Used bikes are individuals. Each has its own history, a past that has left it in better — or worse — shape than a seemingly identical counterpart. Some are well-kept cherries. Others are beat-up dogs. Most fall somewhere in the middle. So how do you avoid making someone else's problems your own? Here's a step-by-step guide to avoid bringing home a bike with a checkered past.
Before you get down-and-dirty with the bike's parts, give it an overall look, following three steps:
1. Do a casual walk-around.
Is the bike less than five years old, but still looks tired? Excessive grime, oil leaks or drips, scuffed paint and pitted, rusty or stained chrome are all clues that the bike has had a rough life.
2. Take a closer look.
Any bike that has been dropped, even if it just fell off its side stand, may have suffered more than just cosmetic damage. Be on high alert if you find any "road rash" indicating the bike may have gone down while moving. Repairing a bike with a bent or damaged frame can be hugely expensive — and riding it can be dangerous.
If you do find road rash, ask the seller what happened. If he seems as if he's hiding something, walk away.
Big red flags include nonfactory welding repairs or, worst of all, a "salvage" title indicating an insurance company had totaled the bike at some point. These are cues to flee.
3. Inventory any damaged parts.
If you're new to riding and buying your first bike, you may not know about the shockingly high cost of bodywork. Don't be suckered into buying a bike that seems like good deal because it "only needs a few pieces of plastic replaced." Those little pieces of plastic — headlight fairings, side covers, etc. — can cost hundreds of dollars. Replacing a dented gas tank can cost you $500 or more. Bent or damaged exhaust headers can't be fixed, and replacements cost $1,000 or more.
You might still want to buy the bike, provided the price offsets the money you'll spend on fixes. But you still need more info.
4. Oil and filter changes.
Most bikes have "wet" clutches — the clutch/transmission are integral with the engine and live in a bath of hot oil. Use of incorrect oil is bad news. The ideal candidate will be a bike with a record of regular oil and filter changes, backed up with receipts.
5. Forks and seal condition.
Look for cracked or leaky dust/oil seals on the front forks. If the internal oil seals are leaking, you typically will see fresh oil on the fork tubes. With an older bike, it's important to ask whether the fork oil has ever been changed. Also check the rear shock system for any signs of seepage; replacement parts can cost several hundred dollars.
6. Chain and sprocket condition.
Any used bike with more than 12,000 miles probably needs a new chain or will soon. Ask if the chain and sprockets have been replaced; if they have, find out when. Chains stretch out over time and must be replaced for safety's sake. Sprockets must be replaced when the teeth are excessively worn.
7. Valve adjustments.
Ask for receipts showing the valve clearance was checked at the specified mileage intervals. If the seller has no receipts, assume the work hasn't been done. If you buy the bike, don't ride it hard or long until you've had the clearances checked.
8. Brake/clutch fluid changes.
Brake/clutch fluid is stored in reservoirs mounted on the handlebars; if it's opaque and dark brown, it's probably contaminated and the entire system will have to be flushed out. Dirty brake/clutch fluid is another red flag that the bike was not cared for properly.
9. Gas tank rust.
Use a powerful flashlight to look inside the tank for rust. Replacement is expensive and a chemical treatment is a hassle. If you find rust in the tank, you shouldn't buy the bike.
10. Tire and brake condition.
Underinflated tires can make the bike handle poorly, even dangerously. Excessively worn or cracked tires are just plain dangerous.
Use a flashlight to check brake pads; the friction material should be readily visible between the calipers. Make sure there's enough material left for a safe test ride. If the bike needs tires or pads, you should use those points to haggle over price.
The final step in your evaluation is the test ride. This is a must. Any seller who won't let you try out the bike probably has something to hide. When you get set for the ride, follow this checklist:
11. Demand a cold start.
An already warmed-up bike could be hiding problems you'll discover later.
12. Check the idle.
The bike should start immediately and quickly settle into a regular idle without your having to work the throttle or choke to keep it from dying.
13. Watch for smoke.
At start-up, a small puff of blue or black smoke from the exhaust is OK, provided it goes away. If the engine continues to produce blue smoke while idling or when you hit the throttle, it likely has worn rings and low compression or needs a valve job. That's expensive work.
14. Check the headlight.
While the bike's idling, look at the headlight. Does it flicker or change intensity as the engine revs? If so, there may be a problem with the bike's charging system. Sometimes, an unscrupulous seller will disconnect a temperature light or oil pressure warning light to hide a problem.
15. Evaluate the clutch/transmission.
A light downward tap on the shifter should get you first gear; if it hangs up or seems to want to stay in neutral, there may be a transmission problem. You should not be able to shift into second gear from neutral while the bike is stationary. Once underway, the transmission should shift smoothly from gear to gear; if it ever pops out of a forward gear on its own, that's a sign of a potentially more serious problem with the gearbox. You do not want this bike.
16. Try the brakes.
Brakes should feel firm, not grabby or spongy. Pulsating, excessive softness or loud screeching could mean trouble.
17. Check the "feel."
This is the most important evaluation. If the bike doesn't track straight or somehow feels "not right," stop, get off the thing and split.
Unless it's a one-of-a-kind bike, it's not worth risking big problems and potentially big expenses. Move on to the next bike. You may not get to ride today, but you'll be riding happier when you finally do.
Eric Peters is an automotive columnist who has covered the auto industry since 1992. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, among other publications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com.