Do your research
Before you put any motorcycle through its paces, read magazine articles, website reviews and visit online enthusiast discussion forums to glean information about that model’s idiosyncrasies. For example, a BMW boxer drains the lifters when it’s shut off, so it may make quite a racket when it starts up. If you didn’t know that beforehand, you could walk away from a perfectly fine motorcycle.
Match the VINs
The VIN on the frame should match the VIN on the engine, and both should match the VIN on the title. If there’s a discrepancy, there should be a very good reason. If not, walk away.
Check the maintenance records
Sure, these can be fudged, but when you buy a used motorcycle, you have to accept that you must rely on some level of trust. If these don’t exist, ask for a verbal account of maintenance history.
Examine tire wear
Look for cupping and make sure there's at least 1/16 of an inch of tread. Check the tire pressure while you’re down there. Improperly inflated tires may hint at lazy maintenance habits elsewhere.
Test for excessive bearing play
Ask the seller to put the bike up on the centerstand. Gently tug on the fork tubes front to back, feeling for play in the steering head. Also feel for movement in the front and rear wheels and side-to-side action in the swingarm. Basically, any play is bad and a safety hazard.
Check the steering head lock
Does it work? Use the key and find out for yourself, but just as important, look for any signs of damage or excessive wear. Has it been replaced or repaired? If so, the bike may have been stolen at one time.
Examine the air filter
It should be clean and properly installed. Consider a zero-tolerance policy. Dirt in the engine is a very bad thing. Also, is the airbox intact? Extra holes (punchouts) could be fine (as long as they are outside the filter), but ask the seller why they were performed.
Check all fluid levels
Discolored brake fluid, low coolant levels and dirty (or gray) oil are all bad signs. Don’t forget that some bikes have separate crankcase and transmission oil—and two dipsticks.
Perform a visual once-over
Look for any obvious mechanical issues—loose or missing fasteners, fluid leaks, pitting in fork tubes, rust in the fuel tank, cable continuity, chain play, sprocket condition, cracked wiring insulation, etc.
Perform another visual once-over
This time, focus on cosmetics with an eye toward identifying crash signs. Look for inconsistencies in paint shade or texture. Cracks in plastic or fiberglass may be invisible from the outside but obvious from the inside. Use a flashlight and check all the cracks and crevices. Examine footpegs and sidecases for scrapes. Do the control levers appear extra shiny? Ask why and when they were replaced.
Operate all controls
Test the brakes, operate the clutch and take note of sufficient play, shift gears, flip the turn signals, beep the horn, etc. If a test ride is not allowed, then put the bike on the centerstand and do a "dry run."
If the seller isn’t hip to a test ride, don’t get too discouraged. Many motorcycles have gone out for test rides and have not come back. But, by all means, start the bike. Put at least four of your senses to work: listen for odd noises, look for smoke, smell for burnt oil or coolant, feel for heavy vibrations. Throttle response should be crisp off idle and significantly more smoke should not accompany more throttle.
Get out the toolbox
At the least, check air pressures (tires, and forks and shocks, if applicable). If you’re so equipped and mechanically able, test the resistance of the electrics with a multimeter, brake disc thickness with a micrometer, and cylinder compression with a compression tester.
Are extras included?
Extras you want can make the deal sweeter. If the bike has aftermarket parts you don't want, see if the owner will take them off and lower the price. Ask for any stock equipment that was replaced with aftermarket parts. And don’t forget the tool kit.
“Is this the bike I want?”
Often, what looks great in photographs and sounds great in website reviews, falls flat in person. Even if the bike itself is sound, if the model didn’t stand up to its lofty rep, go back to the drawing board. This is your last chance.
Don’t just meet the asking price without trying to get a better deal. Every item you found wrong is a negotiating point. You may get nowhere, but you might save a few hundred bucks, too. And never forget the power of these seven words: “Is that the best you can do?’”
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