Take another rider with you. If you’re a noob, even a friend with one season will probably see things you won’t. And they can test-ride for you if the seller allows it. If you’re a veteran rider, a knowledgable, dispassionate sidekick could keep you from making a foolhardy purchase. And there's safety in numbers.
2. Meet at the Seller’s Home
Push to see the motorcycle at the seller’s residence, for a couple of reasons. First, the bike’s engine will be cold. This is what you want. If you meet the seller in the Wal-Mart parking lot, you have no idea if it took them half a second, half a minute or half an hour to get it started. Tell the seller before you meet that you want the engine to be cold. If they resist, use your own judgment on whether to proceed.
You'll also get to see where the bike has been stored. You may discover that “always garaged” means under a tarp in a carport. And you'll have an address for the seller.
3. Keep Your Cool
Autumn may be a buyer’s market, but it’s still easy to screw up such an emotionally charged purchase. Ask around -- you’ll find plenty of riders who wish they had looked a little closer before they got all hot and bothered and laid their cash in a stranger’s hand.
Give reason the final say -- except for when you should listen to you heart. Is that clear enough? Seriously, you’re spending a fair amount, so don’t fall for the first pretty face you see. There are lots of bikes out there. More are manufactured daily. If you don’t get this one, another will come along. Everyone has a boo-hoo story about the one that got away. Forget yours, or you won’t be happy no matter what you buy.
4. During Inspection, You are The Boss
It’s time to take a look. Don’t be shy. If you’re going to own this thing, you’re entitled to give it a going over. You should be giving this bike a closer look than state inspectors do. After all, they’re only concerned with safety. They couldn’t care less if the engine is half dead. If your poking and prodding upsets the seller, that tells you all you need to know.
Speaking of safety inspections, check the sticker to see when the bike was last inspected. If it expired months ago, there might be a very good reason it hasn’t been renewed. I went out last week to look at a bike with a friend. I checked, and it hadn’t been inspected in a year and a half. The registration was lapsed as well. Funny, the seller had forgotten to mention it. Because of this and other shortcomings, we passed. This is another case where the seller’s reaction to your question is as important as the answer. If they get huffy or evasive, there's your answer.
5. Ask the Right Questions, the Right Way
Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “great”, “fine,” or “no problem.” Don’t ask “How are the brakes?” The seller will say “fine” and you’ll know nothing. Instead, ask “When were the brake pads last replaced?” Don’t say “How’s the chain?” Ask “Is that the original chain? When was it last adjusted?”
The seller might feel like he’s being interrogated. That’s because you’re interrogating him. You should be friendly, and if you become friends after the sale, that’s great. Remember, though, that when money is in the mix, apparently decent people can be devious, mendacious douchenozzles. Your life is at stake here. You can think about that, or you can worry about the seller’s feelings.
Oh, and remember the questions you asked on the phone? Ask them again and see if you get the same answer.
Looking It Over
Hold the front tire between your knees and move the handlebars. Do they wiggle if the tire stays still? Not good. As long as you’re there by the tire, take a look at the front brake. Can you see how much pad is left? Is there any rust? Look especially at the discs. If they show corrosion, it’s likely the bike has not been ridden much, or at all. At the end of the season, this is a red flag. Why wasn’t it ridden all summer?
Now look at the controls. Are the handlegrips scratched on the ends? Are the clutch and brake levers scratched or bent? If so, the bike has probably been down. Not a deal-breaker if it’s been disclosed, or if that’s the only damage.
Are the grips and/or levers brand new when all else is older? The seller might be hiding evidence of an accident. Squeeze the brake lever. How close to the handlebar does it come? If it’s too close, and there’s plenty of fluid and no leaks, the master cylinder might need replacing.
As long as you’re fiddling with the controls, check the signals, lights, horn and any other electrical switch. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t bother, and later discover they’ve purchased Satan's Electrical Puzzle, battery included.
Look at the tires. Is there dry rot? That’s immediate replacement. Is the back tire far more worn, or much newer than the front? It’s not unusual for the drive tire to show more wear, but if it’s egregious it might be from constant smokeshows. The seller’s ride-it-like-you-stole-it attitude likely means more problems for you.
See any rust on the handlebars, the rims, in the nooks and crannies? It could be from sitting outside under a tarp, all winter, every winter. People put vehicles in garages for a good reason. Remember things like this so if it comes time to bargain you can justify your lower offer.
Now you can ask the seller to start it up. Sometime before this you should have casually felt a cylinder head to see if it was warm. Did you ask them to keep it cold? If it’s warm, unless someone else came to see it, they’re jerking you around.
Give the engine a listen, but unless you know what you’re listening for, don’t spend a lot of time on it. Is the engine incredibly clean, like it’s just been detailed? Maybe the seller is a neat freak. Look around the garage and yard. Is everything else is as neat as the bike? If not, maybe the engine was cleaned to get rid of all the oil it leaked. Look at the underside. Is there a lot of oily gunk from the engine toward the back tire? There might be a leak the owner isn’t telling you about or doesn't even know about. Let it sit and idle while you talk, you might see some gaskets getting shiny.
It’s also important to note whether the bike has a custom intake or exhaust. If it has either, the carbs should have been re-jetted or if it’s fuel injected, it should have been re-mapped. If they just slapped on the exhaust or intake and left everything the same, the carbs might be nicely fouled and ready for a rebuild. The spark plugs could be crapped up too, although that is a low-cost item.
6. Haggling: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There
If after all this you still want to test-ride the bike, by all means do it. Or if you’re a noob, have your friend do it. Sellers often want the full purchase price in hand before you take it out. This is another good reason to meet at the seller’s home, and not in a parking lot where the seller's partner could drive up, the seller jumps in and there goes your money. By this point you should know whether to trust the person. Don’t let them make you feel obligated. If it doesn’t feel good, shake hands and walk away. Like I said, there are lots of other bikes.
If you ride it and everything feels good, maybe you’d like to make an offer. You should know from your homework what a good price is. Try this: Make a non-insulting lower offer. If they rebuff, don’t say anything. Just stand there looking at the bike with a look on your face like you're about to say "forget it". The silence becomes uncomfortable. You might feel compelled to say something. Don’t. They’re uncomfortable too, and they might blurt out a lower price just to break the silence. I saved two grand on a car once that way. Your mileage may vary.
If you strike a deal, make sure all the paperwork is in order.
Get ID. You can print out a blank bill of sale online, and fill in all the particulars. Follow all the rules! The last thing you need is a bureaucratic hellride at the DMV. Now you’re ready for the fun to begin. Happy Riding!