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Last updated: Tuesday, 26-Feb-2002 12:20:06 MST

The Used Bike FAQ

by Chris BeHanna,
edited by JP Honeywell


>What is the standard "protocol" for buying a used bike? If I'd
>like to have a mechanic look it over, do I need to bring him
>with me, or would it be reasonable to ask that the bike+owner
>come to some nearby bike shop?

If the guy has nothing to hide, then he shouldn't be too grouchy about taking the bike to a nearby shop to have it looked over (at your expense, of course). By all means the best thing is to have someone knowledgeable about bike mechanicals to come with you to look at the bike. Failing that, have the owner ride it to the shop (make a service appointment so that everyone's time is used wisely).

Things to check:

brake pads
should have at least 2mm of thickness



should be adjusted properly and lubed and should have fairly even tension the whole way around. Figure at least $60 for a new chain if the bike needs it.



should not have hooked teeth. Figure at least $50 for new sprockets if they're needed. And if it needs new sprockets, it needs a new chain.



should be clean and should smell like oil only. If you detect a smell of gasoline in the oil, then walk away from the bike and don't come back. If the oil smells burned or is excessively dirty, then walk away from the bike and don't come back. Natural oil should be changed at least every 3000 miles or 3 months, whichever comes first. Synthetics can go longer.



brake fluid
should at worst be dark brown. If it's black and the brakes work fine, then there's no problem. If the fluid is black and the brakes drag or the lever is mushy, then there may be a problem. You'd be looking at most at a caliper and master cylinder rebuild, neither of which is difficult to do, but it's a pain if you want a rideable bike right away. Brake fluid should be flushed and replaced at least every two years. Every year is much better (fresh brake fluid is perfectly clear, like water, only heavier in viscosity, except for DOT5, which looks like a vanilla milkshake from a fast food restaurant).



should not be leaking from the seals. Check the fork tubes for oil after bouncing the bike a couple of times. If the fork seals leak, then you're looking at $70 to $100 for a shop to do it if you bring them the forks off the bike, or an evening's work if you do it yourself (but you need the proper tools). Fork oil should be changed annually. Sight down the forks and make sure they're straight (a slight twisting is easily correctable, but bent tubes are another matter).



Check for scratches on the pipes and fairing (if there is one) for evidence if the bike's been down. The owner should come clean as to how it's been down if he was the one who dropped it. Check the controls--are any of the levers bent? Are the foot controls bent?



Check the headlight (high and low beam), turn signals (front and rear, both sides), and brake light (using front brake and rear brake separately).



should ideally be less than three years old and should have at least 2-3mm of tread left. If they fail to meet any of these criteria, figure on buying new ones right away (no, you don't have to replace both of them unless they're both in bad condition; i.e., old and hard, dry-rotted, or cracked in the tread area or deeply cracked in the sidewall). New tires that are worth buying go for at least $50 each. Tires cheaper than this are generally not worth buying.



wheels should turn with a minimum of effort. If not, then figure either the brakes are dragging or the wheel bearings are shot. Neither is difficult to repair, but figure this in when deciding on your top price.



if the guy gives a hoot about the motorcycles's internals, he probably cares what it looks like, too. He should have at least washed the bike before you come to see it. While it's true that a clean exterior doesn't guarantee a shipshape interior for the bike, one of the marks of an enthusiast is that, in general, he keeps the machine clean. If the guy didn't care enough to wash the bike before showing it for sale, he probably didn't care enough to maintain it well mechanically, either.



support the rear wheel off the ground and try firmly to move it from side to side. The swingarm should feel nice and tight. If not, figure on new swingarm bearings/bushings (whichever the bike has). Probably about $100 for a shop to do it or half a day's work and $20 for you to do it.



steering head bearings
support the front wheel off the ground and see if it will sit pointing straight ahead (it should be very difficult to get it to do so). If it sits straight easily, the steering head bearings are shot. Probably $100 - $150 for a shop to fix or $40 and half a day for you to fix. You should not feel any grinding or bumps when turning the handlebars--they should feel smooth. A little loose or a little tight is easily corrected, though.



fuel tank
is there a lot of rust in there? Bikes that have been sitting for awhile may have rusty fuel tanks. This is not a big problem unless holes have appeared, but you need to be aware of the fact that you'll have some work to do to clean it up. It's a lot of shaking the tank with small pebbles and penetrating oil to get the rust flakes out, then a Kreem tank coating kit seals the inside of the tank for about $35. Be sure to add an inline fuel filter between the petcock and the carbs/fuel pump to trap any crap that might still be lingering. If the tank has holes, you might find a serviceable tank in a salvage yard (expect to pay about half list price), or if the hole is in an out-of- sight place, you can fill it with a JB Weld-covered sheet metal screw.


Basically, take the top price you'd pay for the bike if it was in perfect condition, and start deducting what it would cost to fix the things that are wrong with it. This should bring you to what you consider a fair price for the bike. If it's higher than the asking price, then you have a bargain on your hands. You can still try to dicker, but don't expect the owner to come down much. If the figure you arrive at is much lower than the asking price, then definitely try to dicker and explain to the owner how you figured out your offer. If he won't accept, then walk away. There will always be other bikes for sale, so you don't have to buy the first one you look at.

That bears repeating: there will always be other bikes for sale, so you don't have to buy the first one you look at. In this department, a bike-knowledgeable friend or at least a dispassioned companion can be a real benefit to curbing your enthusiasm, which may cause you to overlook faults that your friend might catch.

>I've got yet another question on bike pricing. Tomorrow I am
>going to pick up a bike blue (and also a gold?) book, and I
>wonder how I should apply the numbers contained therein
>when I bargain with individuals or dealers selling their bikes.
>What number should be added to the blue book value, to
>come up with a reasonable price an individual can expect
>the bike to be sold for? Is that number for a mint-condition
>bike? Thus, doesn one bargain down from it? What about

The books will list, between the two of them, the wholesale, low retail, high retail, and average retail prices of the bikes. These can be subject to local variations as well. For example, bikes in climes that don't see much cold weather or salt will be more expensive than bikes in the frigid north. The S.F. Bay Area, for example, has some of the highest used bike prices in the nation.

High retail is definitely for a mint condition bike. Low retail (or lower) is applicable to a ratbike. Often, the "blue book" value will be totally out of reality with local phenoms. For example: blue book might list the average retail of a clean mid-80s Suzuki GS450L at $1700. No one is going to be able to get that much for that bike. $1000 for a _perfect_ example is more realistic, and you bargain down from there. On the other hand, the blue book might list an average retail of $10,000 for a 1992 H-D Softail Custom. Except in some remote localities, you can't touch one for that ($12,000 and up is more realistic).

Your best indicator is to scour the want ads and see what prices in your area are like. Private individuals will always sell cheaper than dealers, who have to figure in prep and cleanup and detailing into the price, plus whatever repairs are needed, plus storage costs, plus a profit margin, whereas a private seller may just want rid of the bike. If you wait long enough and you act quickly when you find a gem, you can get yourself a pretty good deal. Oftentimes, a bike may have been sitting for a few years and will need a battery, tires, a chain and sprockets, and a carb despooging and will then run perfectly. You can often get such bikes pretty cheaply.

>Also, please let me know how you personally go about buying
>a bike. I'm curious about the entire process, from checking out
>classifieds and/or trade mag listing to driving it home. (I've
>got your bike appraisal text.. but no overview of the whole

Okay. I'll tell you about how I bought the bikes that I thought were good purchases on my part (the Harleys definitely were not, so I won't include them here).

First, a word about mileage: a lot of people will balk at a bike that has over 10,000 miles on it. These people are morons. There is no reason why a modern machine, properly cared for, cannot run for 100,000 miles or more. That said, you can take advantage of the seller's knowledge that most people will want to pay less for a bike with > 10K on it, even though you know that there is no real reason (mechanically) to devalue the bike for mileage. A 1970s machine, OTOH, could well be considered to have high mileage if it has over 30,000 miles on it for two reasons: 1) Metallurgy and manufacturing practices weren't up to the same standards that they are today, and 2) Oils were not as good as they are today. I wouldn't walk away from such a bike, but I might consider offering a little less money than I otherwise would, figuring on probably having to put a new top end and a new cam chain into it within the next 20,000 miles. I'm sure there's someone out there with a 1972 Honda CB750 with 98,000 miles out there who will call me a liar, but I've never met him yet. :-)

First bike: 1981 Yamaha XS400H (400 "Special II"), 24K miles on the clock, spraycan paint job, needed some work. Seller was asking $500 for it on the cmu.forsale newsgroup. I took a friend with me who had been into bikes for awhile and we looked it over, and he test rode it. I ended up offering $400, and the guy took it. My friend rode it home for me, and then the guy took his plate back. This bike ran just fine, except in the cold, when it was a *bitch* to start. I was an utter novice at this point, so I knew nothing about carburetors. I did manage to change the shift shaft by myself, as the splines were worn off where the shift lever bolted on.

Second bike: 1985 Honda VT700C ("Shadow"). I found this bike at a salvage yard when I was getting mirrors for the Yamaha. Asking price was $1000. Again, I took a friend with me, and he looked over the bike carefully, and I got to hear it run. I paid the seller his asking price, as it was well under book value and the bike was beautifully clean. It ran great after a carb rebuild, and I put 16,000 miles on it in a year and a half.

Third and fourth bikes were used Harleys, and man, I got suckered big time. The lesson is "Don't let the fever of getting a new bike cloud your judgement."

Fifth bike is a 1975 Honda CB360T. The seller had it posted on the nj.forsale newsgroup, asking $200. I met him and looked the bike over. It was reasonably clean, but it neeeded a chain and sprockets and there was some rust on the pipes. The sidecovers were slightly cracked from a spill. Brake pads were nice and thick, though, and the bike started up reasonably easily. It had 12K on the clock. I mentioned the chain to the guy and he said, "Well, make me what you think is a fair offer." On a lark, I offered him $150, and he accepted. I came back later with my truck and loaded the bike up and took it home. 300 miles later, the bike holed the left piston, necessitating a complete teardown and rebuild which I have only just recently completed.

It was a good experience, though, and I learned a lot. All told, I now have about $600 into the bike counting parts from the rebuild (pistons, rings, wristpins, gaskets, cam chain and slippers, etc.), the chain and sprockets, and the original purchase price. I *might* be able to get that back out of it, but probably not. I viewed it as a $300 self-taught course in how to rebuild an engine, and when viewed from that standpoint, I have certainly gotten my money's worth, IMHO.

Sixth bike is the ZX-11. I bought this one from a dealer, used. It had 9800 miles on it and was two years old and in excellent condition. The dealer was asking $5800 (blue book retail was $6700), so I decided that his price was fair and didn't bother haggling. I took a test ride, got financing, and took it home after getting the tags for it. I wasn't really looking for a bike then. I had gone to the dealer to get some chain wax for the Harley, and I got to talking to the salesman, and the subject came to the used ZX-11 sitting outside. The rest is history. I purchased a 12-month, unlimited mile warranty with the bike for $200, and I've put nearly 16,000 miles on it since this past April. It runs like a dream (except in the cold. I fear the combination of a stuck-open thermostat and lean EPA jetting conspiring against me. Both are pretty easy to fix).

Seventh bike is a 1973 RD350A. I saw this advertised in one of the local "truck trader" mags, asking $180. I called the guy and we talked about the bike. It hasn't run in 11 years and it's seized up, but it's complete. I took a friend with me and we looked at it. Cosmetically, it was in fine shape (except for the front wheel. I found a replacement at a salvage yard). Even the seat was perfect and untorn. This is the first year for this bike, so it's mildly collectable (probably worth $600 clean and running, maybe a bit more for a _perfect_ example). I offered the guy $160 cash, and he took it. I loaded it on the truck and took it home. Note that he did not have a title for it, but he did have DMV paperwork tracing it back to the legal owner (and showing that the bike had never been reported stolen), so I took it. I've contacted the legal owner, and he is willing to sign the paperwork to get a replacement title and assign it to me. All will be well in happy-land. This bike is a definite fixer-upper. I have to get it unseized, de-spooge the carbs and oil injector pump, and give it a thorough going-over. It also needs a battery and tires. It should be a helluva lot of fun, though, as it was capable of running with the 750 four-strokes of its day. In this case, I was deliberately looking for either a dirt bike or a two-stroke streetbike. This one is going to be a real jewel when I'm done working on it.

Note that in most of the cases, I had someone else looking at the bike with me as an impartial observer (and it was always someone who knew something about bikes) to quell my enthusiasm (which can make you overlook things). I looked at the Harleys alone, and I got skunked on 'em (Sporty's tranny blew up on me, and the FX gave me no end of problems, including a complete electrical failure in East Nowhere, North Carolina while on vacation).

Knowledgeable as I now consider myself about bikes, I still prefer to have someone along with me to catch things that I might miss in my enthusiasm.

Pricing: when looking at a used bike, I try to come up with a number that I'd be willing to pay for a _perfect_ example, and then I start knocking money off for all the faults I find (silently, to myself), including a worn chain and sprockets and worn tires. I arrive at a number that I think would be a fair price. Then I knock a little bit off that just for something to try for. If the seller's price is already way below the number I have in mind, then I might offer him $20 or $50 less than he's asking (oftentimes, he'll accept it). If he refuses, then I'll settle on his asking price and we're done. If the number I have in mind is a little less than the seller's asking price, then it gets interesting. I make my original offer, he considers it, probably says no. I come up a little bit, or he comes down a little bit, and we meet someplace in the middle. Then we're done. If he refuses to budge, and his price isn't too much higher than my "fair price", and if I really want the bike, I'll give him his price and we're done. If my "fair price" is a LOT lower than the seller's asking price, I'll make my offer, he'll refuse, I'll make a little higher offer, and he'll refuse, then I'll say I'm sorry and walk away. There are always other used bikes to be had, so there's no sense paying an exorbitant price for any one of them.

Dealer trade-ins: when trading a bike in to a dealer, you won't get much more than the "blue book" wholesale value, if you can even get that. You're better off selling it yourself.

			Good luck, Chris BeHanna 

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