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Learning to Ride: Buying a Used Motorcycle

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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.
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OutOfTheBox   May 3, 2014 10:47 PM
...basically, people sell shit because they need the money. Don't expect them to be honest about what the shit that you want to buy off them is really worth, and don't expect them to give you your money back when you find out that it isn't worth what you paid for it. All they want is for you to pay them what they want, take the shit and disappear, never to be heard from again. And some get so wrapped up in that whole concept that they cut corners to their own advantage at every turn knowing that once they get your money they can pretend that you don't even exist and they will never have to face the consequences. So do not be surprised at the kind of BS that people will pull once they need money and start to sell their shit to get some.
OutOfTheBox   May 3, 2014 10:33 PM
So basically there are two ways to deal with the issue of test-rides. First, you demand all the money up-front before you hand over the keys. And sure, some people will go for that, but if it were me, I'd demand a cut in the price to make up for the fact that I couldn't even take a test-ride of a bike which I am buying with no guarantee. I'd want 15% off the price right there. Another thing that I've learned, painfully, is that even if there is a "guarantee" you still have to get the seller to actually abide by it. The seller can always say that the guarantee conditions have not been met and refuse to honor it. Second you let them take it for a ride but you require a substantial deposit up front along with their drivers' license. That weeds-out the "casual" types and lets people know that this is serious business. Sure you will get the people who can't even make a u-turn without dropping it (you weed those out by requiring them to make a u-turn to even get out of your driveway, and when they can't do that without dropping it simply stop them, turn the bike off, tell them to put it on the kickstand, take the key and hand their money back), and you will get people who want to get on it and pop wheelies and do stoppies. And that's fine. You just tell them beforehand that if they go out and do stunts on your bike that you're keeping the deposit. My guess at that point is that either they will ride the bike sensibly or they will want to actually buy it instead of losing the deposit. There is always a way to negotiate a test-ride, it's a simple case of both sides being willing to negotiate. In either case they're not getting the title until they pay the full price. I test-rode a used CBR1000RR at a dealer once, they demanded a $1500 credit-card authorization and a copy of my license before they would let me ride it. I brought the bike back in good condition after a short ride, they tore-up the authorization and I went on my way. I got more than enough out of the test-ride to help me decide whether to buy the bike or not. Now I realize that these are not perfect solutions but neither is not letting anyone take a test-ride because they can always claim that it seemed to run fine while it was on the stand but when they went out and actually rode it they found that it had several problems and they want to return the bike. And that could be anything from they didn't like the brakes, the suspension, the way it shifts, the noise the engine makes, the throttle-response, the power-curve, the handling...any number of things. The bike could be fine but they just don't like it; the bike may be what they want except for some real technical problems. You don't know what you are buying until you actually ride it for real. The point is that you may have a policy that works for you as a *seller* but I wouldn't recommend it for a *buyer*. Buying motorcycles on "credit" or on "faith" or "rep" is not a good way to go through life. Once you sign the papers and hand over the money, that bike is yours, good or bad. All the seller has to do is provide a bike and the title and count your money. As a buyer you should do your due-dilligence before you buy the bike, not afterwards. You may have a valid issue, you certainly will run into sellers who say "...tough, you bought it, it's yours. You deal with it". If they even listen to you in the first place. There is no bike that is so good and such a great deal that you have to buy it if you can't test-ride it first....oh, one other thing: don't depend on a deposit to actually hold the bike for you. Some people will happily take your deposit, sell the bike to someone else and then give you a song and dance about both the bike and the deposit. Meanwhile you have neither. Or they take the deposit and just disappear. The people who have the easiest time pulling scams are the ones that everyone trusts.
OutOfTheBox   May 3, 2014 10:02 PM
Perelli Diablos are not really great in the wet, certainly not like Metzlers, and scooter tires, I wouldn't expect much out of them on a track either wet or dry, and don't blame your crashes on your tires, blame it on the fact that you rode past the limit of your bikes' performance. And I'm sure that there are people wwho are impressed enough with the condition of your bikes and with you personally, to forego actually test-riding them before they buy. And that's great, if they are happy afterwards. But the easiest way to convine someone to buy a bike that is in "lesser" condition than advertized is to convince them to not even take it for a test-ride. You may not want to take the risk of them damaging your bike, and that is directly in opposition to their taking the risk of buying a bike that is not quite as it seems. Eeither they agree to potentially get screwed, or they insult you by questioning your word. That's a very clear conflit of interest. Personally, if it's my money and I'm talking about going home with your bike, I think it's worth the risk of offending you. The bigger problem in not test-riding a bike is that you're just buying on fantasy, not the real-world performane of the bike. You don't even really know what you're buying if you've never actually ridden it before. You won't learn everything about a bike in a short test-ride, but it's better than never having ridden it at all and then paying for it. Obviously there's a lot more to riding a bike for real than there is to a "visual inspection", flipping the switches and testing the clutch engagement" while it's on the centerstand. And how can you really know that it's in excellent ondition if you've never even ridden it? I completely agree that some potential b uyers are not experienced riders, because only a noob would be intimidated by a bike and its owner to the point of never even taking it for a test-ride before they fork-over a lot of cash for it. An experienced rider would know enough not to let "politeness" get in the way of a good pre-sale evaluation. Last but not least if you are worried about them damaging the bike to the point where you won't even let them take a short test-ride, then they should be quite aware that there is a real chance of them damaging the bike even in a short ride if they do actually buy it. Think accordingly. Your policy may make sense to you, to me it would say that I need to find another bike to buy. Another way in which your buyers are putting your concerns before their own and paying for it with their money. Unwise on many levels.
pacman52   May 2, 2014 08:42 AM
@OutOfTheBox. I've never let anyone ride/try my motorcycles and I've had no difficulty to sell them (40 +). If the bike is in excellent condition, a good visual inspection & a startup, a clutch engagement check as well as to verify all the switches and lights and the maintenance records if available should be enough if you can't do a test ride. You have to understand that some potantial buyers are not experienced riders and personally, I don't want to take the risk of damaging the bike.
Piglet2010   May 1, 2014 05:15 PM
"The tires were in decent shape too, showing signs of primarily straight-line use..." I bought a used Ninjette with about 3 year old (by DOT sidewall code) Pirelli Scooter Diablo tires with plenty of tread and no tread or sidewall cuts. First ride in the rain about a week after I bought it was at Blackhawk Farms. First warm up lap - is the track really this slick? Second lap laying in the mud after low-side crashing in Turn 4 - these tires are age hardened junk. Proceed with caution, and learn to read date codes. http://www.tirerack.com/tires/tiretech/techpage.jsp?techid=11
OutOfTheBox   April 30, 2014 08:43 PM
....a guy who is fixated on the price that he wants for his bike (not to mention the method of selling it) is not worried about how much the bike is really worth. He's only thinking about the money. Such an obsession can manifest in simply incredible, astonishing ways, that the average person would really never even think of, which unfortunately makes it more likely for them to be victimized. If the dude is really crazy he'll put up some utter bullshit ad and then just sit back and see who walks right into it, never even considering that it could be total bullshit. The whole point of a test-ride is that you have actually ridden the bike before you buy it, which is a wise idea when it comes to buying a motorcycle. If you can't ride it first, then be sure to get someone else to ride it who you can trust to at least give you their honest opinion about it. Or be prepared to get utterly screwed in buying it.
OutOfTheBox   April 30, 2014 08:28 PM
"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. " Er, no. If a test-ride isn't possible, find another bike to buy. A seller can always come up with some argument about why the bike they want to sell to you, cannot be ridden by you before you pay them for it. If they are completely inflexible about this, like they won't even take cash and your drivers-license # for a test-ride with an agreement to buy the bike if you drop it, then imagine how rational they are going to be in selling the bike to you. Everything is going to be "no, because you might blah blah blah, so it has to be done this way" which just happens to be their way, and if you don't agree to their every demand then they won't sell the bike to you. Absolutely avoid any kind of deal like this. Remember that 3/4ths of your money is still quite valuable, but 3/4ths of the bike that they are offering to you is of questionable value. A douche will take that trade every time.
OutOfTheBox   April 30, 2014 08:05 PM
wow, now this is no topic for people with ADD :)
guambra2001   April 30, 2014 04:27 PM
Great article buying a used bike can seem like a daunting task, but with the right knowledge and a good eye you can save thousands.