BikeSocial Publisher. Has been riding since before Frankie said ‘Relax’, owned more than 100 bikes and has written for, edited or published most of the UK’s best known bike magazines. Strangely attracted to riding high miles in all weathers, finds track days ‘confusing’ and describes the secret to better riding as ‘being invincible’.
Buying a used bike is straightforward as long as you keep a cool head and look beyond the shine and polish to what’s really underneath.
Depending on the age of the bike you are looking at there will be different things to focus on.
To download the checklist, please click here.
Buying a bike up to two years old
Buying a nearly new bike should be the easiest option. Someone else has taken the biggest hit on depreciation, it won’t need an MoT just yet and there should be some warranty left.
The mileage will still be relatively low and is more likely to be accurate and everything should still work properly. Nicely run in but still sharp and feeling new – a bargain. Dealers will offer as good value as private sales here. They have to maintain a price difference between new and used stock and they will have bought the bike in for a decent price, probably as a part-exchange from someone trading up.
Any signs of corrosion especially on the exhaust down pipes, the nuts and bolts or the fork legs suggest it’s seen winter use. Not a problem, but it will be worse under the bodywork where you can’t see and there’s a possibility that the brake caliper pistons will be sticking through corrosion too (which could also mean the brake discs are warped).
The bike should have both keys and the master key for the factory immobiliser if it has one, plus all the paperwork including original sales receipts and fully stamped service book.
A lighter, sportier or noisier aftermarket item is fine so long as they still have the original. If not then assume it has been damaged in a crash and look for evidence to back this up.It is illegal for a dealer to sell a bike for road use with a not-for-road-use exhaust fitted.
Bodywork should be still immaculate at this age. Peel back stickers which hide scratches and don’t believe excuses like “I scuffed it on a wall” for scrapes on mirrors and handlebar ends.
FinanceNearly new bikes are the most likely to still be on finance so make sure you do an HPI check first.
Very low mileage sports bikes with scuffs and scrapes on the frame or forks with tuned engines and uprated suspension should be treated with suspicion. Likewise, chewed-up suspension adjusters suggest lots of fiddling for the perfect set-up. Panels with aftermarket paint are a sign requiring further investigation. Their original bodywork, lights, clocks etc will be immaculate, so any bike that looks tattier underneath than on top should be treated with caution.
The original chain should still have plenty of miles in it and ideally, will be clean, oiled and properly adjusted. Suspension will be working perfectly (smooth damping and no notchiness in the steering) and the brakes should have plenty of lever pressure and meat on the pads. Check the tyres, not just for tread depth, but also for signs of squaring-off in the middle. Lots of motorway miles just flattens the tyre in the centre giving a notchy feel as you lean into a corner. Batteries can be scrap after a couple of winters if not looked after, especially if there’s an alarm fitted to keep draining them.
Buying a 3-5 year old bike
These are the hardest bikes to buy well because they will still be expensive, but some can be very tired. Bikes of this age will be on their third or maybe even fourth owner. Most will have been dropped at least once and been ‘personalised’ with aftermarket parts that the owner believes adds value, while you might not agree.
At this age private sales are as good as a dealer. The bike should still be in good condition with any niggly problems sorted under warranty. Expect to find a tidy bike with no more than 15,000 miles showing, with most of the original paperwork, both keys and a reasonable service history.
Check the service records. Low mileage bikes might only have had two oil changes in five years and oil does go off with time. Are there receipts to back up the service book stamps?Don’t overlook the HPI check either. These bikes are still expensive, could be still on finance and more likely to have had some kind of incident big enough to write them off (the cost of spares means it only takes a few scrapes to multiple panels and a scuff on the frame or exhaust to make a comprehensively insured bike uneconomic to repair). Double check the bike’s engine and frame numbers with those on the log book and while you’re at it, make sure that the names and addresses on the paperwork match either the current seller or the previous keeper. Otherwise there’s a chance this is a back street dealer.
If an aftermarket pipe is fitted, ask if the original is available. Some owners try and sell them separately, but be wary as to the suitability of the exhaust thats fitted. It’s illegal to knowingly sell a bike for road use with a ‘not-for-road-use’ exhaust. Ask them to refit the standard one and pay for the cost of re-adjusting any fuelling that’s been modified to suit the race pipe. That should be enough to get them to throw the other pipe in for free.
Chain and sprockets
The originals will probably be worn out by now. Aftermarket chain oilers are a sign of a careful owner, but should be fitted and calibrated properly for optimal performance.
Rear shock absorbers can lose their damping by 15,000 miles and replacing or rebuilding costs £200-800. Check this by pushing down on the bike seat and watching how it rises back up. Ideally, it should come back quickly and settle immediately. At this age the fork oil will also need changing (around £50 at a dealer).
Take a small screwdriver and check that all the suspension adjusters still turn smoothly.
Most last two to five years, so hopefully it has just been replaced. If not, budget around £60 to get it done.
Should be sweet as a nut at this mileage. Does the oil look thick and golden (just changed) or runny and black (old)
Original rubber hoses will be past their best by now. Replacements are expensive but an aftermarket set of braided steel items will be around £100 for all three callipers. Get a friend to lift the front wheel off the ground and spin it. If the discs rub at a certain point they are warped. Apply the front brake, hold it on for a few seconds and then release it. Now spin the wheel again. Does it run freely? If not, the calliper pistons are sticking and the calliper needs a service.
CorrosionLook behind the fairing for corroded engine cases or exhaust pipes. Most people only clean the bits you can see.
A bike this old may need the wheel bearings, steering head bearings and swinging arm bushes replacing, which could cost up to £500. More likely, there will just be some slight wear in all of them – hard to detect, but (along with worn tyres and ageing fork oil) will be difference between that new bike ‘sharpness’ and how a used bike handles.
All of the above are important but easy to fix. Make your list of what needs doing and use that list to knock money off. Haggling based on facts is much easier than just saying ‘Will you let me have it for £6000?'
Buying a ten year old bike
Private sale is best here because old bikes carry too much risk for many big dealers (although some might carry a few older part-exchange bikes sold ‘as seen’ because having stock at a range of prices brings people into the showroom). Bikes of this age are old enough to be cheap and are likely to have been run on a budget for the last few years.
The best cheap bike is the best one you find for the money. Looking for a specific model means you’ll miss the real bargains. Be open minded and patient - you’ll see a few hounds before you find your bargain.
If you’re lucky, it’ll still have both keys and a full service history (which means detailed receipts for every service, not just stamps in a book). If you’re unlucky it’ll have a ten year old alarm, with one taped-together blipper, that constantly drains the battery through a bad earth and goes off every ten minutes.
Don’t be taken in just because something looks immaculate. But be realistic as well. Cheap, old bikes are not going to look or ride like new ones. The suspension might have lost some damping, but a bit of adjustment might restore acceptable handling.
Most bikes fall over in ten years, the question is, ‘how bad was the crash?’ Get a mate to hold the handlebars straight and then get down on your knees and look along the length of the bike to make sure the wheels are in line. If not, the forks might be twisted in their clamps or it could be a bent frame.
Have a good look at things like brake/clutch/gear levers, handlebar-ends, the bottom of the fork legs, check for marks on the swing-arm where it might have been bashed by an exhaust in a spill. Look at all the panels carefully for signs of damage or repairs.
A milky emulsion in the oil level sight glass could mean the head gasket has gone. Make sure the engine is cold before you start it to highlight any starting problems. Let it warm up and check the cooling fan comes on when it gets hot and listen carefully for rattles or knocks when warm. If the seller says that the rough running is because “the fuelling needs setting up”, walk away. If it’s that simple, then why hasn’t he done it?
Smoke from the exhaust when the engine’s warm means trouble.
Hold the front brake on and push down on the forks. Do they move smoothly? Are there any oil leaks from under the seals? Lift the rubber dust covers and check for old rags or tissue disguising an oil leak.
There’s a good chance your ten year-old bike will still be on its original fork oil. This is hard to measure, but changing it will make a huge difference to how it handles.
Two things to look out for; firstly, the condition of the shock absorber(s). Can you see corrosion on the chrome piston? That’s a bad thing and will mean it’ll be leaking damping oil soon if not already. Push down on the back end – it should move smoothly and come back up quickly and smoothly and settle immediately. If it needs a lot of effort to push it down, chances are someone has over-adjusted either the spring preload or compression damping. If it comes back up very slowly, there’s too much rebound damping. If it bounces back up and doesn’t settle straight away, there’s not enough rebound damping (possibly because it’s badly adjusted, but also it could be knackered)
Expect to find aftermarket brake discs at this age (because the originals have warped due to sticking callipers) and replacement hoses too. Older brakes lose efficiency because the callipers get coated in brake dust, reducing their performance and aftermarket brake pads (it will have had at least one set by now) aren’t always as sharp as the originals.
How many owners? Do the current details (owner name, address, engine and frame numbers, colour of bike) match those on the log book. Scour the old MoTs for advisory notes – these will cost you in the future. An HPI check is worth doing, but don’t be surprised to see some history on an older bike. It might have been written off five years ago for cosmetic damage, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t properly rebuilt. Use it as a haggling point.
Replacing worn tyres, a chain, battery, brake discs, brake pads, hoses and a clutch will cost as much again as you paid for the bike. Go for a machine that’s had all this work done (with receipts) recently.
Unlikely to still be the original, especially on a sports bike. And the original will probably be long gone too. This is a haggling point unless the system fitted has the appropriate markings because a road legal replacement will cost you money.
Check that all the electrics and accessories work. Simple things like indicators or a horn not working might turn out to be something more seriously wrong with the wiring.
Have a look at the way the cables are routed around the headstock, the fit of the panels, stickers on the frame or a screen that doesn’t sit flush with the fairing. All of these could suggest a bike that has been taken apart and put together again. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it could mean you are looking at a stolen bike that has been stripped and rebuilt onto a different frame to give it a new identity.
Don’t be afraid to walk away, there are plenty more bikes out there…always.
Watch out for the following phrases either in the advert or when you view the bike. If the seller uses more than three of them, shout ‘Bingo’ and walk away, immediately!