Buying a Second Hand Bike
Date: 21 Feb 1998
Here is my guide to buying a second hand bike. I'm no mechanic, this is
an educated layperson's view. All corrections, comments, additions
Buying a second hand bike is always a bit of a risk, especially if it's
an old one.
Here are my thoughts on the subject. I've given some rough idea of
costs, but it's only rough. Parts prices vary wildly and labour
charges/times do too.
Now... what you do when you find a problem is up to you. Some things are
just points to argue a bit off the price, some are walk away jobs. I've
tried to note the ones you should walk away from. Take note of signs of
hamfisted mechanics - a bike which has been in such hands is often too
First off, preparation. See if you can locate one of your target model
before you go looking at ones for sale. This gives you a chance to have a
baseline of feel and engine noise. Even better if the owner can tell you "No,
that noise is peculiar to my bike, but they all make that other noise."
If you are after a Euro bike, then hunt the local owner's club, or ask
on the net for someone vaguely local. Otherwise try to look at least two
of the model you want before buying one.
Read the various classified papers and Just Bikes and Motorcycle Trader
to get a feel for the going price. Ring up a few to check for the mileage
you get for that price.
Now when faced with an acutal machine you are thinking of buying ...
there are 4 things you are looking for:
- evidence of good or bad ownership
- evidence of crash damage
- evidence of likely engine nasties
- consumables that need replacing
So, first thing is to take a general look round.
- Is it clean and in good nick? No obvious oil leaks, no worn wires,
no duct tape on the seat...
- Are there any obvious crash marks? Check handlebar ends, lever ends,
- Are there any rounded bolts or stuffed screws? Check cam covers,
switchgear, engine cases.
- Have the cables been oiled recently?
If it looks neglected and unloved then probably best to walk away unless
you are prepared to spend money. Sometimes a neglected bike is an ugly
ducking waiting to turn into a swan, other times it's an ugly duckling not
even fit for the pot.
Any owner with any sense will clean the bike. So look for oily places
that might have been missed, and look again after the test ride for new
oil patches. Old bikes do tend to be a bit oily, but more than a bit is a
OK, now start at the front and work back. (try all of these on a good
bike of some kind first to give yourself a baseline)
- Wheel bearings
Put it on the centrestand and grasping the front wheel, move it about.
You are trying to see if you can woggle it on its axle. Move it side to
side and twist it. If you feel looseness or graunching, there's a dead
wheel bearing. Probably about $30 for the bearing and a couple of hours
Spin the wheel and look for dings. A flat spot indicates the owner has
hit a rock, or wheelied too hard. Gouges indicate a hamfisted tyre
changer. Run a screwdriver over the spokes of spoked wheels. If you hear
a different note, the wheel may not be completely true. Also look for
broken spokes, esp in rear wheels of trail bikes. While you are there,
check the brakepads. Most calipers have a little plastic cover you can
pop to see the pad thickness.
Run your hand over the fork tubes, feeling for pitting. any pitting in
the bit the slider travels over means fork seals will always die. Push
down on the front end to compress the forks fully. When they come up
again, look for oil marks - oil means a new fork seal needed. A little
bit of oil mark is OK, more than a smidgeon, worry. Replacement will be
about $30 per seal and a couple of hours labour.
- Steering head bearings
Have it on the centrestand again and grabbing the forks push forward
and pull back. You are looking for clunks and graunch feelings in the
steering head. move the bars from full lock to full lock. They should
move easily and there should be no graunch or notchy feeling.
Replacement will be maybe $150-$200 incl labour.
- General front end
Run an eye over all the bits - fork sliders, headlight, tubes,
axlenuts. Look for scrapes, gouges, bent bits. Look for grungy wiring.
Test all the electrics. everything should work. All lights, all
indicators, all switches. Dead electrics can be simple - bad connection,
bad bulb. They can be horrid to track down though.
- Switchgear and instruments
Look at the switchgear, looking for buggered screws, bent bits, bad
wires etc. Look at the instruments - all idiot lights should work, all
dials should work. Look for crash damage. Look for swapped speedos -
does the fade level of the tacho numbers/background look the same as the
speedo? (That's a *dead* giveaway on my Duke single, and no one has ever
asked about it..) Are the handlebars straight? is the front wheel
straight when you hold the bars straight? If no, then walk away. If he
hasn't fixed the bent bits there may be a reason. It might only be a
bent handlebar, but be sure that's all it is.
Lift up the seat and check the battery. sulphated terminals and low
fluid level are a sign of poor maintenance or a bad charging system.
Look at the chain and sprocks. Can you pull the chain back from the
sprocket teeth at the very rear of the sprocket more than half a tooth?
If so, the chain is dead. Are the sprocket teeth worn? A new chain and
sprocks can cost a couple of hundred bucks. Are there any signs a chain
has jumped? Damaged chainguard, welded cases, scratched swingarm. If the
cases have been damaged and welded, walk away. Gawd knows what is under
the weld. Some bikes cope OK, some have horrid consequences if the chain
jumps. Are the chain adjusters about the same either side? If they are
markedly different and the bike tracks straight with hands off the bars
then the bike is bent and the rear wheel skewed to hide it from that
test, walk away.
Check tyre tread. Remember how expensive the damn things are. Are the
tyres matched? correct pressure? (If the owner doesn't know the right
pressure, then that's a giveaway in itself). If they are tubeless make
sure they haven't been plugged for a puncture.
- Rear wheel/swingarm bearings
Put it on the stand, get someone to lean on the front so the rear is
steady off the ground. grab the rear wheel and push the swingarm from
side to side. It should not move and be firm. Any give or woggling or
graunching is a dead swingarm bearing. Can be expensive. Now twist the
rear wheel same as the front looking for dead bearings.
- Rear brakes
Check the pads for thickness. If it has a drum rear, it will usually
have a pad thickness indicator on the brake arm. If not, then the angle
of the arm is a clue: the angle should be 90 deg or close. There should
be plenty of adjustment left on the adjuster arm too.
These are hard. About the only thing that will show up is if the rear
shock is absolutely dead. Take it off the stand and bounce the seat up
and down hard. If the thing bounces several times instead of going down
and coming up once the damping is dead and you need new shocks. This
will only catch a really really dead shock. A ride can catch bad shocks,
but it can be hard to tell. Expect bad shocks on any bike with more than
about 70,000km unless they've already been replaced.
- Start it up from cold.
If it's warm when you get there, walk away till it's cold again - too
many things are hidden by a warm start. Does it start easily? How much
choke? Does it blow smoke? Does that clear when the choke is off? Most
bikes will blow smoke on the choke, but should settle down when off
choke. Kwaks are notorious for revving their heads off on choke but most
bikes will idle more or less.
- Motor noises
Its really hard to know what a motor should sound like without
having heard good ones. For example Guzzis are all tappety, but a dead
camchain is distinctive.
- Stationary tests
does it rev easily? is the throttle stiff? Does it have trouble
returning? Does it change into first OK? How heavy is the clutch? Does
it feel notchy? (if it does, likely to be a new cable needed. same if
the throttle feels gritty) Anything obviously oily now the engine is
running? (feel under the crankcase) Turn the headlight on. Rev the
motor. Does the light brighten? If not, walk away as the charging system
is stuffed. (you can test this with a multimeter if you need to. you
should see the DC volt needle jump when across the battery.
Now, the ride... If it seems bent or the engine or gearbox has
ickinesses you can't live with, walk away. It's all expensive to fix.
Does it track straight at 10-20 kmh with your hands off the bars or does
it veer to one side? (note - road must be flat, no camber) If it veers, it
is bent. Make sure you are well balanced for this test, you can make it
veer with body movement. Also try some tightish corners, one each way. Is
it easier to go round one way than the other?
How are the brakes? Some bikes (GT550 Kwak and similar) have absolutely
awful feeling brakes but they pull up OK. If it doesn't stop OK, it may be
as little as new pads, ($30 a caliper) it may need new lines ($100+) it
may need a master cylinder kit ($100+)
Will it rev freely, and pull OK?
Does it jump out of any gear when revved hard?
Are all gears easy to get to? Any false neutrals? Talking of neutral,
can you find it at a standstill? does the neutral light lie? (All Italian
bikes will fail both these tests...) If the gearbox is tempremental and
misses gears and such, can you live with that? It will be bloody expensive
Does reserve work? If not, may just need a cleanout.
Does it shake, get rough, or otherwise object at any revs bar very low
ones? (most 4cyl bikes have a "rough" rev range where the thing
feels like it is grinding something. my 550 Kwak did it at 4000 but not at
3900 or 4100)
Do a lot of stop/start and clutch slipping. Does the clutch cope? New
clutches can be expensive depending on bike model. My old Italian bikes
seem to "grow" the clutch in stop/start traffic and I have to
continually adjust the cable. I live with it.
If you can take it somewhere where you can go at speed, how is it once
you get to 100kmh? If you can find a corner, does it weave? If it wobbles
at 100 or going at medium pace into a corner, the shocks are gone or
possibly steering head. (make sure tyres are OK)
Get someone to look at the exhaust when you accellerate. If it blows
smoke from one or both pipes, it may have ring/piston problems. (2 strokes
excepted of course, they don't call them "blue smokes" for
Do not forget to have a good look at all the paperwork. Make sure the
numbers match the bike, make sure the compliance plate is there and
correct. If the seller is not the owner why not? If the address is not the
same as on the paperwork, why not? Most states have a Registration of
Encumberance, ring your Rego Dept. They can tell you if it is stolen or
has a debt on it. Get a receipt that shows the rego, frame, and engine
numbers as well as your name and address and the seller's name and
address. Be sure to have all the transfers signed properly.
Remember - there are lots of nice bikes out there. Don't let your new
bike fever call the shots - your bike will be waiting for you, don't buy a
lemon because you can't wait for it.
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