Buying a Used Motorbike

international motorcycle dealer and supplier 2

Before we go into the bike and the checks, the first thing we should be looking at is budget! Don’t blow all your hard earned cash on a bike before you have an idea of how much the rest is going to cost you. Once you take into account how much the tax, insurance, MOT, bike gear and service costs then you have an idea of how much you have to spend on a bike. Don’t skimp out on gear! If you do have an off you’re going to need that and if you’re new to riding the chances of you coming off or being brought off are much higher.

So now you have an idea about what budget you have we can look at where you’re going to get the bike from and the pros and cons of each one.

From a Dealership

rocket centre

A dealership is a professional bike seller that has a bike brand attached to their business. The business may be the Rocket Centre but they are also an authorised KTM dealer for example.

  • You have the comfort here of knowing that KTM have checked the business out before you and found that they meet the standards they want to attach their brand to.
  • You have legal rights attached to any purchase that you make.
  • There is far more chance that the business is going to be around for a long time.
  • There will have easy finance options to sell the bike.
  • There will be the option to trade your old bike against the new bike.
  • You’re going to pay more for the bike than you would in a private sale.

From a Dealer

orrell park motorcycles

This is normally the same as above, depending on the quality of the business you’re going to. They will not have been checked by a brand but they will have more makes to sell you. You do need to look into the business a bit more. Like how long have they been trading and are they dealing in the ‘lower end’ of the market. How does their set up look, is the office a mouldy port-a-cabin on the back of some estate. This could mean that at any moment they could pack up, change name and open up around the corner and all your consumer rights just flew out the window.

There are some great dealers out there, honest and hard working dealers and they will tend to be the ones that are established and will have reviews from customers and decent facilities as above but without the brand endorsement. 

Private Sale

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This is your ebay and auto trader type options. Just someone looking to sell their bike but it does open a host of questions and you need to be on your game more.

The good thing is your going to be paying less than the dealer as the private seller does not need to maintain the overheads that the dealers do. The bad thing is that you have far less rights on this one and much of the deal is down to you knowing what you’re doing in many respects.

With a private sale you should always view the bike at their home address. By home address I’m talking about the address where the V5 registered too and matches the address on the driving licence. If they want to meet you in Asda car-park in the evening because they just finished work or any other reason – walk away!

Auction house

 cat fight 1200

You can pick up a real bargain here but the fact that you’re reading about it for the first time in a buyer’s guide should SCREAM to you that you are not ready for an auction sale! You have no rights at all and the bike is bought as seen there and then. You will be up against dealers and if you’re the only one bidding on a bike... there’s a reason!

The Checks


The same with most things in life I’m afraid, you start with the paperwork before even looking at the bike and if the paperwork does not come up to scratch – walk away. This should be firmly in your mind every time you’re looking at a bike be ready and willing to walk away.

Have a good look at the V5, hold it up to the light and check for the DVL watermark.

v5 watermadkIf it is a private sale then ask to see the driving licence and check the address matches where you are and the V5 registered keeps name and address. Make sure the serial number on the V5 isn’t between BG8229501 to BG9999030, or BI2305501 to BI2800000. If it is, the V5C might be stolen - call the police as soon as it’s safe to do so. Most new V5s are now red but some older ones may not be.

Have a look at the VIN (vehicle identification number) and the engine number. They should obviously match the numbers on the bike. Check the rest of the details about make, model and colour etc and that they all match what you’re looking at when you look at the bike.

motorcycle vin number breakdown

Does it have any finance on it? If the bike has finance on it then it’s not their bike, the bike is held as collateral against the load and the loan company can and will claim that bike back if you buy it. You can have an HPI check done on the bike for a small fee and well worth the few pounds for a check.

Is the bike stolen? This will normally be part of the fee in the HPI check.

There are some checks that you can do for free of course –

If the bike is insured then it should be on the MiB database:

You must ask the owner to do this by law under the Data Protection Act, as you are not allowed to do the check – of course if they won’t – walk away.

You can check on the DVLA site that will let you know:

  • Vehicle make 
  • SORN or not. SORN is just a Statutory Off Road Notification and means the bike is not taxed. This is not uncommon as some riders put their bikes away during the colder months and only tax the bike for 6 months (pussies!).
  • Date of first registration 
  • Year of manufacture 
  • Cylinder capacity
  • COâ‚‚Emissions 
  • Fuel type 
  • Vehicle status 
  • Vehicle colour 
  • Vehicle type approval 
  • Wheelplan 
  • Revenue weight 

Checking the Bike

Once you’re happy that bike is legal then we can start checking it to see how it is. It’s a good idea to know what kind of price you should be paying and you can get a good idea for free here:

If you’re not up to speed and wouldn’t know a swing arm from a monoshock if it fell on your head then take a mate that does know. If you don’t have a mate, join a forum and ask – also you can use this guide!

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General Appearance

Impact points on bikes tend to be the same for the most part. Have a look at the foot pegs, the end of the handlebars, ends of levers, the exhaust and around the engine case or engine bars for scuffs and gouges. If the tank has problems with damage then it could be a sign of something more serious than a drop. Check the hand guards, if they look spanking new and the ends of the handlebars look spanking new and the rest of the bike looks ‘a bit tired’ ask about it. Have a look at the front mud guard and all over for anything that looks more serious than cosmetic scratches.


Got plastic – then it should be even fitting. If you have a smooth seam at one side and few mill gap on the other then it has either been taken off and put back on by a blind cobbler or it may have had a prang.

Looking for corrosion and white crystal deposits are normally caused by salt and that stuff just eats a bike from the inside out. If there is a lot of area you can’t see you may want to have look under the fairing with a torch.

The seat should fit the bike and not move around! Make sure that the key you have and you should have ALL the keys, open the lock and removes the seat. Also have a look down the seams to ensure none are broken and no rips. The main reason here is that water gets in and most seats are foam. Meaning you’re now sat on a wet sponge and for days after the rains you get a cold and wet backside! So you’re going to have to replace the seat.


Your front suspension system and they should be straight and even down the sides of the wheel. The metal should be smooth and void of issues. You can sit on the bike and bounce the front down a few times and it should come back with little resistance. Have a look again and see if you can see any oil rings on the metal. If you can then odds are the forks are leaking and will need doing. If the forks have not been done then it’s also an indicator that the owner may not have bothered with other checks. This should of all been covered in the service history and you can see now why a full service history is valued so much. Look also on the forks for pitted rust holes. If there are some then you’ll be forever replacing the fork seals.

Ask when the fluid was last changed and then have a good bounce of the rear of the bike. There should be no noise from this, any squeaking or grinding is a bad sign. You may not know from feel how a rear suspension should feel and an easy way is to have a go on some new bikes in a dealership. Just getting the feel for how the bike should respond and what ‘some’ resistance will give you a better idea when out looking at a used bike.

Of course have a look at the rear suspension. If you’re looking at a mono shock then is it under a guard sock or is there a protection plate between the back wheel and the shock. Look for damage and leaks as well as corrosion. You’re going to need a torch for this and I have in the past taken a small mirror – sounds pedantic I know but shelling out a load of cash because you didn’t look will make you feel less bothered about being pedantic. 


A very simple one and should be part of your initial start up checks anyway. Do they all work, do the switches move freely and smoothly or are they loose in the fittings. Do not forget to check the brake light with both the hand lever and the foot brake. Use a reflection to see the light change or if need be, dangle a glove over the back and look for the red light glow on the palm of the glove. This is also why it’s a lot easier if you take a mate with you.


What type of brakes are you looking at? Disc or drum and ask when the pads last got changed. But the brakes do not stop at the pads! You need to check the hoses to look for leaks or holes. Have a good look at the disc for score marks where the pads have not been changed in time.

Check the fluid and ask when it was last changed.

Get on the bike and let it roll forward as you squeeze on the front brake. The bike should stop! This should be smooth and easy with little noise, if the bike has been laid up for some time then you may get dust and dirt that makes a slight grind but only slight – give it another go and if it sounds rough then further inspection is required. When you let the brake off it should come off fully, there should be no resistance in neutral with the brake off – is there any dragging? How far does the lever come back before you felt the brake engage? Fully back could mean the line needs adjusting on the lever or perhaps the pads are worn right down.  If you can pull the lever all the way back and still move... well.

Back brake should be the same and applied smoothly to a full  and solid halt then come fully off when the foot lever is released. With the drum brake there should be a wear indicator and you can check this to see if the pads are worn out. Warping; this is the discs and often you can’t tell with the naked eye, if you can – they’re screwed! What you will feel is a pulsing as you part apply the brakes or a shuddering at higher speeds.


A basic check is to start the bike and pull in the clutch, drop the bike in first and then roll it forward – it should feel like neutral but a little stiffer. Let the clutch out slowly and feel for the bite and see how far the lever comes away before you have the bite. It may need to be adjusted but it depends on what type of clutch you’re looking at. I’m not going to go into wet clutch, dry clutch and the big bore hydraulic clutch – just the basics of where the bite comes in and that the engine is disengaged when you pull the lever in.


If you’re not buying a classic old BSA or something then nothing should be dripping out of anything! It’s as simple as that – anything leaking is broken and could be very expensive to fix.


Petrol Tank

I know the odd one is diesel now and even electric, so don’t stand there looking for the tank on an electric bike eh! Check the key works with little resistance and the cap comes up some. Put the torch light in the tank and look for sediment or rust – give the bike a bit of a rock to stir up any nasty crap that may be in the tank – it’s not the end of the world but it does mean you could be spending a lot of time flushing and cleaning the fuel system.

Damage – we looked at that before and depending on the bike you’re going for, here I’m talking mainly about dual sport bikes, a dent on the tank is really not a good sign for road use. It could be in our community a drop, because if the terrain is off tarmac then a rock, tree etc could be the cause of the dent as it defeats the crash bars and the handlebars.


How old are those tyres? Next to, or near the size is the DOT code which indicates that the tyre conforms to the United States Department Of Transport regulations, and following this will be four digits molded in a separate rectangle. This is the date code, and it shows when the tyre was made. A tyre marked “2113″ was made on the 21st week of 2013, and this information is very important as a tyre has a shelf life of around 6 years, although this can vary depending on how the tyre is stored with things such as temperature and humidity becoming a factor.

Here: the tyre was made in the 11th week of 2009

markings 2

A quick guide is to shove a fingernail into the tyre tread, it should feel soft like rubber and not hard like plastic. You’ll want to have the bike rolled forward (if there is no centre stand) while you check all the tread and tyre walls for any damage or wear. The legal requirement in the UK is min of 1mm tread depth on a motorcycle tyre. You obviously want it to have more tread than that, a lot more!


This is best or easier with a centre stand. The wheels should roll freely and even but there will be some resistance from the brakes and this is normal. You will get less free spin for your effort on the rear wheel as it pulls against the final drive system of choice. If the wheels do not spin easily you could be looking at dragging brakes or blown wheel bearings.

Look at the wheel from the centre and check that it runs without any wobble or deviation. A visual inspection of the rims on both sides looking for dents and scratches in the rim wall where the bike may have been bumped up on curbs etc. If the wheels are spoked wheels then checking there are none missing is obvious and that none are loose. Loose spokes while not a serious issue does show a lack of care from the rider and indicates that there may be other issues to look for. Give the spokes a gentle ‘twang’ and you should get around the same pitch from equal tension on the spokes.


First when you turn the key in the ignition the oil pressure light should come on and then go off when you start the bike. The electric start is a good sign of battery life and should crank the engine over without sounding laboured.

A voltmeter is always a good buy and learn how to use it. With the engine running you can test the battery for charging, if you get over and under charging it’s a bad sign that there could be something wrong with the regulator / rectifier unit. Checking the charge while running could also expose issues with the stator. If you don’t know what these things are it’s another good reason to take a mate that knows something about bikes.

Worth its Weight in Gold - Draper Voltmeter


Safety aspects of the electrics – does the kill switch kill the engine when turned on and is the switch firm and not loose in the housing. If this is loose it could make a connection and kill your engine at the worse possible moment.

Again start the engine (don’t forget to take the kill switch off!) and push out the sidestand in neutral. Put the bike into first and see if it kills the engine. Most bikes have this safety feature to stop you riding off with the stand down and then launching yourself off at the first left-hander. If it does not kill the engine check that model of bike should or not.

Final Drive

This could be a chain or a shaft but you need to at least have a visual inspection.

On the chain drive you should have some slack and the chain should be clean as should the sprockets! There should be some give in the chain and this sounds easy but can get very complicated if you let it! Around  25 – 35mm is what I work on but it can depend on the bike and what load also, to be bang on then you’d need the specific information for that bike. If the bike has a centre stand then slowly turn the rear wheel looking for tight spots or any clicking going on. Have a look at the adjustment setting on the back to see how far back the chain has been taken already. If it’s on the last setting then of course your chain is on the way to needing a new one. Do also remember that new chains tend to need more adjustment at the start.

I did find this from a poster called Don on the forum and it made me smile: “With the bike on the centre stand, push the chain up to try to touch the swing arm with the toe of your boot. If it touches the swing arm it's a wee bit too loose. If not, you’re either too tight or good to go.”

While you’re doing this you can check out the rear sprocket’s teeth. They should not be broken or worn down into points. Have a look at the front sprocket, if you can see it for the same damage – normally they get changed as a pair anyway.

With the shaft drive you can see if there is any leaking at the joints and check the groves are not broken or fractured.


Nothing should be coming out of anywhere on an engine other than exhaust fumes from the exhaust. If it’s leaking then it needs fixing is the simple rule for all but classic bikes. I don’t want to lose it here and get into too much detail as the new rider is not going to find this of any use!

There should be an oil window on the engine and do make sure the engine of cold. The oil should meet the markers and be a clear honey colour – black is not good and means an oil change is needed for the engine. If there are white streaks in the window it could be a sign that water is in the oil. Water can come from condensation and should just burn off after 20 minutes of the engine running or the coolant system is leaking fluid into the oil. If the streaks are still there after the bike has been warmed through it looks like it could be the coolant – walk away.  If the oil is gray or has metal flakes in there... taxi!! The same can be done with the coolant (depending on the bike) coolant is normally bright green (neon type stuff that looks like Predator piss) or bright blue. If you have clear water in there then it has not had preservatives treating the bike and it may have been raced, the same if you find pink fluid in the cooling system – this is a performance cooling fluid often used in facing. Brown coolant is a good chance of rust – time to... walk away. Always, always if you’re not sure or not happy then walk away and find a mate who knows about bikes and come back – don’t worry about the ‘I’ve got a guy coming at 4pm to look at the bike’, there are plenty of bikes on the market.

Starting the engine from cold would normally give you more revs than standard idle, so expect this but the sound should be even. If you hear any clanking, clicking or clunking from the top or bottom of the engine – walk away.  

Smoke from the exhaust and what it could mean:

Blue/Gray = Possible oil in the combustion chamber.

White/Gray = Possible coolant in the combustion chamber.

Black = Overly rich fuel mix in the combustion chamber.

Oh, none of the above is a good thing!


After all this

This is by no means a full list of checks but looking around I felt this guide gives more than a quick look over but not so bad as to lose a new rider with a bit of knowledge. If you’re going for a private sale then you can draw up a document asking questions for you and ask the seller to sign it with you. It does not need to be a 20 page contract but just asking the basics.

Stick the VRN (reg) number at the top of the page.

This bike has not been in a crash.

This bike is not stolen.

This bike has not been raced.

This bike has no finance outstanding on it.

Why bother when a liar would sign it anyway – well they may get nervous and not want to sign it – walk away. Watch for body language, there may be some initial frowning followed by a shrug and signature but more than this can give you a clue that all is not what it should be and the seller could be holding something back about the bike.

I’d advise looking at what fails an MOT and if you then find any failures but the bike has a 12 month ticket you don’t need to be Sherlock to work out that something is afoot!

If you’re happy with the bike, the seller and the price then I hope you have many miles of carefree riding ahead of you.

If you feel you have something to add or that something is wrong or could mislead a reader then please do let us know your thoughts This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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