7 Red Flags To Watch for When Buying a Used Motorcycle

Lisse, The Netherlands - April 20, 2011: Harley Davidson Softaile Deluxe motorcycle in meadow.
pidjoe / Getty Images

Harley-Davidson recently reported that worldwide sales of its motorcycles (excluding its LiveWire electric cycles) declined in the third quarter in all regions and were down 16% year-over-year. However, brands like BMW Motorrad, Ducati, Honda and Piaggio have posted significant growth so far this year, according to Autoweek.

In fact, the pandemic boosted ridership in many cities around the globe as socially distanced rides became all the rage. Motorcycles have always been an economical and flexible option for riders, and many are still enthusiastically buying new and used models in 2023.

When buying a used motorcycle from a dealer or a private seller, it’s essential to look out for red flags to ensure that you’re getting a reliable and safe vehicle. Here are seven red flags to watch for:

1. Frame

The frame is the backbone of a bike, holding all its components and impacting performance. It’s also the only non-replaceable part and needs to carry the weight of the engine and the rider. As such, it has to be remain free of any signs of damage, corrosion, rust or bends. If you see damage at the swingarm, front forks and engine mount, steer clear of the bike. Also, per Motofomo, “One of the hardest things to figure out is if it has been crashed before, and one important thing to do is to check motorcycle frame alignment before dropping coin.”

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2. Engine (and Fluids)

One of the most important, if not the most important part of a bike is the engine. According to Nationwide, you need to be stubborn when checking for cracked cases, leaks from the engine and transmission and smoke from the exhaust. A compression test will give you lots of information about piston and valve seals and a test ride will tell you a lot more overall than you think. A chopping ride or hesitant or inconsistent idling may signal bigger problems.

Any fluid leaks are also cause for concern, and cleanliness of fluids (particularly oil) should be checked to see that they are clean and not mixed with other fluids.

3. Chain

According to RumbleOn, the chain will tell you if a previous owner took proper care of the motorcycle you’re looking to buy. An eye test for chain and chain drive rust will give you a good indication of past maintenance, but you should be examining the teeth and sprockets as well.

4. Brakes

Bad brakes are replaceable but should still be tested when buying a used motorcycle. You need to know if you have control in a braking scenario. According to CycleTrader, red flags for used motorcycle brakes include a spongy feel, wear past the limit indicator line and disc warpage or gouges.

5. History

You can try to look up a motorcycle’s history and collision records on Carfax, but their records for cycles aren’t as extensive as other websites specializing in motorcycles. Once you locate the vehicle identification number (VIN), enter it at VINFreeCheck or VINCheck, and you’ll get a free report that includes collision reports, detailed history records, odometer readings, market value, specs and previous functions. If you can’t get any historical information online or from the seller, it’s probably a good idea to pass on the bike.

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6. Mileage

Even the best-maintained motorcycles will eventually give out. Unless it’s had a ride through the fountain of youth (or you’re buying a junker), the consensus is that any used ride with over 50,000 or 60,000 miles on it should be accompanied with a recent checkup from the seller.

7. Price

There’s a reason the old adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” is so overplayed. All used cycles have average prices for makes and models. A good rule is to check with Kelley Blue Book or the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) first. Finding a great deal is always the goal, but finding a discount of over 30% should make you suspicious, per Cararac.com.

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