That Used Moto Guide
Last post, I talked about things you should be thinking about when purchasing a moto.
In this second installment, we’re gonna talk about things to look out for when checking out used motos and strategies to not get scammed. There’ll be some homework, so understand the basic terms of this post before you get out there and screw yourself over. I’ll share my own moto buying experiences and take a trip down memory lane to see if my former self actually followed the advice that I would have given (does that even make sense?).
Recall in my last post, those three questions I wanted you to ask yourself. They’re reposted below for your convenience. I assume you’ve thought about this nice and hard, destroyed a couple of websites, and annoyed the hell out of your friends with your introspective existence.
At this moment in time, given your life circumstances, what kind of moto does your gut tell you that you want?
The moto is only as dangerous as you are … so, how responsible and respectful are you?
Is the moto and the cost of decent gear in your budget?
Looking back, my answers probably would have been:
Sport bike. Something relatively cool looking.
No conception of where my skills were (novice), and was recommended by a trusted moto mentor that I go with a 250cc moto. I didn’t want a cruiser. So that meant a sport bike (because I didn’t know the exact differences or names of naked motos, streetfighter motos, dual sport motos, or moto-cross motos.
My budget was pretty small when I was looking for a moto - around $2,000, and I didn’t even factor in the cost of proper gear. A helmet, jacket, gloves, and earplugs were the only items I was shooting for.
Well shit. Looks like it’s amateur hour. All that preaching in the last post and my former self couldn’t even get half of it right. But that’s fine. I screwed it up. I’m here to help you not screw it up.
My first bike purchase was abso-fucking-lutely hilarious, in a bad, super-unprepared sort of way. I didn’t really know anything about motos, so it was a rather tumultuous experience. But no fear, you shall know something more than nothing at the end of this post, and hopefully, you can nix “tumultuous” as an adjective to your first moto purchasing experience.
I was in the market for 250s, but I didn’t specify what year - just a Kawasaki Ninja 250 that worked. I eventually found a 2007 model in Downtown Los Angeles, but was unable to look at it till after work. The Craigslist guy volunteered to ride the moto over since I wasn’t confident enough to moto around in the city or on the freeway yet.
When he arrived, he rolled on in and my friend immediately noticed that he smelled of gas and body odor. Weird. The moto seemed okay. The tires were a little worn, the chain was a little dirty, and there were some minor scratches here and there. I wasn’t too thrilled about the square old-timey lookin’ headlight, but the moto was operable - after all, he did ride it over. He turned the engine on again after shutting it off, and things seemed to start up fine.
The guy was honest and told me he low-sided on the left side at 10 miles per hour. Damages included some minor fairing scratches and a banged up turn signal. Despite the less than stellar condition, the title was clean, in the guy’s hand, and there were no outstanding liens on the bike. The asking price was $1800. I got it down to $1650, citing wear and tear and the potential costs of bringing it back up to prime condition. The deal was sealed.
Let’s stop here for a second, and walk through every sentence of that story above and see what we can learn from it. No need to take notes, I’ll provide a detailed checklist.
“I didn’t specify what year.”
Bitch, did you (former me) even READ the last post? Specify the year(s), make(s), and model(s) of the moto(s) that you want.
“but was unable to look at it until after work … “
It is true that Craigslist offers go fast, and missing out on good ones because of work sucks. If you can’t get out of work without getting fired, then don’t. Do not give up your job for a Craigslist post. I’ve combated this by reaching out with a clear, professional message that you are a willing and able buyer who is interested in what he/she has to offer, and clear dates and times on when you are able to meet. The majority of Craigslist buyers just reach out and say, “yo can I check your shit out?” and then proceed to not fucking show up.
Craiglist, believe it or not, is a place for simple business transactions. Be a professional. Establish relationships through clear messaging and negotiate. I’ve had Craiglist sellers explicitly tell me that they want to show me a moto before anyone else (even though I was not first to respond) because I didn’t sound like a pompous prick when reaching out. Obviously, it’s not guaranteed. A non-pompous prick who checks it out first and makes an offer before another non-pompous prick will probably have the upper hand.
“the Craigslist guy volunteered to ride the moto over … he turned the engine on again and things seemed to start up fine … “
Do not ever, and I say this again, do not ever, let someone ride the moto to you. No. Just don’t do it. This is because when the moto gets to you, it’s hot. You have no way to know if it has issues cold-starting (especially for carbureted motos).
If you’re not comfortable moto-ing on the freeway, or moto-ing through the city, make/find a friend who can, or make truck arrangements to bring it to your place. I’m very adamant about this, because the next segment of my story deals with this shit.
“I wasn’t confident enough to moto in the city or on the freeway yet … “
Number three sort of covered this, but damn, come on - have some confidence. You gotta get out there at some point, right? I must admit though, first time freeway moto-ing is a little frightening, so taking local roads might be an alternative. Bring a good driver friend to drive behind you if you really got the willies (so you have some friend buffer if you stall out). Or just grab your junk and wring it out on the freeway (safely, of course). The best option would be to have an experienced moto-er come and look at the moto with you, and then ride it home for you.
“smelling of gas … tires were a little worn … chain was a little dirty … low-sided on the left side at 10 miles an hour … “
Gas? Not a good sign. Could be whatever (oh I just spilled some gas) or really bad (leaking fuel line).
Tires are worn, fine - but that’s a ~$300 service cost, parts and labor.
Chain was a little dirty? Really? This is simple maintenance.
Downed at a low speed? This is a little concerning. Is the damage simply cosmetic, or are the steering inputs (handlebars) bent?
Take notes. These are details that give you the initial impression about the moto and how the owner has taken care of it or neglected it. Do not be afraid to ask the owner a question, and specifically tell him/her to be honest with you. This is your life on the line (and your cash).
“I wasn’t too thrilled about the square old-timey lookin’ headlight.”
If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Is it a deal breaker for you? Not “ehh maybe” - YES, or NO. If you’re sitting on the fence, you’ve got fence up your ass, and that ain’t fun.
“the title was clean and in the guy’s hand, and there were no outstanding liens on the bike.”
Good and good. The safest and best way is always the official DMV title in the seller’s hand, and not having to deal with liens. 1
Check the seller’s name on the title against the seller’s drivers license name and check the the moto VIN number (on the steering neck and/or frame) against the title’s VIN number. Also check that the written odometer recording is the same as the odometer reading on the actual moto. Everything on the title should match up correctly with official identification, VERBATIM. Get a copy of his/her license for backup.
There should be no bullshit about “oh, it’s my brother’s bike, I’m selling it for him.” Nope. Seller should be the name on the title otherwise he/she does not have the right to sell the bike.
Make sure they (one or both owners) sign the front middle of the title where it says to sign over their rights as owner. The lienholder needs to sign the front bottom right as well - if the title is clean and in hand, there is no lienholder. There will also be an initial area for confirmation that the odometer readings match. On the back, you’ll sign the title in the new owner section (on the back). You can prep a separate bill of sale to confirm the transaction as well, but the title is most important.
“The asking price was $1800. I got it down to $1650”
Always negotiate. Any parts that are worn, in need of service, or not in prime condition are cost burdens on you, which are reasons to drop the price.
Aftermarket parts and special things they added to moto do not increase its value. Crazy nice exhaust ($1000), fancy rearsets ($300), shorty levers ($200) and tidy tail ($200), does not mean the moto is worth $1800 more. In fact, the moto is worth what the moto is worth if it was stock, plus the depreciation in value over time.
This is a rather subjective topic - this is not to say that certain mods may be valuable for others (luggage, comfortable seat, heated grips), but the seller should never expect to get 100% of what they spent back.
“my friend noticed … “
If you can, bring a trusted friend who knows anything about motos. If you don’t have a friend who knows about motos, bring a trusted friend who doesn’t know anything about motos. Half the game is reading the other person, so two intuitions are better than one. If you’re in the Bay Area and have neither of those, I’m down to help. PM me.
After the guy left, I discovered that the moto wouldn’t hold an idle after it was cold-started. You can imagine my horror and disappointment. As I said before, this is the reason why you shouldn’t let someone ride it to you.
The road to getting the poor little Ninja to start was paved in hell. As I delved further into the problem, I discovered that there were numerous mechanical problems that could be the culprit of an idling-sick moto. Could it be the battery? (haha no) Idle screw adjustments? (maybe) Crappy air filter? (maybe) Dirty-ass carburetors? (maybe) Valves that were too tight? (maybe). I was completely out of my depth (definitely).
I did not have the tools nor the experience to diagnose the problem. I had Google, and everything seemed plausible since I couldn’t take apart the damn thing. Needless to say, this was a headache a first-time moto-er wants to avoid.
At the time, I was a recent graduate from UCLA and there was a school motorcycle association called the “Bruin Motorcycle Association” (BMA). I crawled onto the forums requesting help. A friendly BMAer (let’s call him “M” - if you’re reading this, HI! :D) offered his mechanical help, a definitively cheaper alternative than professional services. It was a chance to see the insides of my moto, make a friend, and have an engineering learning experience. The cost? Some time, beers, and snacks.
Because the moto was unable to hold an idle, M and I isolated the problem to dirty carburetors or out-of-spec valve clearances. Everything else was ruled out along the way. In order to get to the carburetors and valves, we had to take everything out, which meant a thorough check of the idle screws, choke operation, and air filter cleanliness. The carburetors seemed okay, but since we were poking around already, we took them apart, cleaned them, and then moved onto adjusting the valve clearances using spacers.
The work was grueling. Both of us were logical, problem-solving individuals, but we were not professional motorcycle mechanics - we lacked hours upon hours of experience solving moto problems, so even if we identified the problem, there was no 100% guarantee that our handiwork was on point. I’d like to think we were doing an above average job. Five hours of hunched over tinkering, ratchet-clickity noises, and a couple of beers later, the golden time had arrived. The moto was put back together, and the ignition was thrown.
That beautiful engine noise!
Sadly, it lasted for all of three seconds. It died shortly after, succumbing to the same problem as before. It would start, but it wouldn’t hold the idle. Out of desperation, we tried running-push-starting it, even though it wasn’t a battery or engine starting problem. Still no dice. It seemed that the only thing I got that day was a disappointing workout, supplemented with a firm stomp in my moto dreams.
At this point, it was time for professional help. May I remind you, your first experience with a moto should not be like this. You want, at least, a couple of months of solid riding before you have to deal with something like starting or idling issues. Ideally. Even though I eventually got it fixed, I had this slight fear everytime I hit that starter button. “Will it start?” is not the question you want to entertain everytime you prepare to moto.
I finally took the poor Ninja to a shop in West Los Angeles where the kind professionals there said the valves were completely out of spec, to the point that even they had a hell of a time getting it back to working order. That cost me somewhere around $400 dollars to fix. All that headache to stay under my budget range, and I still passed the maximum with flying colors. I also still hadn’t purchased gear.
Don’t be like me. Take a breath. You’ll get to moto soon. It’s important to use your senses obtain and interpret data about the moto and the owner. Be organized, and use a checklist so you can be mentally free. Check it out below; by no means is this exhaustively comprehensive.
Before you even start …
Be patient in your search.
Bring a friend, knowledgeable or not.
Set a mutual location with enough time to comfortably check the moto.
Be courteous, clear, and honest in your Craigslist messaging.
Use a (or this) checklist. Bring a pen for notes and a flashlight to see.
Check your emotions at the door.
Before you even go and check out the moto …
The owner should have the clean title, in his/her name, in his/her hand.
The moto must be viewable in person.
Take notes on what you can see in provided pictures. Ask for more if you have the time to do so.
Kindly ask the owner to not start the moto because you would like to check if it has issues starting cold.
Upon arriving …
Be courteous. Thank the owner for taking the time to meet. Let em’ know that you’ll be asking questions and checking out the condition of the moto.
Ask to see the clean title. If he/she lied about having it in hand, or if it’s a salvage title when they claimed it was clean, or if it’s on lien, leave. 2
Check that the owner’s full name is on the moto title and the owner’s drivers license. They should match, verbatim. If not, they are not legally allowed to sell the moto. Leave.
Check that the VIN number on the moto title and the VIN number on the moto frame match, verbatim. If not, the moto could be stolen. Leave.
Check the VIN number on the DMV website.
Check that the start mileage on the title and purported gained mileage makes sense with the current odometer reading.
Example: Title shows 5,500 miles when the owner got the moto, he/she is selling it a year later and the odometer reads 11,000 miles. Sounds reasonable.
Example: Title shows 5,500 miles when the owner got the moto, he/she is selling it a year later and the odometer reads 35,000 miles. Still sounds reasonable (and a whole hell of alot of mileage ridden … ).
Example: Title shows 5,500 miles when the owner got the moto, he/she is selling it a year later and the odometer reads 5,750 miles. 250 miles in one year = moto has been sitting around, not running. Be on the lookout for “moto-sitting-around-for-too-long” issues.
Example: Title shows 5,500 miles when the owner got the moto, he/she is selling it a year later and the odometer reads 5,000 miles. What the …… leave.
If you sign, make sure they owner signs the front middle, bottom right, and initials the odometer reading. You sign the back. Look it over CAREFULLY. TWICE.
Get a feel of the honesty, values, and tenacity of the owner. This will be more of a gut check. If anything feels off, shifty, or puts your safety at risk, leave.
When inspecting the moto, check …
your general feeling of the condition of the moto. If the whole damn thing is just shifty and falling apart, leave.
the frame and general look of the moto. If it is not symmetrical and has structural issues, leave.
for signs of a crash.
parallel scratches/cracks along the side, high and low (downed at speed).
non-parallel scratches/cracks along the side, high and low (downed while standing).
mismatched/missing parts, a mix of old and new parts that may or may not align (downed and replaced).
bent parts (downed and not replaced).
decals that should be there but aren’t (downed and replaced).
that the moto turns on, and the electronics work.
cold start the bike; make sure the choke for carbureted bikes is used properly for a cold start. If it doesn’t start up and you didn’t bring a truck, leave.
right after starting, the oil light should turn on, then off after a short period of time (moto-ing on low oil pressure can result in engine damage).
neutral gear should be lit when the moto is in neutral.
headlights should stay at the same intensity when revving the engine; if not, there is an alternator problem.
check high beam headlights, turn signals, passing lights, and the horn.
the kill switch should work.
sidestand cutoff should work if the moto has it; put the moto in first gear with the sidestand down, and it should kill the engine.
that the key fits/turns in the ignition, gas tank, and seat trunk.
While the moto is idling …
check idle RPMs; it should be stable from ~1500-2500 RPMs (depending on the moto), and should not be jumping all over the place.
put the moto in neutral, and rev the engine lightly. You’re looking for …
smooth throttle action.
quick snap-back when releasing the throttle.
even vibration (put your hand on the tank and feel the revs).
a healthy exhaust noise.
check that exhaust is evenly exiting out of all exhaust pipes.
Sit on the moto and …
bounce up and down. You should not hear any terrible noises from the suspension.
test the front and rear brake separately. Squeeze and try and move the bike forward and backward. You should also not hear any terrible noises from the brakes.
Whip out your flashlight and …
check the front and rear brake pads. If they’re below 50%, they need to be replaced.
check the brake fluid color. Most clean brake fluid is light yellow. If it is amber in color (like regular grade A honey), it needs to be replaced.
check the clutch cable. If it is worn and shows signs of fraying, it needs to be replaced.
check out the front forks. Fork legs should be smooth, no abnormalities, no oil droplets. If not, new fork seals or forks may be in order, which is costly.
check the engine oil level and color (look in the sightglass or dab the dipstick on a napkin).
check the chain. Should be clean, have no kinks, and be snug (not loose, not tight).
check the sprockets. Should not look like shark teeth. Each tooth should have even wear on both sides.
check the tires. If the wear indicator is or is almost showing, or if the center of the tire is flat and the edges have tread, or if the center of the tire has tread and the ends are flat, or if there are minute cracks along the treads in the tire, the tires need to be replaced.
check the exhaust for rust and holes.
If the owner allows you to test ride the moto …
do it, if you’re confident you won’t drop the thing, because a test ride is much more telling about the moto in action than inspection itself.
check that the clutch works.
check that the throttle is smooth.
run through all the gears.
feel if there is any off-balance or weird vibrating going on.
feel if you’re comfortable.
If the owner does not allow you to test ride the moto …
ask the owner to fire it up and ride it around.
listen and observe.
Straight up look in the owner’s eyes and ask the him/her to be honest with you …
Why are you selling your bike?
Has the bike ever been dropped or crashed?
Are there any major damage / issues that I should know about?
Do you have the motorcycle’s service history and manual?
Is there any reason I shouldn’t buy this bike, for my safety or maintenance wise? Anything I should know? Be honest.
If you’ve taken good notes on the condition, you’ll know what to highlight here in terms of things that need replacing, cosmetics or damage that you feel you’ll need to fix up before moto-ing, and the worthiness of the moto. 3
Aftermarket parts or performance parts or fancy-schmancy parts do not make a moto any more valuable.
The checklist is long. It is an involved process. I’ve done my very best to distill my experiences and knowledge, break it down chronologically for you, and revealing immediate stop points for purchasing if something doesn’t check out. For me, the short-list below would have made my life a helluvalot easier:
Play your own game. Do not give into any kind of pressure from the seller. If anything is not clear, you fucking ask them to tell you straight up until you understand what exactly is going on. There will always be a good deal, somewhere, sometime. Walking away is not a failure, just experience.
Make logical, reasonable decisions based on data you have observed. If you’re not comfortable in any way with the answers or observations you have received, make the objective decision to say “no.” Leave your excitement and emotions at home.
Can the proper, legitimate ownership be transferred immediately? If not, just leave. The repercussions of dealing with a fraudulent, dishonest owner and his/her debt/bullshit is not something you want to do.
Is the moto safe to ride, and are there major issues preventing that from happening? If not, and you’re not looking for a project moto, then … no.
Take this checklist and research major parts (fairings, pegs, levers, easily damaged parts) and service costs (fluid changes, oil changes, tires, engine repair). This will help you estimate costs and specify exact prices in your negotiation.
Go find your perfect moto!
Next installment will have more on liens n’ shit. Avoid dealing with it if you don’t want complications. ↩︎
Technically, you can proceed here if you know what you’re doing, but leaving because of a lien is for the least amount of hassle - more details in the next installment. ↩︎
A next-next installment post? about negotiating moto prices and a breakdown of service costs that you can cite, if the owner sucked at doing maintenance. ↩︎