Learning to Ride: Buying a Used Motorcycle

April 30, 2014
Byron Wilson
Byron Wilson
Associate Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

Byron's sure to be hunched over a laptop after the checkers are flown, caught in his own little version of heaven. Whether on dirt, street or a combination of both, MotoUSA's newest addition knows the only thing better than actually riding is telling the story of how things went down.

After countless hours scrolling through ads online, chasing down interesting-looking opportunities and loitering too long inside local dealerships I finally bit the bullet and bought a used motorcycle. It’s a 2005 Suzuki GS500F I found on Craigslist, from a family that lived just a few blocks from my home. In pictures the bike looked extremely clean and info stated it was garage-kept, had a little more than 8000 miles on the odometer and came with a few little extras like heated grips, Givi top-case and a cover. I figured it was definitely worth a call to find out more.

On the phone the seller explained it was his wife’s bike and that she had decided to ditch street riding after her mother suffered a nasty off thanks to a patch of gravel in a corner. They had bought the machine from the original owner, a student who used it as a commuter up in Eugene, Oregon, and only put 3000 miles on it in the few years since purchase. He assured me that, while in his possession at least, it had never been down and that the few cosmetic scuffs on the fairing were from the original owner squeezing the bike into a tight space alongside his apartment in lieu of leaving it parked in the lot.

I showed the ad to some more knowledgeable friends at work, and they assured me it was definitely worth a look and test ride, if possible. I ran some numbers through my insurance company and found coverage for the machine well within the bounds of affordability. Things were lining up too well not to go out and see the bike, so I called back and set up a time to meet.

The seller had the bike on its centerstand in his garage when I arrived, surrounded by six or seven other motorcycles, including a few RM-Z’s, a KTM and a large touring mount that looked like an FJR. It was cold, and according to him hadn’t been started in some time. The ’05 GS500F is carbureted so he opened the choke and it fired right to life, quickly settling into a steady idle to warm up. “It’s cold-blooded,” he explained, “after a few minutes though, it’s ready to go.”

Minor signs of rust were also present.
Minor signs of rust were present on the front brake rotor.

I walked around, seeing no leaks or fluids on or around the engine. There were no dents or scratches anywhere on the tank or tail, just a few scuffs on the side fairings that appeared to confirm his initial explanation. There was a small spot of rust on the front brake rotor and the header-pipes looked rusty as well. Since I have plans to do some project work on the machine, these weren’t deal-breakers. The tires were in decent shape too, showing signs of primarily straight-line use, and the seat was in near-perfect condition.

I hopped on the bike and bounced a few times to feel the suspension and rolled the bike back and forth to get a feel for the bite and release of the front and rear brakes. There wasn’t any disconcerting slack in the levers or foot control. I pulled in the clutch, downshifted into first and back to neutral, and the transition was smooth. I asked to take a test ride and he said, “go for it.”

On the road, gear shifts were smooth and sure as well; the only real issue I noticed was a slight squeal on the rear brake when pressure was gently applied. It had enough power to easily handle freeway traffic and didn’t feel like more than I could handle. I went through some tighter 25 mph corners at a comfortable pace, and felt stable and secure enough to take them faster the next time. Throttle response was crisp, with immediate acceleration available with a slight twist. Granted it’s no Panigale, but it felt like a bike with enough power and potential for me to grow into as a rider, and not something I’d outgrow right away.

The 2005 Suzuki GS500F could definitely use a new set of
rubber and I plan to throw on a set of Michelin Pilot Radial
tires in the coming weeks.

In the months since I brought it home the bike has been more than reliable, and no hidden issues have come to light. I have tried to take off on a few just-above-freezing-temp mornings without enough of a warm-up, and the bike has coughed a bit in those cases early on but overall it’s been a great get. In the coming weeks I plan to throw on a new set of Michelin Pilot Street Radial tires and get new brake pads and rotors installed. A good carb-clean and re-jet are in the plans as well, since stock settings on the GS500F are apparently a little lean to help improve fuel consumption, but can also contribute to its cold-bloodedness. Beyond that, the sky’s the limit but I think it would look really good, and have seen some awesome examples already, as a streetfighter.

In the lead-up to purchase, I spent lots of time consumed reading every tip sheet, checklist and advice column on what to look for when buying used, taking lots of notes in the process. I compiled what seemed reasonable and important below. It’s probably more than necessary but at the same time isn’t exhaustive either, and I will freely admit I didn’t do everything that comes in the following section. But for a new or newer rider buying used for the first time, these tips helped me make a gameplan going in and I hope they prove useful to you as well.

It’s a good idea to do some pricing research before you go out to look at a used bike. NADA Guides (nadaguides.com) and Kelly Blue Book (kbb.com) are decent reference points to find out what good condition motorcycles are going for and may alert you to something the seller isn’t mentioning. If Bike A generally goes for $3000 in good condition but the seller has $900 OBO listed with no indication of what the issue is, the buyer should exercise caution.

If, by chance, you know someone that knows motorcycles, offer them a big steak dinner to come along with you. That extra set of eyes and ears may see or hear something you’ve missed during the assessment of the machine.

When you set up the appointment to look at the bike, ask the owner if he or she will leave the bike cold until you get there so you can see how it starts. Cold starts can reveal issues that might not be noticeable once the bike is warmed up. Consider taking a small flashlight with you to make it easier to see the internals of the bike.

Once on site, ask the owner about the maintenance history of the machine and to see a maintenance record, if available. You’ll want to make sure that the bike has been regularly cared for and a consistent maintenance history is a good indication of responsible ownership.

Minor fairing damage, supposedly due to the bike being stored
in a tight space by the original owner. There were no other
glaring indications of the bike having been down though.

Do a thorough visual inspection of the machine. Are there visible signs of wear or abuse? Check for scratches, dents and rust. Scratches and dents may indicate a previous crash or tip-over, so be sure to ask about any visible markings that seem out of place. Scratches on the grips or levers could also indicate a previous crash or drop, so be sure to inspect these areas. Rust may be an indication that the bike hasn’t been properly stored and is likely indicative of corrosion in other areas that might not be visible.

Other signs to look for are mismatched bodywork pieces, inconsistencies in color or lots of stickers and decals. If an owner has had to replace bodywork or might be covering something up, make sure to find out why. Though lots of aftermarket parts may appear to sweeten the deal, ask why they were added. Was it to improve performance on track? Was it to replace parts that were damaged in an accident? Are there other modifications that aren’t visible?

If possible, put the bike on a centerstand and look at it squarely from the front. Do the forks, handlebars, mirrors and levers appear symmetrical? Is anything bent or twisted? Do the same from the rear and ask about any inconsistencies. While on the centerstand pull the front forks back and forth slightly to see if there’s any play, do the same with the front and rear wheels as well as the swing arm. All elements should be firm in place.

Look closely at the tires. Is the tread worn? Are the tires stock or have they been replaced? Excessive deterioration down the center of a tire typically indicates long stretches of straight-line travel, such as on a highway. Tire edge wear is indicative of use on twisty roads or may suggest track time. Find out what the bike was primarily used for and how many miles were logged in a typical time frame (week, month, year). Make sure the front and rear tire makes match up as it’s another good sign that the owner practiced responsible maintenance.

While you’re down checking the tires, inspect the brake pads and rotors. Are the pads worn, are the rotors and calipers in good visual shape? Is there any rust or are they dirty? Check the chain or belt as well. Is it taut, or is there slack in the tension? Check the sprockets for wear in the teeth. A clean chain and new/newer sprockets is another sign of good maintenance.

Take out your flashlight and inspect the engine and check for any visible leaks. Is there excessive dirt and grime or are the internals clean and tidy? Run a hand under the cases to see if there’s any fluid or gunk that you didn’t see. Check the fluid levels (oil, braking fluid, transmission) and make sure they’re the proper color and consistency. Dirty, discolored fluid is bad news and may be a sign of lazy maintenance. Look at the air filter as well; a dirty air filter is another sign of poor maintenance. Find the VIN number on the frame and engine and make sure the two numbers match. Inconsistencies with the VIN definitely require explanation.

Test all the controls including lights, turn signals, ignition, throttle, brakes and horn. In some cases the owner may allow you to test ride, so be sure to bring along gear if that’s a possibility. A quick jaunt around the block will reveal a lot about the handling and engine condition, whether the brakes are in good working order, the state of the transmission and whether there are any odd sounds that need explanation.

If a test ride isn’t possible, ask if you can simply sit on the bike, turn the engine on and engage first gear in a slight roll forward. You’ll get a sense of whether the clutch is in good working order. Put the bike in neutral and roll it back and forth, testing the brakes to see if they bite well and release fully when you disengage the lever. Bounce up and down a bit to make sure the front and rear suspension feel firm and responsive.

It should be noted again that this isn’t an exhaustive list but a broad overview of things that ought to check out on a bike that’s in safe and reliable working order. If anything seems amiss, ask the owner to explain and if their explanation doesn’t feel suitable walk away. It’s better to continue the hunt for the bike you want than to ride off on a rattle-trap that breaks half a block from home.