Buying a used motorcycle?

So you want to buy a motorcycle …

The advice I give most often is to pay a professional mechanic to look over a potential purchase, best money you can spend. More often than not, though, buyers choose another path for one reason or another. As someone that kept title applications in my glove box for those unexpected motorcycle purchases, I understand how these things happen. “I got such a good deal!” is the line we hear often from an excited buyer. To which I reply, “What if the seller thinks they got a good deal too? And they know more about the bike than you.” Sometimes our excitement makes us blind to the realities that can hurt our wallet later. I’m here to help. Here are some big ticket items we see all the time that should definitely be checked before considering a purchase:

Tires: I know this seems like a no-brainer but some miss something as simple as checking tire condition. And remember, it’s not just how much tread is left on the tires, but how old they are matters as well. Tires over 5 years old are drying out and loosing their ability to grip the road, particularly in the wet. Digging a thumb nail into the rubber should give you an idea of where they are in this degenerative process. Compare an old tire to a new one and it will be readily apparent. The best guide, however, is the date stamp on every tire. There is a 4 digit number somewhere on the tire that tells you the week and year of manufacture. For example 5215 would mean the last week in 2015. If the tires are old and/or worn, expect to pay over $400 to have a decent set mounted and balanced. And please don’t be cheap about tires, or think it’s alright to run old or worn tires. This is the one thing that keeps you upright and lets your brakes and steering work at their best. Do it right, always, with tires.

Gas tank: This one gets overlooked all the time, and can be the most costly. If the bike has been sitting at any point in its life, there may be a problem in the tank. People mistakenly think an older, low mileage bike is a good buy, but problems come up when a bike sits. The worst of which is corrosion in the gas tank. The ethanol gas used these days does a horrible thing: the ethanol separates and goes to the bottom of the tank where it absorbs moisture causing rust and corrosion on the bottom of the tank. Use a flashlight to look into as much of the tank as you can. There should be a narrow view of the lower parts of the tank. If you see anything but an intact grey tank inside lining, any sign at all of corrosion, no matter how tiny, expect that the parts you don’t see are worse. If the tank looks dark all over the inside, rub your finger over part of it and see if your finger is rust colored. If there is corrosion in the tank there are only 2 solutions: replace the tank or have it cleaned and lined. If the tank is still available from the manufacturer, expect to pay $500-$1000, with most coming in right in the middle at about $750. There are several tank lining products out there, some of which are horrible and will fail, causing an even worse scenario. This is best left to the professionals. Expect to pay $250-$500 for this process. And don’t believe anyone that says all you need is a fuel filter. Sediment will still get past the filter and mess up the carburetor or fuel pump. I know this from experience. Sometimes we open up a carburetor and immediately know the tank is a problem. We will not rebuild these carburetors unless the customer has a remedy for the corroded tank. The bike will not run well for very long with a corroded tank. Some new buyers bring in a bike that they say ran great for 10-20 miles then started acting up. I open the tank and there it is. Buyer beware. Also be sure and read about carburetors below. These problems go hand in hand.

Fork seals: This one is usually missed by a buyer and is actually very easy to spot. Look at where the shiny part of the fork goes into the wider part. For most bikes the shiny part is on top and it goes into the bigger, lower fork leg. Some bikes have inverted forks where the shiny tube comes out of the bottom of the bigger upper tube. Look for a dark ring a few inches from where they come together, or a dirty film over those few inches, or sometimes it’s just an oily film that is hard to see. Rub your finger over it and check your finger for oil. If you see any of these conditions on one or both of the forks, you need to have both rebuilt with new oil and seals, and possibly bushings if they are worn. This is a difficult job that you should not take on yourself. The seals and oil are cheap, the labor is expensive. We charge $225-$350 total depending on type of forks and if bushings are part of the process. Some people go a long time not repairing this problem. The problem with that is when oil gets down to the brakes and suddenly your front brake is at 50%. Oil saturated brake pads must be replaced to restore braking ability. Also, loss of oil in the forks affects the handling of the bike. Maybe it’s noticeable maybe it’s not. We do not recommend riding for long with blown fork seals.

Chain and sprockets: This is another easy thing to check that often goes overlooked. I first look at the general condition of the chain: dry from lack of lubrication, oily but caked with dirt and grime, and obvious kinks apparent to the naked eye at a distance are the negative conditions I first see. A clean and oiled chain gets a thumbs up for now. The next check is pulling the chain back off the rear sprocket. If it pulls of the rear sprocket enough to let light shine through, it’s new chain time. At the same time, I’m going to check the chain slack in the middle of the chain. Be wary of a chain that is too tight. It is probably masking the the stretched chain test on the rear sprocket I just did. Many sellers overtighten a chain to ‘solve’ this problem. Tight chains wear sprockets and chains prematurely, as do loose and under-lubricated chains. Only if the chain moves up and down about and inch and looks taken care of should you assume it doesn’t need a chain now or in the near future. Now on to sprockets. If the chain looks real bad, replace the sprockets no matter what. A chain and sprockets work together. When one is worn, the other wears out quickly. Proper maintenance involves starting with good quality chain and sprockets and doing proper chain maintenance (check blog post above). If the portion of the rear sprocket you can see is anything but the shape of a new sprocket, replace everything. Checking the front sprocket takes some work and probably isn’t part of a spot inspection for purchase. Go off the chain and what you can see on assessing if you are replacing the chain and sprockets. And if you are, please only use a top quality chain. I can’t emphasize this enough. A lesser quality chain stretches and wears quickly, which means you have to adjust it more often or it will wear even faster, which means the sprockets are getting worn, etc., etc. It’s a downward spiral. As for sprockets, just get decent steel sprockets for your bike. Do not get aluminum sprockets. They wear super fast. Expect to pay $90-$125 for a chain and $60-$100 for a set of sprockets. Labor should be 1/2 hour for just the chain and about an hour for chain and sprockets. So that’s about $300 for new chain and sprockets.

Carburetors: This is where I sadden most new bike buyers when I lay down the truth of the carburetor situation. For some reason people like to think their bike just needs a ‘tune up’ to get it from a poor running condition to a good running condition. This is just not true. The most common reason a bike runs but doesn’t run well is that the carburetors are gummed up, clogged, stuck, etc. The solution is to rebuild the carburetors, then do a final tune and sync. Again let me emphasize this: it’s the carburetors. It’s not the fuel filter or spark plugs or turning a screw on the carburetor. It’s that your bike need it’s carburetors rebuilt. So many people sell poor running motorcycles with the story of needing a ‘tune up’. Just be aware: that ‘tune up’ is having the carburetors rebuilt. If it’s a 4-cylinder, that’s about a $450 job. And we inspect the spark plugs and air filter before final tuning. If they are not in good condition, another $50-$100 goes into making it ready to run great. A single cylinder is about $200, and a twin is in the middle at $300 or so. Fuel injected bikes are superior for this very reason, but they usually cost more.

Brake rotors: Just a quick point here. If the rotors are grooved like a record or the brakes pulse when applied. Expect to pay $100-$300 per rotor.

So that’s the big stuff, the things that make the selling price a ‘good deal’ or not. As you can see, it’s real easy to need $1000 worth of work on a running motorcycle that may look real pretty. And what’s common is that a poorly maintained or neglected bike needs all of these things done. If a bike has sat for years, it probably needs all of these things. I recently quoted someone over $3000 to get their bike back on the road. It was a Yamaha R6 that ran fine a few years earlier before being parked. He could probably sell that bike for over $1000 to someone very excited about the good deal they got.

So after reading this over, I want to point out that there are so many other things that can be wrong with a bike. The clutch and charging system come to mind as possible pricey problems. What I’ve pointed out are definitely the most common jobs we do, the problems motorcycles most frequently have. Cosmetics is a whole other conversation. Let’s just say, making a bike pretty again that isn’t costs a lot. Either be happy with how it looks or be ready to spend more than you think. And finally, there are some more affordable things we do: brake pads & fluid, cables, levers, batteries, and lights come to mind. Just expect to spend about $200 to get the fluids done and other little things a bike new to you needs.

If we’ve learned anything from this post, it’s that you should have a professional mechanic look at your bike before you agree to a purchase price. Learn it. Live it.

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