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Guide: Buying a Motorcycle
|The John Norwich Riders Corner In honour of our fellow moderator: John Norwich R.I.P. September 17th, 2014 |
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07-17-2011, 08:42 AM
Join Date: Oct 2006
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Guide: Buying a Motorcycle
CHECKLIST OF WHAT'S LISTED BELOW: |
(Not a substitute for reading the whole thing, but
useful for quick reference at a seller's house.)
* FIRST THINGS FIRST
o Don't buy the first bike you see. Bring a friend & a flashlight.
o Do a couple of practice inspections on friends' bikes, discuss the results.
* OVERALL APPEARANCE
o Is the bike clean and straight? Sight down centerline, and down forks.
* HAS IT BEEN CRASHED?
o Check for bends or scrapes on bars, exhaust, plastic, and levers.
o Short/shallow/non-parallel scratches/chips ~= tip-over.
o Long/deep/parallel scratches and cracks ~= crash.
* HAS IT BEEN RACED/ABUSED?
o Check for small (1/16") safety-wire holes in bolts. (Particularly caliper mounting bolts, exhaust bolts, etc.)
o Know the characteristic flaws of the models you're going to see.
o Check for smooth operation, no pulsing, pad material remaining, etc.
o Check lever effort, and whether the clutch releases when squeezed.
* GAS TANK
o Look for rust or a milky paint-like coating on the inside.
o Dark gas (tea colored) is an indication of old gas that needs changing.
o Look for cracks/tears/etc.
o Check: remaining tread depth, dry rot, profile (round? squared-off?), date code.
* ELECTRICAL & BATTERY
o Test all lights and switches to make sure they work.
o The sound of the starter cranking is a decent meter of the battery's condition.
o Check forks for seal leaks, scratches/nicks/bends/twists in legs.
o Check both sides of both wheels for dents/cracks.
o Check for chain/sprocket wear (hooked teeth, stretched chain).
o Scratches/rust/damage. Exhaust pressure equal on both sides?
o Check starting and operation of engine and carbs. Check for leaks.
* CENTERSTAND CHECKS
o Get wheels in air and check wheel bearings, brake operation, etc.
o Service records available? Proof of warranty work? Etc.
* DIRT BIKES
o Special concerns when inspecting dirt bikes.
* QUIZZING THE SELLER
o Questions to ask the seller to determine the condition of the bike.
* ACCESSORIES, PRICE, and DEALING
o Are you willing to pay more for add-ons?
o Used helmets are worthless. Don't use 'em, don't pay more for 'em.
* TITLES & PAPERWORK
o Make sure it's clean & that the VIN numbers match up.
* TEST RIDE
o Go on one if you can -- you can learn a lot about a bike this way!
o Make sure you give it a pre-ride check to make sure it's safe to ride!
* AFTER THE PURCHASE
o Some tips after you get your bike.
* INFO FOR NEW RIDERS
o Not the biggest and the baddest -- start with something easy to control.
* INSPECTION PICTURES
o To aid inspection, some pictures (and, eventually, diagrams) of what certain components look like.
* RECOMMENDED READING
o An exceedingly incomplete list of books that'll teach you more about bikes.
* OTHER WEB SITES
o A listing of other motorcycle-related web sites with useful tips for bikerscum.
Full text with detailed and concise explanations here:Used Motorcycle Evaluation Guide
07-17-2011, 08:55 AM
Where's my RS Christmas Lobster?!
Join Date: Jan 2009
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Thank you! Posted via RS Mobile
07-24-2011, 10:27 PM
Total victory requires total destruction
Join Date: Mar 2005
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I used this guide:
If any of you whores are looking at a new used bike, print this out and use it as a guide to inspect your potential new bike! It is a very good guide! There is a lot more information on the website that you should read because I have cut a lot of it out just to keep under the character limitaion! But I tried to leave the basics below. |
Used Motorcycle Evaluation Guide
FIRST THINGS FIRST
* Resist the temptation to buy the first bike you see. Look at a few of them to get a better idea of the used bike market/options before you buy one.
* Bring a friend to help you stick to your guns, or to help you load your new bikes onto a truck, or as ballast in case the bike has a centerstand and you wish to inspect the front wheel. Bike-savvy friends may also notice things that you forgot to check. Make sure they also read this guide ahead of time.
* Bring a flashlight to aid inspection. Even in daylight.
* Request that the owner not have the bike warmed up when you get there, but tell him/her to make sure that the bike will start. If the owner asks why, tell them that you want to test the bike's ability to start when cold. (It's a lot easier for engines to start when pre-warmed.)
* You needn't follow these instructions in any particular order, or even follow them at all, but if you are going to read them, you should probably do so before you get to the seller's house. If you're new to motorcycling, you'll probably find a lot of the terminology complicated. Try studying some of the "related photos" and RECOMMENDED READING listed below. And as noted previously, try to bring a friend, particularly one who knows bikes.
* Bring riding gear in case the seller will let you test ride the bike. (If you're new to motorcycling and don't have any gear yet, perhaps the bike-savvy friend accompanying you will be kind enough to bring his/her gear, and do a test ride for you.)
* You'll have to go through and carefully inspect used bikes being sold by dealerships, too, since many dealerships take used bikes as trade-ins, make minimal (if any) repairs, and mark the bikes up way over "blue book" value. It's up to you to find defects (and to know what the used bike's real value is!!) to get these vultures back down to a reasonable price. Think of it as a treasure hunt -- you're looking for the hidden secrets that will save you money.
* As a general rule of thumb, when work needs to be done to repair a problem with the bike, most dealerships charge around $50/hour for labor, possibly more for European marques (Ducati, BMW, Triumph, etc.)
* In the text below, "left" and "right" refer to the rider's left and right sides when sitting on the bike.
* If you aren't really experienced with bikes, do some practice inspections! Find a couple of friends with bikes, and, pretending that you're at a seller's house inspecting a used bike, go over a couple of bikes in minute detail. You'll learn a lot about how bikes are put together, and you might even find some things that your friends missed. Take notes while you're doing the inspections, and go over your findings with your friends after each inspection.
* When you end up buying a bike, make sure you get everything related to the bike: the key and any spares that the seller has, any free/included spare parts, the owner's manual and service manual, etc. Having to go back to the seller to get stuff you should have remembered the first time is a pain. And you may find the seller far less accommodating after you've paid for the thing.
* Does the bike look nasty? Cracks and scratches all over the thing?  Appearance can be deceiving, but it should give you some indication of the general condition beyond what you can see.
* Do fasteners look stripped or gouged? Is everything kinda loose and ill-fitting? You don't need to be a mechanic to tell when the person has mangled something on the bike. The bike should also be cosmetically symmetrical. (Not "symmetrical" like "are there brake discs on both sides of the front wheel", but "symmetrical" as in, "are the mirrors, the plastic, the handlebars, etc. symmetrical, or do they seem to be askew?" ) Step back and sight down the centerline of the bike. If something looks obviously wrong (the mirrors stick out a different angles, the windscreen is tilted, the turn-signal stalks are ripped off the fairing, etc.), the bike has probably been crashed or fell over hard.
* Basically, try to answer the question: "How does the overall cosmetic appearance of this bike affect how much I want to pay for it?"
HAS IT BEEN CRASHED?
* Look for: deep parallel scratches on engine cases and on plastic (particularly above footpeg-level); a different/non-standard paint job (the owner might have repainted it to hide damage); paint or metal ground off the ends of the handlebars , or off the balls on the ends of the clutch/brake levers; dents in the gas tank where the handlebars may have smashed into it during a crash ; dents and deep/parallel scratches in exhaust pipes; turn-signal stalks bent or ripped off; cracks in plastic bodywork obscured by stickers . (Aftermarket stickers are sometimes used to cover defects -- beware!)
* Sometimes brake and clutch levers will be bent in a crash and replaced with a lever that's a different color than the other side, or a slightly different style than the other side, or it'll be hammered back into shape so it doesn't look obviously bent. (In the latter case, look for thin cracks in the anodizing or clear coats of levers... it'll look something like a spider web of hairline cracks.) Also look for bent or cracked mirrors, or mirrors replaced with mirrors of a different type. Both are signs that the bike has been down. Not necessarily crashed, but at least tipped over. Check carefully.
* Sometimes a crash will twist the front forks. Sit on the bike, sight down the forks, and see if they're at all twisted or bent. (Twisted is pretty cheap and easy to fix, bent is not, but either ought to be a warning sign to check extra-carefully for other damage.) If you get a chance to test ride the bike, get the bike going straight, and take a quick look down at the bars to make sure they're pointed straight -- if they aren't, the front has probably been twisted in a crash.
* Non-parallel scratches and shallow chips tend to indicate a tip-over rather than a crash at speed. (Crashes, of course, tend to do more damage -- tip-overs rarely do more than minor cosmetic damage.)
* You may come across a bike that has horizontal scratches on its lower plastic and metal parts... this isn't necessarily a crashed bike, it could just be that the owner was an enthusiastic rider that leaned the bike way over when turning. Ask the owner about the origin of the scratches, but unless you see evidence of a crash, it's probably just evidence of an enthusiastic owner. Deep/parallel scratches above footpeg-level are something to be concerned about, though.
* Crashes can cause bodywork problems for two reasons. Besides scratching and cracking the bodywork, crashes can bend the bodywork's mounting brackets and break mounting tabs . Check to make sure that bodywork pieces that fit together do so easily and have an even seam where pieces come together. And check to make sure that the bodywork isn't loose, either because mounting tabs were broken off or because aftermarket fairings might not mount up as well as the stock stuff.
HAS IT BEEN RACED/ABUSED?
* Racing puts tremendous stress on machinery. You may or may not want to buy a bike that's been raced (the price ought to be way lower than it would be otherwise), but you should definitely try to find out if it has or hasn't been raced, so you can adjust the price accordingly if need be.
* Look for holes drilled through the heads of bolts , which racers use to safety-wire bolts in place. Check: front brake caliper mounting bolts , exhaust pipe bolts, engine case bolts, oil/water drain bolts , etc. The holes will be small, about 1/16", and should not be confused with the 1/8"-3/16" holes and castellated nuts that are often used to hold axle nuts on axles with cotter pins. Safety-wire ends can be extremely sharp -- don't cut yourself.
* Tires with roughed up edges, covered with ragged strips of balled-up rubber is a sure sign that the bike has been raced.   If the rear tire is completely flat in the middle but looks practically new on the sides, the owner may have performed a burn-out with them. (Not necessarily damaging to anything other than the rear tire, but a possible signal that the owner hasn't taken good care of the machine.) In rare instances, frazzled/ragged edges may be there because the bike's owner bought "take-offs" (used race tires) from a racer, and not because the bike itself was raced. But be very suspicious.
* Also look for heavy-duty aftermarket engine covers  -- made by NRC, Factory, Traksport, Yoshimura, etc. Many racing organizations require them, so they're a decent tip-off that the bike has been raced. They tend to be cheaper than the OEM case covers they replace, however, so sometimes they're used to replace crash-damaged case covers. By themselves, they aren't proof that a bike has been crashed or raced, but look around carefully for other tell-tale signs.
* Look at the under-side of the rear fender. (You may need a flashlight for this.) If you see a thick streak of balled up & flung-off rubber on the inside of the fender, that's a good sign that the owner has done a burn-out on the bike. Burn-outs mostly damage the tire, but could be indicative of other abuse. Be alert.
* Check the frame for cracks, usually along welds. Check around the steering head, around the engine mounts, and, if possible, welds in the front fairing bracket and rear subframe. ("If possible" because these brackets may well be covered by fairings on many models.)
* Some models have specific problems that you should be aware of. Ask dealerships, bike-savvy friends, etc. Read magazine reviews. Examples: many Kawasaki EX500's (and some other older Kawasaki sportbikes) have problems where they'll pop out of second gear while engine-braking. Some older SOHC (single overhead cam -- an engine design) Hondas had lubrication problems. Learn as much as you can about the models you're interested in. (Try old bike magazines, grizzled old bikers, etc.)
* Here are two sites that do searches and provide reprints from magazines:
o http://www.mcreports.com Motorcycle article reprint review service
* Put the bike in neutral. Roll the bike forward, gently apply the front brakes*. They should engage (and the lever should move) smoothly. (Though you may hear a click as the brake-light switch engages.) Now release the brake lever and roll the bike... Are the brakes off, or are they dragging? (They should be off.) If not, the brake calipers need work. Stand in front of the bike with the bike in neutral. Grab the front brake lever and squeeze it hard against the handlebar. As you're doing this, try to drag the bike forward by the handlebars. (You may want someone behind the bike to stabilize it.) Do the brakes prevent the front wheel from moving? They should.
* *=If you squeeze the front brake lever and it comes all the way back to the bar without much resistance, something's very wrong. Try adjusting the lever, if you know how (look for a little dial near the pivot). If this doesn't fix it, or you have to pump the brakes a lot to get them to work, the system is either empty, full of air bubbles, or something is amiss in the master cylinder or caliper. Check to make sure that there's adequate pad thickness, and make sure you get a professional mechanic to inspect the brakes before you try riding the bike. At the very least, the system needs to be bled. About $5 of brake fluid and half an hour of labor.
* Rear brake... roll the bike forward, use the rear brake to stop the bike. It should also engage smoothly. If the rear brake is a drum brake (no exposed brake rotor), is the wear indicator needle inside or outside the "usable range" indicator when the brakes are applied? Outside, of course, means the brakes are worn out.
* Some states have a mandatory safety inspection. If yours does, they'll probably require that both front and back brake levers (separately and together) illuminate the brake light. If one does and the other doesn't, you probably need a new switch (around $25?) or a switch adjustment. If both don't, you probably just need a new bulb (around $1.)
* Check remaining brake pad material. There should be at least 1/8" of brake pad material on each brake pad. For bikes with disc brakes, get in front of the bike and look into the calipers, on either side of the rotor(s). A flashlight might help here, even in daylight. The pads are the raised parts that directly contact the brake disc. If the bike has a disc brake in back, do the same type of inspection with the rear brake pads.
* Disc brakes continued: rotors should be a certain minimum thickness and shouldn't vary more than a certain amount when spun. This kind of information will be in the service manual. As a general rule of thumb, rotors should be a minimum of 4mm, and warpage should be less than .012". (FWIW, even warpage of .020" probably won't show up in the form of lever-pulsing at speeds below 45 mph.) If you don't have the right tools to test this, you'll probably need to rely on a test ride to spot a warped rotor -- unless it's so bad that you can see it with the naked eye. Even if you don't have the right tools, you can inspect the rotors for cracks, deep wear grooves and other damage.
* Brake fluid should be a very light amber. Darker than honey means it's time to replace the brake fluid. Not expensive, but possibly an indication that the owner hasn't followed the maintenance schedule. (Or maybe the bike has just sat for a long time.) The front brake fluid color and level should be easy to inspect through a sight glass in the front master cylinder or via marks on the translucent brake fluid reservoir. (Fluid level should be roughly in the middle of the sight glass or reservoir min/max range when the bike is on level ground and the steering is centered.) For bikes with disc brakes on the rear wheel, check the rear brake fluid as well -- sometimes visible under the seat/tailsection, sometimes visible through a hole cut in the tailsection or side fairings.
* Inspect the brake hoses for nicks, cuts, dry-rot, and leaks.
* Ask the owner how many miles it's been since the clutch cable was changed*. Owners who keep close tabs on bike maintenance will know. That's a good sign. Most owners probably don't know. If there's a little slack in the clutch cable, and you can move the lever 5/8" or an inch or so before the cable goes taut (something like this), that probably just means that the cable adjuster needs a turn or two.
* Put the bike in first gear, squeeze the clutch all the way in, roll it forward. It should feel like neutral, with possibly a little more resistance**. Slowly let the clutch out and feel for the friction zone. Clutch engagement should be fairly smooth, not abrupt. Put the bike back in neutral.
* If the bike has high miles (30k mi +) ask if the clutch has been changed. Only about $100 + 1 hour of labor, unless you need a new clutch basket, then maybe $300 + 2 hours of labor. (You won't know until you get the clutch apart.)
* *=Some larger-bore bikes will have a hydraulic clutch instead of a cable-operated clutch. If this is the case, check fluid color and level through the master cylinder's sight glass. Fluid should be a very light amber, like the brake fluid, but both are pretty easy to change. The clutch master cylinder will be located on the left grip, much the way the front brake's master cylinder is located on the right grip. Hydraulically-actuated clutches may or may not be "wet" clutches. A "wet" clutch is bathed in oil; a "dry" clutch is not. It's hard to tell the difference just by looking at a bike, but as a general rule of thumb: Ducatis, BMWs and Moto-Guzzis use dry clutches, most other models use wet clutches.
* **=Wet clutches may tend to stick or drag a bit until the bike has warmed up and the clutch has spun a bit. This is often the case when the clutch hasn't been used in a while. Wait until the bike has really warmed up before you dismiss a potential acquisition for having an overly-sticky clutch.
* Look for: dents as noted above . Open it up, look for rust and/or loose sediment. Rust/sediment is bad -- it clogs carburators. Bikes with rusty tanks need to have the rust removed... drop the price $150 or so. You should open the tank up and see light-amber colored gas and bare metal. If you see a milky paint-like coating on the insides of the tank, the bike has had rust removed and the insides of the tank recoated. Make sure it runs -- sometimes this recoating can clog the fuel's path out of the tank. Many people swear by it, but I'd pay a little less for a bike with a tank that's been recoated.
* Ask the owner how many years and miles the tires have. The owner should know. (Bad sign if (s)he doesn't!) The tires should have at least 1/8" of tread left, preferably more. Squared-off tires, any signs of dry rot (really fine cracking -- look really close!), bald tires (no tread), knobby tires with worn down and rounded knobs... they all need to be changed. Tires worth using aren't cheap, but they're your sole source of traction, your only connection to the road -- do not cut corners here!
o Street/sport tires: $170-$300/pair
o Off-road tires: $100-$200/pair
* Make sure you read the section above called HAS IT BEEN RACED/ABUSED?, as it has some pointers about how to identify vehicle abuse based on tire wear.
* If you get a chance to ride the bike, seek out well-maintained (smooth) roads so you'll be able to tell if the tires have flat-spots or aren't balanced. (Both will cause perfectly rhythmic thumps or shaking that goes up and down as the speed goes up and down.)
* Tires should be changed at least every three years, though most serious riders would probably change them at least every other year. (That's in an ideal world; tires should be inspected regularly and replaced if they have damage that could cause handling problems or unexpected tire failures.)
* How do you know how old the tires are? All tires have an industry-standard dating code stamped on them. Look for digits stamped into the mold on the rubber sidewall of the tire. The date code for tires made prior to 2000 is: "WWY", where WW is two digits denoting the week of the year, and Y is the last digit of the year. A tire produced on May 30th (the 22nd week) of 1996 would be stamped 226. (A tire produced on May 30th of 1986 would also have a code of 226, but will probably have a ton of dry rot.)
ELECTRICAL & BATTERY
* Check to make sure the headlights (high/low) work. (On some bikes, the headlight won't come on until the engine does, so you may need to start the engine to test this.) Make sure the turn signals work, make very sure that the oil pressure light comes on when you turn on the ignition, and goes out when the engine starts! Make sure the neutral indicator light works. Make sure the starter works. Make sure the brake levers light up the brake light. Make sure the horn works.
* Basically, check all the switches as well as the signalling and instrument-cluster lights. (Bulbs are pretty cheap to replace.)
* A common way to steal a motorcycle is to hammer a large flat-head screwdriver into the ignition switch, and to start the bike by forcing (breaking) the lock. Check to make sure that the key works, that a wrong key (or screwdriver) doesn't work (careful not to break it yourself!), and for any possible internal damage. Ignition switches  can be a pain to replace, since they (obviously) match the same key profile of the seat release and gas cap release locks. There are some aftermarket units available, but you're better off going to a dealer to get OEM replacement parts. Probably around $200 + 1.5 hours of labor to replace.
* If the bike has one*, you should also test to make sure that the sidestand's engine cut-off is working. These are designed to prevent you from riding off with the sidestand down, taking a left turn, and getting flipped onto the ground. They work in different ways -- some prevent the engine from starting when the sidestand is down, some only prevent the engine from running when the sidestand is down and the bike is in gear (i.e., not neutral.) (Still others will let you put the bike in gear while the sidestand is down, simply killing the ignition as soon as you release the clutch, but these are kind of rare.) The design where ignition is killed when the bike is put into gear is a bit more dangerous to test than the design where it won't let the engine start with the sidestand down. You may want to start by putting the bike in neutral and trying to start the engine (once you know that it actually will start!) with the sidestand down. If it does start, we need to test to see if the safety has been removed or if it's just the other design... grab the clutch all the way in, hold the front brakes on hard, make sure the sidestand is down, and click the bike into first gear. If the engine dies, the sidestand cut-off switch works. If it continues running, the sidestand cut-off switch has been removed from the circuit. This might mean the bike has been raced, but it's more of a clue to check elsewhere for evidence of racing, since by itself it doesn't really mean anything. If the sidestand cut-off switch does not work as designed, you must be very careful (if you buy or test-ride the bike) not to ride off with the sidestand down! Now that we're done with this test, put the bike back into neutral, release the clutch, and kill the engine.
* *=Some bikes won't have such a cutoff. This includes certain Ducati models and a wide variety of older bikes. As noted above, if you buy a bike without a (working) sidestand cutoff, you'll need to be very careful to avoid riding off with the sidestand down.
* Make sure the kill switch on the right handgrip stops the engine when it's running. (Dirt bikes will have a kill button on the left handgrip.)
* Batteries are almost always located underneath the seat, though some modern V-twin sportbikes locate it beside the engine, and many dirt bikes and older standard bikes locate it behind a plastic side cover below (or below and slightly behind) the seat.
* Batteries are very hard to test without the appropriate tools, and even then they're kind of mysterious and unpredictable. For our purposes, if the battery starts the bike, it's good. If it doesn't, $50 to replace. Without hearing "good" batteries, it's hard to tell what "good" sounds like, but if the starter's cranking is obviously weak, that's probably a good indication that the battery is too. As noted below (in ENGINE/FLUIDS/CARBURATORS), warm bikes start much easier, so take that into account when making a subjective evaluation of the cranking sound.
* If the bike doesn't have an electric starter (i.e., it's a kick-start), there's no good way to test the battery without examining the lead plates for white sulfide deposits (bad) and checking the specific gravity of the acid with a battery hydrometer. Most auto parts places should carry those; just make sure you get one with a long, thin tube, since most cage ("car") battery hydrometers are too large to fit into bike batteries. On the other hand, if your bike is a kick-start, it doesn't depend on the battery too much, and checking it is less important.
* If the headlight gets brighter as the engine revs, the battery could be discharged (or dead), though it's probably more likely that the voltage regulator is toast. $80-120 for a new one, plus half an hour of labor to install. Don't compare brightness at idle to brightness at 10,000 rpm... compare ~2,500 rpm to ~7,000 rpm.) It's hard to diagnose this problem by headlight brightness alone, but for starters, try charging the battery and repeating the test, or, if that doesn't work, replacing the battery and repeating the test. If it's still getting brighter as revs go up, try testing voltage across the battery at ~3,000 rpm... should be 13.8v or so. Less than 13.2 (or more than 14.4) and you probably have a bad stator (~$300 for a new one, ~$150 to get the old one rewound) or a bad regulator (prices as noted above.) This probably sounds pretty involved, and it probably is, if you don't know what you're doing. You may want to look for a bike that won't require as much work... taking the bike to a mechanic for a professional diagnosis will cost you $50-$100 or so, but will help you make that decision. If you have your heart set on this bike, it's probably worth it; otherwise, it probably isn't.
* Ask the owner how long it's been since the fork seals have been changed (miles and/or years.) They should probably be changed every 15-20k miles. Replacing them is not necessarily a complicated fix, but it is if you don't have the right tools, and most people don't. (Approximately $100 of parts -- fork bushings usually get done at the same time -- and 2-3 hours of labor.) Straddle the bike, grab the front brake, and push down vigorously on the forks. They should go down and come back up with some resistance. Do this a few times. Inspect the chromed fork legs.  They should a) be smoother than a baby's bottom with absolutely no scratches, nicks, or roughness, and b) be utterly and totally devoid of little oil droplets. (Some nicks/scratches/gouges/surface rust can be polished off, but if they can't, new fork legs can be expensive. Have a professional mechanic advise you on what the prognosis is.) If, after bouncing the forks, you see little rings of dirt, that's probably fine, but wipe them off with a rag and bounce the front suspension a couple more times. Not good if you see oil left on the fork legs after you do this.
* Check the steering head bearings and swingarm bearings as mentioned in the section on centerstand checks, below. (If the bike doesn't have a centerstand, you might be able to use a jack or work stand to raise the bike off the ground, but be very careful not to damage a bike that you don't own.)
* The suspension should move up and down almost silently if you bounce it up and down. Clunking or squeaking noises are bad. Binding is very bad. Run away.
* Suspension fluid needs to be changed every year or two, as it tends to break down and thin-out over time. Ask the owner how long it's been since the fork oil has been changed. (The suspension oil in the rear shock of most bikes isn't generally user-serviceable, but should be changed periodically by a professional suspension shop nevertheless.)
* Get someone to stabilize the front of the bike, you stand behind it. Push down on the bike's grab rail (or passenger seat), hard. The bike should spring back up, but with a little resistance. If you don't feel any resistance at all (like you're just pushing down on a spring), it's time to replace the rear shock. (Reasons: either a seal has failed inside the shock, or the oil has broken down so much that it doesn't provide useful resistance.) Around $350 from a dealership, plus 3 hours of labor to install it. If you're not sure if you'd know a blown rear shock if you felt one, don't worry about this one. But do this to all the bikes you look at (including new bikes at dealerships) and you'll know what a rear shock should feel like.
* As noted in HAS IT BEEN CRASHED?, check to make sure the fork tubes are straight (not bent) and parallel (not twisted). Sight down them and pay particular attention to the chrome tubes.
* Look carefully around the circumference of both sides of both wheels and look for dents . Around $100 (each) to get them straightened, plus labor to get them off the bike, the tires off, the tires back on, and them back on the bike. Ugh! It's usually easier to tell if the wheels are dented when they're spinning. So get them up in the air and spin them, if possible. Remember to check both sides. More on wheel damage at the end of this section.
* Check the speedometer/odometer operation... there are two common designs of this system... if the bike has a cable that goes from the front axle (usually on the left side) up into the instrument cluster:
o Get the front wheel off the ground (see CENTERSTAND CHECKS, below), spin the front wheel as fast as you can and see if the speedometer registers anything. If the speedo needle doesn't rise, check to see if the trip odometer's 1/10th mile digit has moved after the wheel has spun for a while. If it hasn't, the speedo is probably disconnected or just doesn't work.
If your bike doesn't have one of these cables off the front axle, the bike's speedometer/odometer is probably keyed off the countershaft (transmission output)...
o Get the rear wheel in the air, start the engine, get the bike into second gear, and let it idle... the speedo needle should rise a bit, and the odometer digits should scroll slowly. If it doesn't, the speedo/odo is disconnected or just doesn't work.
If the speedo/odo doesn't work, it's hard to know how many miles are on the bike, since you don't know how long it hasn't been counting off miles. Run away!
* Again, if you can get the wheels in the air (see CENTERSTAND CHECKS, below), see if the wheels spin freely. Wheels that drag could be either blown wheel bearings or dragging brakes. Some brake drag is normal, so examine this on a number of bikes and you'll know when something is out of the ordinary. (In general, though, wheels spun fairly hard should spin for a couple of seconds before stopping. Rear wheels won't spin as long, since they'll be giving up some of their energy towards overcoming chain/belt/shaft friction.)
* If the bike doesn't have a centerstand, and you're feeling physically up to it, put the bike's sidestand down and pull sideways on the handlebars or the rear sub-frame to get the bike to pivot on the sidestand and lever a wheel up into the air. This is a little dangerous -- it's very easy to drop the bike! -- but not too hard if you've had some practice. It's the only good way to get wheels in the air without a swingarm/front-end stand or a centerstand. It is highly recommended that you have a friend on-hand to help with this.
* If the bike has spoked (rather than cast aluminum "mag") wheels, check to make sure that the spokes are all there and wiggle them to make sure they aren't loose. Loose spokes are a sign of neglect.
o If you can get the wheels into the air, spin them, and hold something rigid against the spokes as they turn -- the handle of a screwdriver works well for this. (Careful not to scratch the spokes -- you don't own the bike yet!) The pinging sounds that the spokes make as they strike this object should sound roughly the same, since, ideally, they're all under the same tension. A change in pitch indicates spokes of different tightness. Easily fixed, but a sign that regular maintenance hasn't been performed.
* Magnesium or carbon-fiber wheels require excruciatingly careful inspection. (And their presence may be a good indication that the bike has been raced.) These types of wheels are extremely lightweight, but they tend to crack rather than bend, and cracks can lead to sudden and catastrophic failure. If you're buying a bike with magnesium or carbon-fiber wheels, spend some extra time examining the wheels to make sure there are no cracks. (Unless the seller tells you that the wheels are magnesium, it'll be hard to tell, since magnesium and aluminum wheels both look the same when they're covered with paint.) Wheels made by "Technomagnesio" or "Marchesini" are likely to be magnesium. Carbon-fiber rims are usually unpainted, as the first law of aftermarket motorcycle parts is, "Thou shalt show off thy pretty carbon fibers whenever possible."
CHAIN/SPROCKETS (and belts)
* Grab the chain at the rearmost point on the rear sprocket (warning: greasy!) and pull backwards. If you can pull it off the sprocket enough to expose half of a sprocket tooth (or more), it's time for a new chain. $100 + an hour of labor to install. Some rust on the side plates of the chain is fine, but the rollers (the round middle part) should be shiny and smooth.
* Sprocket teeth should be absolutely symmetrical -- they'll tend to get hooked as they wear. Look at some of the exposed teeth from the side to check the individual teeth for hooking.  Don't forget to check the front sprocket, too, if visible. (It's often covered.) Hooked teeth = new sprockets. $60 total for two new sprockets, plus an hour or so to install.
* If the chain uses a clip-type masterlink, make sure the clip is still present. (The clip slides over the pins that extend through the sideplate of the masterlink, and is designed to prevent the sideplate from sliding off the pins. They're extremely common in aftermarket chains.) Make sure the closed end of the clip faces toward the direction that the chain rotates (otherwise it's installed improperly and more likely to fall off.)
* If the bike has a centerstand, put the bike in neutral, raise the rear wheel in the air, and you can check the chain condition. By spinning the rear wheel slowly (by hand, never with the engine), you can feel for tight spots and other problems.
o Except, please, for goodness sake, don't stick anything you care about (e.g., your fingers) near a moving chain -- plenty of people can't count to ten anymore because their fingers got mangled when they got pulled into a moving chain and sprockets. Same goes for belts and pulleys (discussed below): fingers and moving parts do not mix -- keep them apart!
Spin the wheel a bit, stop it, check the chain for kinking or tight spots. Spin the wheel a bit more, repeat. Tight spots and kinked/frozen links probably indicate the need for a new chain. If the bike doesn't have a centerstand and you're feeling brave, put the side stand down and have someone lean the bike over so that the sidestand is holding the rear wheel off the ground. (See WHEELS, above.) Then do the aforementioned test of chain smoothness.
* Most riders tend to have their chain set too tightly, massively accelerating chain wear and adversely affecting suspension action. With your friend putting all his/her weight on the seat, the chain should have at LEAST an inch of play at the middle of the bottom of the loop.
* Look for holes (from a crash or from advanced rust.) Sometimes you can hear exhaust leaks, usually as a sort of staccato "chuffing" sound made as exhaust pulses escape through the rust hole.
* Rust on the exhaust is usually on the surface only, and thus merely cosmetic, but advanced rust (older bikes?) may have caused holes in the exhaust pipes, requiring replacement. It is possible to patch holes in exhaust pipes, but it rarely looks good, and it also rarely makes sense -- often the pipes rust in a number of places, not just one. It probably isn't worth it to patch them all, but that's up to you and your local exhaust shop.
* Exhaust pipes are a common aftermarket accessory... see ACCESSORIES, PRICE, and DEALING, below. Loud pipes don't "save lives" (a common motorcycle aphorism), they attract cops. But they also sound nice. : )
* If the bike has more than one exhaust cannister, start the engine and, holding a piece of paper (not your hand) a few inches back from the exhaust tips, feel to see if the pressure coming from each cannister is roughly equal. It should be -- if it isn't, one of the cylinders probably isn't firing. (You don't want to use your hand for this because if the bike backfires, anything behind the exhaust pipes is going to get badly burned.)
* Did the seller warm up the bike before you got there? (See if the engine cases are warm, but they might be hot, so be careful and don't get burned. Engines will stay warm for a couple of hours; exhaust pipes get MUCH hotter much faster but cool quickly.) A pre-warmed engine might have been started & warmed-up to mask cold-starting problems, so this might be a good thing to check first... then you can let the engine cool down as you test other things, and get back to checking the engine after it's had a little more time to cool. In particular, if the bike you're going to look as is a kick-start, make sure you can kick-start the engine when it's cold.
o You'll probably be able to sense heat radiating from a surface before you actually have to touch it, but when touching potentially hot surfaces, use the back of your hand. Your body's reflex reaction to dangerous heat is more likely to pull your hand away if you use the back of your hand. (But don't get into this situation in the first place! Be careful around hot surfaces, or surfaces that might possibly be hot. Use common sense.)
* The engine should start uneventfully (with some choke*, if it's cold) and sound reasonably good. If you hear obviously bad sound like loud clacking sounds or sounds like shaking a coffee can full of marbles, run away and don't look back. The engine should rev smoothly off idle. Don't redline the thing, but after it's fully warmed up, twist the throttle and see what happens. Hesitation & stumbling = carburation problems.* A test ride will help you gague whether or not these will be easy to live with. The throttle grip, when released, should snap closed sharply, no matter how the handlebars are turned. Try turning the bars full-lock left and right, and test cable action at both extremes as well as in the middle. Resistance at the extremes but not in the middle is probably just a cable routing issue. Half an hour of labor -- if that -- to fix. If the cable moves with resistance everywhere, the problem is probably the carbs, not the cables themselves. See below. While the bike is running, and in neutral, turn the bars -- does the engine rev without even twisting the throttle? Cable routing problem. When you give the throttle a little blip with the bars turned all the way, does the engine rev and keep revving? Cable routing problem.
* *=These comments refer to carburated bikes. Some more modern bikes are fuel-injected: instead of carburators, the bike is equipped with throttle bodies and fuel injectors. Fuel-injected bikes sometimes have a "fast idle" lever instead of a choke lever, but some detect the need for an enriched (choked) mixture by computer, and automatically adjust the fuel-injection accordingly. You should not experience any "carburation" problems with a fuel-injected bike, and if you do, they may be harder to correct than on a bike equipped with carburators.
* Some bikes use a fuel pump which may need to build pressure before the bike will start. If you flip the ignition switch to "on" and hear a whirring sound from the gas tank, wait for it to finish before thumbing the start button. (If you don't, and you know the bike has a fuel pump, they're about $100 + 1-2 hours of labor to replace.)
* If the bike has a centerstand, put the rear wheel in the air and try shifting throught the gears to make sure they all engage properly. Don't spin the elevated rear wheel too fast -- if the bike slips off the cenerstand, it'll launch you into next week. Letting the bike idle and clicking through the gears is fine. Always keep the front brake applied when doing this, just in case.
* The oil level should be visible through a sight glass or dip-stick, typically on the right side of the engine. Make sure the level is between the upper and lower edges of the glass (or marks on the stick) when the engine has been off for at least a few minutes and the bike is on level ground. Way too low or too high is very bad, but just outside the range probably hasn't caused any damage. The surface level doesn't have to be right in the middle, but it should be visible through the glass. See below for color analysis. Ask the owner when the oil was last changed. The owner better know. As far as frequency goes, at least every 5k miles or 6 months is fine, and always before storing the bike for a while (e.g., before the winter). (As noted in the section on QUIZZING THE SELLER, this interval only applies for street bikes -- dirt bikes should get oil changes much more frequently.)
* Checking oil color... look through the sight glass. If your bike doesn't have one, you'll need to dip something down into the oil fill-up spot. Either use a dowel or popsicle stick, or roll up a paper towel. Pull it out and look at what color you've got:
o honey-colored: very recently changed (fades to black with time/use)
o black: old oil -- ask owner when it was last changed
o white milky streaks: water is leaking into the oil (see below)
o grey oil: lots of aluminum particles in oil (semi-OK on dirt bike, not OK on street bike)
o shiny metal flecks: run away -- major abnormal engine wear
* If the throttle cable twists with a lot of resistance (and then won't snap closed), there are a couple of possibilities, none of which is really good news:
o The carbs may be hopelessly gunked up with gas and varnish. If the bike won't start, that definitely points to this possibility (rather than either of the next two.) A good carb cleaning will either cost around $200 of shop labor or $5 + 1-3 hours of your time, depending on whether you have a shop do the work or you do the work yourself. (Warning: not for the inexperienced or mechanically faint of heart -- there are lots of small and easily-confused parts -- but if you've done it before, it's not too bad.)
o The handlebar itself may be slightly bent, preventing the twistgrip's throttle tube from sliding well. Look very closely -- sometimes it's hard to tell unless you really scrutinize it (or remove the throttle tube.) Bent handlebars can cost $75 or more to fix, and are a good indication that the bike was crashed and may have other crash damage. Be on the lookout.
o The throttle cables may partially seized, or simply routed improperly. This may mean that the carbs are fine. It's very hard to check while you're visiting a prospective acquisition, but try straightening cables or untwisting them and see if the behavior changes substantially. If straightening them or untwisting them makes them slide a little easier, they're probably routed around the frame the wrong way (hamfisted home mechanic alert!), and they can be fixed fairly easily. If not, new cables will probably run you about $20 each, plus about half an hour of labor to install.
* Some engines use air and oil for cooling, some are water cooled. The comments below about checking the coolant or worrying about coolant in the oil apply only to liquid-cooled models, not to air- or air/oil-cooled models.
* If the oil has a white streaks in it (look at the sight glass) that's water -- beware! Water in the oil could be two things -- condensation from the air in the engine, or a leak in the coolant system that's letting water escape into the lubrication system. (Guess which one isn't so bad and which one is really bad.) Condensation will burn off... let the bike run for a while (20-30 minutes?) and see if the white streaks in the oil are gone. If not, you're probably looking at major engine work to replace gaskets (or worse.) Side note: two-stroke with milky white oil can be repaired much easier than four-stroke engines. ("Two stroke" is an engine configuration, and has nothing to do with how many cylinders the machine has. Two stroke bikes sound just like chainsaws, because chainsaws use two-stroke engines.)
* Check coolant level. Find the radiator overflow bottle, and see if the coolant is between the "high" and "low" lines on the bottle. If you can't find the coolant overflow bottle, trace the thin coolant tube back from the radiator cap assembly -- it almost always goes to the coolant overflow bottle. If the coolant is clear (i.e., it's water) or is a light pink, it may be an indication that the bike has been raced. (Roadracing organizations don't allow the use of antifreeze, so race bikes run with plain water or plain water with a product called WaterWetter that makes the water pink.) This does not apply to dirt racebikes, which will probably have green coolant.
* The coolant itself should be a neon green, not brown or even a murky green-brown. You'll need to remove the radiator cap to check the coolant color, something you never want to do when the engine is still hot. If the radiator cap is hot (be careful!), do not open it -- come back to this step later, when the engine's had time to cool down. If you can safely open it:
o Pure, clear water is bad -- it's at least an indication that the coolant system has been run without corrosion inhibitors, and also an indication that the bike may have been raced.
o Pinkish-tinted water is also a possible indication that the bike has been raced.
o Bright green coolant is good.
o Brown-colored coolant either has rust in it (bad!) or oil in it (bad!). The former indicates that the insides of the engine have started rusting -- run away! Oil in the coolant probably means trouble with the head gasket or the O-rings on the oil cooler (if the bike has one.) Bad head gaskets is Very Bad, failed O-rings is only a little Bad. I'd have a professional mechanic look at the bike so you know which it is. And/or consider giving up and looking at other bikes.
o Finally, no coolant in the radiator is extremely bad -- run away!
* One other head gasket check... You won't notice this unless you spend a fair amount of time with the bike, but a partially blown head gasket will allow the bike to consume coolant over time, which will gradually lower the coolant level in the overflow bottle. It's OK for the bike to emit white smoke out the exhaust pipes as it's warming up, but after it's been running for a while and it's nice & hot, the exhaust gasses should be invisible. White smoke coming from a hot bike is a sign that the head gasket is leaking badly.
* Bikes should not emit blue smoke. White smoke (as mentioned above) is water burning off, blue smoke is oil burning. Why's the oil burning? Either because the bike is a Harley or because its rings and/or valve stem steals are worn out. If the bike emits blue smoke, have a mechanic do a compression test or a leakdown test (see below.) Or give up and look for other bikes.
o Side note: it is very normal for two-strokes to burn oil and thus emit blue smoke, since they're designed to be lubricated by oil mixed into the gasoline. This smoke tends to go away as the two-stroke engine heats up, but they're often called two-smokes for a reason. As noted above, two-strokes will sound like chainsaws.
* Needless to say, I should think, fluids leaking from the engine are a Bad Thing. Probably just new gaskets, but possibly worse. If you don't feel qualified to decide, I'd recommend having a mechanic give you his/her opinion, or simply giving up on the leaker.
* Engine compression: engines are basically air pumps, and must seal tightly to work well. Engines that don't seal well will be hard to start, will burn oil (blue smoke), and will have reduced power and fuel economy. Old engines will tend to exhibit this more than low-mileage ones, but young engines that have been abused may also have low compression numbers. Unless you know what you're doing, have a shop do a compression test on the bike. It's not a critical test, but it might give you some evidence one way or the other if you suspect that the bike may have been abused.
o Dirt bikes and some older street bikes have kick-starters that enable you to spin the engine directly. So even if you don't have a compression tester, you can at least test to see if you can feel some compression. If you spin the engine with the kick-starter and feel it get substantially harder to spin at certain points (almost like there there's a "tight spot") -- that's good: what you're feeling is compression. If you spin the engine with the kick-start lever and it doesn't really feel like there's a tight spot, the engine is probably suffering from a serious lack of compression. Run away, or, if you have your heart set on it, have the bike checked out by a shop!
2007 BMW 335i (Jet Black)
2011 Subaru WRX STI (Satin White Pearl)
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