Buying a Used Motorcycle: How many miles is too many?

Buying a used motorcycle can be a great way to get some wheels under you without breaking the bank. A used motorcycle can also make a great first motorcycle, since you won’t cry as hard if (when) you drop it. But what if that great deal turns into a mechanical nightmare that you can’t even ride or enjoy? How worn out is a motorcycle with 20,000 miles on it? Well, to be honest it really depends – and that’s not a cop out answer, read on to see why.

When shopping for a used motorcycle there are some key things to consider, and it’s not necessarily just the number on the odometer. The first thing you need to do is mentally prepare yourself to walk away if the deal doesn’t feel right. There will be other bikes and other deals that will come along, trust me. So with your heart guarded, open up your classified listing of choice, and start browsing the ads. It’s a good idea to get into this habit even if you aren’t totally ready to buy, as it will help you to get a sense of what different bikes are worth. If you are like me and easily fall in love, not having the money to buy right then and there can keep you out of a lot of trouble (especially for those of you who are married!). Bike shopping can also help you narrow down the field as to which type of motorcycle you are actually in the market for. Do some research, ask around, and be honest with yourself with what kind of rider you will be and what you are looking for in a bike. Usually, you’ll know it when you see it – there’s that bike that just speaks to you. You gravitate towards it, and it must be yours.

Great, you’ve picked one out, now it’s time to really get down to business and start shopping around. Depending on what type of motorcycle you are hunting for and where you live, you may have plenty to choose from nearby, or you might have to scour the whole country to find the right bike. Either buying experience can be great, but the first thing you need to shop for, is the right seller. This is especially important if you are going to be dealing with a more long distance transaction. How well constructed is their advertisement? A good seller and fellow enthusiast will take the time to describe the history of the bike, its maintenance records, and its current condition. A good ad will include detailed pictures of the motorcycle and any flaws that may be present. You see, a responsible seller usually indicates a responsible bike owner, and as you may have guessed, this is the real key to scoring a great used motorcycle.

A bike that has been neglected for 10,000 miles, with poor maintenance and abusive riding can be in absolutely terrible shape, while a well cared for machine with 40,000 miles can be pristine – ready for miles and miles of additional service. Beyond getting a feel for the seller themselves, the bike will tell you the other half of the story. If you aren’t mechanically inclined or are new to motorcycles, bring a friend who knows bikes with you to take a look. Some bike problems are glaringly obvious even to the untrained eye, while others may not rear their ugly heads until you are out on the road – and that is why a test ride is a good idea. Now, these days it is very common for a seller to require a motorcycle license, and some or all of the purchase money to be in their hands before they will let you ride. That’s not a bad idea for the seller either, you break it, you bought it – so come prepared if you are serious.

Some of the first items to check over are the maintenance items on a motorcycle, such as the brakes, chain and sprockets, and the oil. How much pad thickness can you see? Run your fingers over the brake rotors to feel for grooves and scoring – which can be an indication that the brake pads were worn down much to far before changing them. Is the chain well adjusted and clean? If it’s very loose, or overly tight, you may be dealing with an incompetent bike owner. There’s nothing worse than trying to work on a bike that has had every nut and bolt torqued down to 200 ft/lbs. Ask the seller when the last time these items were replaced, and use your best judgment as to how trustworthy they are. Take a good look at the tires and see how much life they have left. If the bike is over 5 years old, check the date code on the tires and look for hairline cracks. Even a tire with a lot of rubber left can be hardened and dry rotted from sitting too long. Once the bike physically checks out in person, it’s a good idea to take the bike for a ride. Shift through all of the gears and make sure that the transmission is functioning properly. A transmission job on most bikes requires the engine to come out and come apart – not a small job!

Now lets talk about low mileage, older bikes. Sometimes you can come across a deal on a bike that just seems too good to be true. Maybe it’s a 10 year old motorcycle, but has less than 1,000 miles on it. You might think to yourself that it will be like getting a brand new bike for a steal, but that would completely depend on how that bike was stored while it sat for 10 years. If it was simply parked and put away wet, stored outside, or otherwise neglected, you might be surprised how many problems there can be. Hoses and vacuum caps can dry rot and leak, gas tanks rust (open the cap and look inside with a flashlight), and carburetors can require complete rebuilds.

By now you should have gotten the point – the mileage really isn’t the heart of the issue – the history of the bike is. If you can clearly see how many owners the bike has had and what kind of maintenance they performed on the bike throughout their time with it, and the bike checks out in person, chances are it will be ready to take you wherever you want to go. Conversely, if the bike is shrouded in mystery and seems to have been worked on by a blind chimpanzee, it might be best to walk away and move on to the next bike. Obviously the risk goes up the older the bike gets, as parts get old and weak, and bikes get passed from owner to owner – history gets lost.

There is a point in time with most motorcycles where they have reached a low in their depreciation. If you are good with a wrench, this can be one of the best places to find a motorcycle. They are usually over 7 or 8 years old, sometimes with higher miles, sometimes not – but the beauty of these bikes is you can buy them for a song, ride them for a couple years, and then resell them for very close to what you paid (sometimes even more!). You may have to do some extra maintenance on these bikes, such as rebuilding suspension components, refreshing brakes, cleaning carburetors, etc, but you can really get to know a bike during this process, too.

Whatever route you choose, whether it’s a lightly used motorcycle that is practically new, or resurrecting an old, neglected bike and giving it a second life, the bottom line is that no amount of mileage is too high, for the right price and the right buyer. Buy something that you will actually end up riding, not something that will just collect dust in the corner of your garage (like it did for the last guy).

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