Buying a second hand bike can be daunting…
It’s no surprise to anyone that knows me that I go through more bikes than some people change their underwear in a month. I personally don’t see the point in holding onto a motor vehicle for too long when there are so many others to try out!
Somehow I’ve always managed to come out on top in the minefield that is the second hand motorcycle market. That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes in the past. I once bought a car that ran its bottom end as it tried to get up my driveway. I owned it for a grand total of an hour until that point. You live and learn. The worst case for me now is a worn chain or other minor issues that can be rectified without too much trouble or cost. In this guide I’ll spill the beans on how I go about picking up a bike that will serve me well, until another one catches my eye…
It is important to remember that you’ll never find all the issues with the bike when you view it. Many issues or annoyances will only show themselves over time. For example a bike that needs excessive choking to start and hold an idle during winter may never have shown any issues like it when you bought it in summer. Hopefully this guide can make you feel a bit more comfortable and identify any major issues when you do decide to go view a motorcycle and haven’t got much of a mechanical background.
I’m writing this guide with the view that the bikes you will go see are in reasonable nick and not half-finished projects. Because if you’re considering them, you don’t need my help! Let’s get started.
Research what you are buying. It’s as simple as typing “common issues of X”, as seen above. Be specific with your search results or as broad as you want. There is endless amounts of information and someone is bound to have asked the question. There are a few things to watch out for when researching, however.
- Be aware of where you gather information from. For example, googling GSXR vs Daytona 675 and reading the comments on a Suzuki forum will yield extremely biased results.
- All motor vehicles have issues. Some have more catastrophic ones than others and are inherently flawed straight out of the factory. However, most issues you read online are there because people go online to rant and be heard. Just because you see an engine blowing up on a 2015 R1 doesn’t mean all 2015 R1 engines blow up. They do however have gearbox issues that are widely documented online and have been sorted in recalls. Good research will show all this. Filter through rubbish, exaggerations and pedantic owners and really drill down into what can truly be an issue. Keep these in mind/write these down so you can ask the owner of the bike you are going to view whether the issues have been found or rectified. You also know what to look/listen out for on the bike in some cases.
- Ask people who have previously owned these bikes. Join facebook pages related to the bike and ask questions to get honest, helpful answers but refrain from asking about bike X vs bike Y on a page/forum dedicated to bike X.
- Learn how to check the oil and coolant of the particular bike you may be viewing. You’ll need to check it all when you get there.
Viewing, love at first sight?
You’ve turned up to view the motorcycle and as the garage door opens, you’re either pleased or mildly disappointed. If you’re disappointed already, have a quick look over the bike, decide whether you really want it or not and then do not waste the sellers time any more than necessary. It’s pointless to test ride a motorcycle that you have no intention of buying. It’s unnecessarily risky and it wastes the time of both parties.
Assuming you’ve found a motorcycle you like, you’ll now want to check over the most obvious things first. I usually go in this order:
- Check over the tank for dents or any damage indicating a drop. Then ask why it was dented (if they haven’t explained already). Usually it’s some guy called previous owner that damages other people’s bikes.
- Check fairings for scratches, cracks and other damage. Check for missing screws. Again, ask the seller why this is the case.
- Check the tyre tread front and rear (will be covered further on in more detail).
- Bounce the bike up and down, sit on it (after asking permission) and bounce it too. Is the suspension dragging more than normal when it comes back to rest? Are there weird noises and creaks?
- After giving the front shocks a few good hard bounces, run your fingers around the front fork shafts and feel for any dampness. Leaking fork seals can be costly to remedy. Check for any weird colouring or scoring on the fork shafts which may indicate worn seals have damaged the shock shafts, this can prematurely wear seals.
- Check the brake pad thickness front and rear. There should be at least 2mm or so. Remember, motorcycle brake pads are very thin. Even brand new pads can look like fully worn brake pads if you’re not sure exactly how thick the pads should be. But generally 2mm or so of pad thickness should mean you won’t need to replace pads for at least another ~5000km.
- Inspect the brake fluid front and rear. It should be a nice light brown colour, not dark brown. Dark brown means it needs replacing.
- Feel the brake levers front and rear (will be covered in more detail later).
- Inspect the chain (will be covered further on in more detail).
- If the motorbike is cold, inspect the coolant. It should be nice and green. NO RUST and definitely not clear. Tap water or demineralised water alone should never be used as coolant. If the coolant is anything but green (or maybe red, long life coolant) RUN. You don’t need a motorbike with a cooling system that is a ticking time bomb. There are plenty of other motorcycles out there for you. Rust never sleeps, once it begins, it continues. If the owner is too cheap to properly flush the coolant, they are too cheap to maintain a motorbike.
Inspecting tyre tread
The small bars you see on the tyre are called Wear Bars. These bars indicate how much life is left on the tyre. Once the wear bars are flush with the rest of the tyre, that means it’s time to replace! Ideally if you want your new bike to have a few thousand more KMs before replacement, you’d want at least 2mm or so of rubber above the wear bar. However, this can vary between tyres of different compounds so it’s not a definite rule of thumb.
Principal Tyre Tread
Principal grooves are grooves on the tyre that the manufacturer has deemed to be important for the function of the tyre. These are the grooves in which you can find wear bars. Any other grooves on the tyre without wear bars can be worn out (usually tread on the edges of the tyre) without need for worry.
Tyre tread depth is measured from the principal groove and should be at least 1.5mm to be road legal and pass a WOF in New Zealand. Keep in mind though, just because you have at least 1.5mm of tread does not mean the tyre is still as good as it was from brand new!
All this is covered in greater detail here NZTA Guidance for vehicle inspectors when checking tyre tread depth and here NZTA Tyres Section
Cracking and other damage
Check both front and rear tyre for cracking and cuts/slashes. Cracking can happen due to the oils of the tyre seeping out due to old age and rather than flexing when riding, they crack instead due to being brittle. Cuts and slashes are quite common due to debris on the road. If there are large cuts and slashes, generally more than 5CM in length, I’d be worried.
Tyre replacement is a great way to bargain on price with the seller. If the tyres look like they need replacing soon, factor that in to your offer.
Inspecting the chain
The chain is an important part of the motorcycle that should be maintained regularly and replaced as required. Costs for a replacement chain and sprockets can range from $150 on a small bike, to well over $300 for bigger bikes. It can be quite hard for a newbie to check whether the chain is tensioned correctly on a bike, but you can check other things quickly. Inspect the chain closely and give it a quick push up and down (around the area the guy is holding the chain in the picture above). The chain should have some slack to it, about 30mm. It shouldn’t be tight and solid, it also shouldn’t be super loose. It should also move without binding when you move it up and down. Move the bike forwards a bit and check another spot for the same thing. If the chain goes from tight in some spots to loose in other spots, you’ll need to replace it.
You can check if the chain is worn by trying to pull the chain off the sprocket at the 3 o’clock position as shown below. You shouldn’t be able to move it more than 1 or 2mm. The chain below is well worn as you can see daylight between the sprocket and chain gap!
A dirty chain with rust spots usually means th e owner hasn’t cleaned and lubricated the chain frequently enough. If the chain is so badly out of shape, you may also see some orange grease that has leaked out from the rollers due to the o-rings failing. The grease can dry out to look like a powder and is bright orange, it really stands out.
Squeeze the brake lever. You shouldn’t be able to squeeze the front lever right to the grip (if it has adjustable levers, adjust them all the way out first, ask the owner if it’s okay to do so before, though!). Pump the front lever a few times. It should not build pressure after a few pumps, it should feel the same each time you pull it. Building pressure and becoming harder each time you pull it means there’s air in the lines and it’ll need bleeding. Press on the rear brake lever. It shouldn’t build pressure either and have a consistent push each time. Both levers should move smoothly and not feel like there’s anything “rubbing”. After squeezing the brake lever front and rear a few times, roll the bike forwards and back. You may hear brake pads drag very, lightly. This is normal. If the bike is hard to roll around, the callipers may have seized pistons.
Check the brake pad thickness front and rear. I can be hard to tell on motorcycles because the pads are so thin from brand new. But you want at least 2mm of pad thickness so you don’t have to replace the pads within the first few thousand KMs. The picture above shows the difference in thickness between a worn pad and a good pad.
Check the brake fluid in the reservoir front and rear if possible (some reservoirs are metal cases rather than plastic tanks). The fluid should look nice and clean, it may have a coloured tinge but it should be a light colour. If it is dark, it may be time for replacement, regardless of whether the lever feel front and rear is good.
Steering and Suspension check
Hop on the bike and bounce the front end hard while holding the front brake. Listen for any strange clunking noises that may indicate worn or loose components. Then hop off and check the shiny skinnier portion of the front forks which the outer tube runs along, if fork seals are leaking, you will be able to feel moisture by running your finger around the fork. Check out the images below for a better idea.
Next, while standing next to the bike, bounce the rear by pressing on the seat or sit on the bike and bounce on the seat to compress the rear shock. Listen for any strange noises. There may be some squeaking from the shock which may indicate it is old, or even worn mounting bushings. Pinpointing the exact cause may be difficult without further inspection which is not always possible during a viewing. Get under the bike and check the shock shaft for any leaks.
Check the handlebars for straightness. If they are out of whack, the bike may have been dropped or hit something.
Steering head and wheel bearings
Check steering head and wheel bearings. This can be done by leaning the bike over on its side stand so either wheel is off the ground. Then grab the forks and give them a good pull and push (away/towards) the bike. This video explains it really well. To check wheel bearings, follow this video for the front and rear tyres. Again, this can be done by leveraging off the side stand. Take care not to drop the bike!
Finally!! It’s time to test ride the motorcycle!
Make sure you respect the bike like it’s your own. Don’t go thrashing it for the sake of it.
How was the motorbike to start? If it was difficult to start from cold, are the valve clearances due? When was the carburettor(s) last tuned? These jobs can cost hundreds of dollars and if they are not done, can be used as a bargaining chip if you do decide to buy the bike.
As you take off in first, have a feel for where the clutch engages. Does it grab right at the end of the lever travel? Or very early on, close to the handlebar. If it grabs quite late, the clutch is usually well worn. However, there may be plenty of life left. We’ll confirm later.
Shift up into second, how does it feel? Notchy? Solid? Or loose? This is where test riding multiple bikes of the same model can come in handy. You can then figure out whether certain feelings are specific to the bike you are riding or the model in general. For example, the 2011 CBR600RR has a very solid but smooth shift into each gear. You will almost never encounter a false neutral and you definitely know you’ve clicked into each gear. But it glides into each gear rather than snapping into it. The 2008 Daytona 675 also has a very firm engagement into each gear but it feels very notchy. It almost feels like you might be breaking something between each shift as you click into each gear, but each engagement is firm and positive. These are characteristics of the model itself which you’ll notice when you test ride different bikes of the same model. Be aware however, if a bike is difficult to shift into gears due to an issue, you’ll definitely feel it. Issues such as clutch lever adjustment, clutch plates dragging or bent shift forks will prevent you from shifting into gears nicely and even cause grinding as each change happens. Misbehaving gearboxes can be easily picked up but once again, you’ll need to test ride a few of the same model of bike to be 100% sure.
Now to test that clutch. Find an uphill or empty piece of straight road. Put the bike into 4th, 5th, or 6th and give it some full throttle (perhaps cover the rear brake in case the front lifts up… Doubt it will on even a litre bike in those gears though!). If the RPM does not steadily increase with speed, if the bike seems to rev but not go anywhere, the clutch is dying. Here is an example of a slipping clutch. Accelerating hard in higher gears can also tell you if the chain is playing up. You will feel an odd sensation through your seat as though the rear end is vibrating rapidly due to the chain shuddering.
Make sure you go up through all the gears and back down while engine braking to ensure there is no funny business going on. Get up to around 120KPH and feel for vibrations from the front or rear wheels. Hold the throttle steady at a few different RPMs and make sure it runs smoothly. If there is a misfire or hesitation it’ll be evident. If the carburettors need synchronising, the bike will struggle to hold a steady RPM. Instead the RPM will slightly increase and decrease constantly.
Come to a stop and apply the brakes hard. You may feel the front end “clunk” a bit. Perhaps it feels like the bike comes to a stop, then your handlebars move forwards a tiny amount. This can indicate worn/loose steering head bearings. Refer to the Steering and Suspension check section to inspect this issue further. If the bike has floating brake rotors like on Yamaha R1s or other high-end sport bikes, the brake rotors are actually free to move around a bit. So when the brakes are applied, the rotors tend to move and make noise. Especially noticeable at very low speeds.
Floating brake rotor. The round button holds the centre assembly to the rest of the rotor. The buttons allow the two parts to move around and align themselves with the brake pad. This can cause small noises which are noticeable at low speeds or when moving the motorbike around in your garage.
Check for burning oil
Check for smoke due to oil burning in a simple method –
- In neutral, rev the bike up to around 4000RPM and hold it there for about 10 seconds
- When you reach about 10 seconds, rev the bike quickly a few times and observe the exhaust.
- You may see puffs of smoke. If this is the case, there is oil leaking past the valve guides and being burnt in the cylinders.
The method above only covers oil being burnt in one specific way. If the piston rings are worn or there are other issues such as oil getting burnt via emissions controls, these can be harder to find or see as the smoke is very faint or invisible and only occurs under certain conditions when riding. Your best bet is to ask the owner if the motorcycle uses much oil and hope they give you a truthful answer.
Concluding the test ride
Finally, on the test ride make sure you really take the bike for a proper run. Have feel for what the suspension is doing as you go around a corner. Is it sloppy? Does it bounce everywhere? Perhaps the fork oil needs changing and the shock needs a rebuild or replacement. Listen for odd noises such as creaking swingarms or clunking rear shocks. When you come to a stop, listen for ticks or slapping noises. This can be from the cam chain or valves. You’ll have to do your own research into such matters if you do hear these odd noises as each motorbike is different. For example, the DRZ400 is widely known to have extremely noisy motors. It is as though someone threw a bunch of screws into the engine. The internet is full of posts asking whether the noises the DRZ motor makes is normal and the answer is nearly always “yes”. However, if your Kawasaki 636 Ninja is making the same noises, it is probably time to rebuild the engine!
I know this has been a long read. But hopefully you can now approach buying a new second hand bike with a bit more confidence. As I’ve said before, you can never find all the issues a motorbike may have upon first inspection. Some problems only appear once you live with the bike daily and really go over it with with a fine tooth comb. Others issues occur over time due to wear and tear and is not necessarily the previous owner’s fault. It is just the game you play when buying a second hand bike. You need to make the best decision with the information you know at the time.