugs and check for consistency of appearance, dryness, light gray appearance. Make sure spark plugs have never been cross-threaded (look for heli-coil inserts in cylinder head.) .
  • Look for deteriorated insulation on wiring. On bikes that don't protect wiring with conduits or tape, look for insulation cracks. Check connectors for signs of corrosion and water build-up.
  • Check steering head lock to see that it works and that the locking shaft hasn't been snapped off.
  • If you have a compression tester, check compression on all cylinders. I don't know about other brands, but Yamaha parts fiches have the minimum and maximum compression listed, or any dealer can tell you this information.
  • Pull the timing cover and check to see that parts haven't been abused or subjected to kludgy modifications.
  • If you can find a shop with a leak-down tester, have them perform aleak-down test of all cylinders to verify valve and ring sealing.
  • Look at the oil. If it's dirty, forget the bike. There are too many good ones for sale that have had regular oil changes and routine maintenance.
  • Check the battery box (i.e., the metal platform on which the battery sits) and terminals for corrosion.
  • Check the screws that secure light lenses (turn, tail) for corrosion. You can usually see this as darkened area in the plastic around the screws.
  • Check the clutch and brake levers for smooth operation and proper adjustment.
  • Make sure you get to see the bike started cold (so you can verify that it WILL start cold.) After it has warmed up, kill the engine and crank it several times with the kill switch on to see if the battery can handle the repeat loads. Check battery fluid level. If the battery is constructed so that the plates are visible, check for fuzzy looking growth on plates (sulfation).
  • Make sure the lights, horns, gauges, etc. all work. Check for proper voltage regulator operation by watching headlight brightness while you rev the engine.
  • Listen to the warmed-up engine for excessive tappet noise, clutch noise, or transmission noise. Make sure the bike will idle at the RPM specified for idle. If the bike has multiple exhaust pipes, check that the pressure pulses emitted from each pipe are similar and regular by holding yourpalms a few inches from the opening to feel the pulses.
  • On shaft-drive bikes, check for excessive drive-train play. Some 'clunk' is normal on the bigger ones, but lots of it means u-joint replacement time (or worse, ring/pinion/drive gear or bearing replacement time). Check for oil leaks on the rear wheel drive unit. Oil in the drive unit should be absolutely clean. Wipe the wheel rim dry on the drive unit side before you ride the bike. Check it with a clean tissue afterward to see if any lubricant has been flung off of the drive unit onto thewheel.
  • Check for the air filter. Avoid a bike that's been run without one. If the filter is present, check integrity of the airbox. A popular technique for decreasing intake restriction is to drill holes in the airbox. If the holes are between the carbs and the filter, the filter is essentially useless. If aftermarket low-restriction filters have been put on the bike, make sure they're oiled.
  • Ride the bike very slowly and do a few tight turns. Look for wobbling in the front end. Check cornering stability at low and high speeds.
  • If the bike has adjustable shocks, adjust them to their various settings and make sure you can feel some difference. Replacing the rear shock in later model mono-shock designs can be VERY expensive.
  • Make sure the bike doesn't pop out of gear under heavy loading in all the gears (especially second gear).
  • Make sure that crankcase breather hose is still hooked up.
  • Check tires for wear and proper inflation. If it's an older bike, make sure that you can still get tires for it. Find out if the owner has recently used Armorall on the sidewalls. This may compromise traction and deteriorate the sidewalls.
  • Have the swing-arm bearings checked. This usually requires dismounting the rear wheel and suspension. My manual recommends periodic lubrication of the bearings at ~10K intervals.
  • Write down frame and engine numbers. They should agree. Check with local Police Department to make sure bike isn't stolen. Callmanufacturer's office in USA and ask for first owner's name and place of sale (Yamaha keeps track of this stuff, others may also). You may be able to check maintenance records with original dealer.
  • Ask if any netlanders have the model and find out about potential problems. A lot of friendly and helpful people read this newsgroup, and I've learned things here that just don't seem to get published anywhere else.
  • Make sure you fit on the bike and that the bike fits the riding you plan to do. Make sure you are strong enough to stand it back up if it falls over. Make sure you can push it a few blocks in case you have to do this on the road.
  • On Japanese bikes, check both sides of the bike for deterioration of the clear acrylic overcoat they put on brushed aluminum and chrome engine and body parts. Flaking or splotchiness of finish is a sign that the bike has been exposed to a lot of UV and, if primo finish is important to you, you'll end up doing some restoration of these parts.
  • On bikes with alloy rims and engine parts, look for stains in the metal. If these were caused by exposure to cleaning chemicals like alkaline cleansers, you may not be able to get the stains out.
  • Make sure there is a reputable dealer in your area. The best way to do this is to ask other bikers. Also, in locations which have several dealers for the same brand, check out what each dealer charges for replacement parts. I've found everything from standard 15% discounts to 30% above retail overcharges.
  • Check back issues of motorcycle magazines at your library to see when the bike was produced and for how long. If you are going to be adding accessories, check the catalogs at any dealership to see if the aftermarket suppliers were ever interested in that model.
  • Ask the dealer to check for factory recall and repair alert bulletins which may apply to the bike. Yamaha includes these on current parts microfiche. Make sure any mandatory safety upgrades have been installed on the bike.

Bruce Clarke
Victoria, B.C. Canada
e-mail: [email protected]
Have: '90 Kawi EX500 Want: Triumph Speed Triple
AMA 356285
My opinions do not reflect those of my employer. Honest.

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