Inspection Checklist for Pre-Owned Motorcycles

Jake Robison - June 28, 2022

A sign by the road sits on a bike that looks amazing at first glance. An ad online has a photo of a motorcycle that looks perfect. Are they worth the cost? Will they be a fantastic find, or will they break down constantly, becoming a money pit from the start? While being a mechanic can help when shopping for a new bike, it’s unnecessary. Following an inspection checklist makes it possible for anyone to purchase a used motorcycle and prevent ending up with one that has significant problems from the start.

A bike that needs to be fixed up can be a fun project, but know what will need to be repaired before buying the bike. In most cases, buyers will prefer to purchase one they can ride home or that will work right away without needing many repairs. No matter which situation someone is in, it’s still essential to go through the inspection checklist below to learn more about the bike before handing over the cash.

Think About Getting it Home

Before calling the seller or arranging a time to meet and see the bike, think about how it’s going to get home. While the best-case scenario is riding it home, this might not be practical in all situations. Instead, it may be a good idea to arrange for someone to pick it up and drop it off at the house or rent a bike transport vehicle for the afternoon. Contact the DMV to find out what is needed to transfer the ownership of the bike and make sure it can be done on the spot. If so, find out what’s required, like a license plate if it can be transferred to the bike, to ride it home.

Have everything ready when going to see the bike to prevent having to wait and hope it’s still there the next day. When buying from a seller, especially if the buyer will need to transport the bikeit’s usually a good idea to bring along someone who can help, so make sure they’re available. While this can make arranging a time to meet a little more complex, having help can save time and trouble, especially if the bike needs to be transported.

Arrange a time to meet with the seller and ask for the bike to be left cold. It’s easier to spot potential issues when starting a bike cold. Sellers who refuse to leave it cold or try to devise an excuse as to why it wasn’t left cold may be trying to hide something. If the bike has been running before the buyer arrives to do the inspection, it’s possible that they’ll miss noticing something is wrong, which could mean the motorcycle breaking down on the way home. Avoid this and walk away if the seller won’t follow the instructions to leave it cold.

Bring Anything Needed to Drive it Home

Being prepared is vital. Anything the buyer might need to drive it home should be accessible when looking at the bike, just in case it turns out to be a great deal. If the buyer is transporting the bike, have the trailer ready to go with all tie-downs that might be needed. If the plan is to ride the bike home, have a driver’s license and any safety gear like helmets on hand. If a license plate is transferable, bring that, too, and switch it out before leaving. Don’t forget to bring the seller’s information and the payment. There’s nothing worse than finding a motorcycle in great shape for an excellent price and realizing the cash was all left at home.

Be Prepared to Walk Away

Before meeting with the seller and going through the inspection, be prepared to walk away from the sale. It’s hard to do, especially when the bike is one the buyer has been coveting for a while or when the price seems too good to be true, but it is necessary. Walking away can help buyers avoid scams, avoid buying a bike that needs thousands of dollars of work, and prevent a headache dealing with potential problems.

Go through the checklist carefully, inspecting the bike before purchase. If anything seems off or something looks wrong, pass on buying the bike. It’s better to wait a little longer and end up with a bike that’s in good condition and ready to ride instead of buying one that’s just going to sit for months because it requires too many repairs or one that has to be scrapped because it’s in too bad of shape to fix affordably.

Check the Title and VIN

Make sure the title and VIN match before doing anything else. It’s always important to check the title carefully and make sure it matches the bike; otherwise, it may be a sign that the bike has been stolen. Re-stamped bikes exist, so checking helps reduce the potential for purchasing a stolen vehicle. Check the title to make sure there aren’t any liens on it, as the bike can’t be sold if there is a current lien on it. The title should be clear and ready to be transferred to the new owner. Buying pre-owned motorcycles from a dealership reduces the potential for anything wrong with the title or VIN, giving buyers one less thing to worry about. 

How Does the Bike Look?

At first glance, how does the bike look? If it has scratches or dents, the motorcycle may not have been cared for properly and may have been in an accident in the past. If the bike looks pristine, take a closer look to see if it has been cared for correctly or just cleaned to get it ready to sell. How can you tell the difference? Look at the tiny nooks and crannies that are hard to reach. If they’re clean, the seller has likely taken fantastic care of the motorcycle. If they’re not clean, it’s more likely that the bike was just cleaned quickly to get it ready to sell.

If there are any plastic components, check carefully for any damage, as they will likely break easily in an accident. It’s usually simple to spot repairs done to the plastic parts on a bike. Also, look for oil on or around the bike, as oil stains can indicate leaks. If the oil is not fresh, the seller may have repaired the leak, but request any paperwork showing that the repair was done before trusting the bike has been fixed.

Ask Questions

Be prepared to ask the seller plenty of questions to get to know the bike a little more. Ask how long they’ve owned the motorcycle, when the tires were changed last, what oil and gas are used, and other typical questions. Get an idea of how hard they rode the motorcycle by asking if they’ve done a wheely or how fast they’ve taken it. Ask if it has ever been in an accident, has been repainted, or has had any significant issues that have been repaired, especially recently.

While asking questions about the motorcycle, ask for any receipts or service paperwork. A seller who takes good care of their vehicle may have all of this ready to view. Glance through it to look for any major repairs, especially if they were recently done. Check for basic maintenance receipts, as well, to see if the seller took good care of the motorcycle while they owned it. Even if the seller did the work alone, they might have receipts for parts they purchased or a log book that includes the dates for any maintenance tasks.

Look at the Exhaust

Before starting the bike, check the exhaust and look for any signs of rust or corrosion. Check all attachments to make sure the exhaust is still mounted correctly. Even if it’s not possible to see corrosion, feel along the exhaust for places that can’t be seen that may be damaged. If there are any areas of corrosion or rust, it’ll be noticeable when the bike is started. Look at the exhaust header, as well, and check for any dents or other damage. Dents can lead to performance issues, so inspect thoroughly before starting the bike.

Inspect the Tires

Look at the tires to make sure they’re in good shape. If possible, lift the bike and spin each tire freely to make sure it doesn’t have any flat spots or other issues. Check the tread and ensure there is still enough for the tires to be usable. If there are any flat spots on the tires, it can be a sign that the bike wasn’t cared for correctly or sat for too long without running. Tires should have a DOT number on them, which provides details about the tire. Buyers can check this number to find out the age of the tire.

In most cases, tires can last up to 10 years. If the tires are older than this, it’s time to replace them, even if they appear to be in good shape. Older tires may also have dry rotting or cracking issues, pitting, discoloration, or other signs that they are not in good condition anymore. Though this might not be a reason to avoid buying the bike, if the tires are older or show signs of disrepair, new ones need to fit in the budget before it’s ridden.

Look at the Controls

The controls should be in good working order. Make sure they don’t stick when pressed and are lubricated if needed. Check every switch and button to make sure they work correctly. Even though an issue might be inexpensive to fix, it could end up being something more difficult or time-consuming to repair, and it can mean the bike isn’t safe to ride right away. Check the handlebars to make sure they’re true, and look for lights to come on when anything is pressed or switched. Take a look at the headlights and taillights to ensure they come on and turn signals.

Take a Look at the Fluids

Sight glass can make it easy to see what condition the oil is in, so if it’s hard to see into, it means the oil was not changed frequently enough. If there isn’t a sight glass, use something like a paper towel to dip into the oil. If the oil is clean and looks like syrup, it’s new, and the oil has been changed recently. If the oil is black or thick, it hasn’t been changed in a while and should be changed as soon as possible. If there are white streaks in the oil, it is a sign that water is getting into the engine. If there are any metal flakes in the oil, the engine has significant issues, and buying the bike should be avoided.

Be aware of Rust or Physical Damage

Rust can indicate that the bike wasn’t cared for properly or kept out of the elements. Though rust on some components can be easy to fix, if there is a lot of rust, the bike may have suffered water damage during a storm. If there is rust on specific components, it may not be safe to ride the bike before repairs are done, so this needs to be factored into the decision to buy and the potential price.

Look for other signs of physical damage that could indicate the bike has been in an accident. This includes checking the bar-ends, levers, bottom of the front forks, footpegs, fairings, and, if visible, the clutch or stator coil cover. Damage to these components does indicate the bike has been in an accident, but if it was a low-speed accident, the bike might be okay to purchase. If there is evidence of a slide, pass on buying the motorcycle.

Test the Suspension

Sit on the bike to test the suspension. Push down hard on the front end and see how the fork returns to position. It should be slow and nearly silent. If there are any loud noises, it can be an indication of suspension issues. The fork seals should be clean and smooth, and they should be free from any oil. Damage, including rust, is an indication that repairs are needed. Creases in the fork can indicate that the bike has been in an accident. Check the back suspension by bouncing on the seat. There should be some resistance, and the bike should return to its normal position without bouncing up and down on its own. If it does, the rear suspension may need repairs.

Start the Bike Cold

After a thorough inspection, it’s time to start the bike. A cold start is much better for an inspection, as it can show issues that might not be easily seen or heard if the bike was recently ridden. Use the electric starter if one is available and start the bike, then return the throttle to the normal position. Listen carefully to the bike to make sure it’s running smoothly. Look for smoke. Blue smoke indicates burning oil, which likely means it’s a good idea to walk away from the bike. Dark smoke may just be an issue with the fuel-to-air ratio, so it might be an easy fix.

The engine should sound clean and smooth. If there is any knocking, rattling, or pinging noises coming from the engine, it could indicate significant problems that need to be fixed. Let the engine run for a couple of minutes to hear how it sounds before moving on to the test drive.

Take it for a Ride

Riding tests should be mandatory when buying a used motorcycle. If the seller doesn’t allow for a test ride, pass on buying the bike, as there may be issues that can’t be spotted easily otherwise. If the ad says that test rides are not possible, the seller may still allow it if they have cash in hand for the bike. When riding the bike, make sure the clutch doesn’t slip. If it does, the repair can be costly. Make sure the brakes are not warped and that the bike breaks as expected. Check the steering to make sure it is true. Look at the handlebars when going in a straight line to make sure it’s right, but if the steering is off significantly, it’ll be easy to tell when riding.

Along with everything else, find out if the bike is comfortable to ride. If it’s not comfortable to ride, it’s probably a good idea to pass on the bike and look for something more comfortable. After all, the point of buying a motorcycle is to ride it, so if it’s not going to be used much because it’s not comfortable, then it’s a waste of money.

Be Aware of Common Scams

Though there are great deals, buyers have to be aware of the potential for scams. Knowing the types of scams and how they work can help buyers protect themselves when shopping for a used motorcycle.

Requiring a Deposit

After finding a motorcycle for sale online, a buyer requests more information. The seller requires a deposit on the bike to make sure the buyer will show up as planned. This is a scam. The seller doesn’t have a motorcycle for sale; they’ll keep the deposit and disappear.

Clocking the Bike

Clocking the bike involves turning back the mileage to make the bike appear like it hasn’t been used as much. Though this is not easy to do on cars anymore, it is still possible on some bikes. Check the mileage with service records or look for any damage that can indicate the bike has been clocked. If the mileage doesn’t seem to match up with the records or appears too good to be true, it might be a good idea to pass on the bike.

Sale of Stolen Bike

Always check the VIN before purchasing a used motorcycle. A VIN check will indicate if the bike has been stolen. Check to make sure the VIN sticker hasn’t been changed or replaced, too. When a bike is stolen, buyers may change the VIN sticker so it’s not as easy to tell that the bike was stolen There are also other signs that a bike could be stolen, so if any of them are noticed, it’s better to pass on the bike.

Must Sell Immediately

If a deal feels too good to be true, it just might be. A common scam is for sellers to present buyers with a sob story. This is done in an attempt to get the buyer to hand over the cash faster, without inspecting the bike thoroughly, as they won’t want to miss out on a fantastic deal. Sellers may also say there’s someone else ready to purchase or anything that indicates the sale needs to be done fast. Rushing the buyer can mean skipping the inspection, which can be a way to sell a bike that needs tons of repairs.

Specific Forms of Payment Requested

Buying a motorcycle online usually isn’t recommended because there’s no way to do the inspection. If this is done, however, be aware of sellers that require the payment to be in gift cards or something else that isn’t traceable. Once the seller receives the money, they’ll disappear – there is no bike to be shipped. Use payment types that include buyer protection and that are traceable if needed.

Buying a used motorcycle can mean excellent deals and the ability to get a dream bike for less. However, it is crucial to make sure the bike is in good condition before buying or to know what repairs may be needed to avoid buying something that will need thousands of dollars in repairs before it can be used. When shopping for a used motorcycle, it is recommended to go through a dealership. Not only are the bikes tested and repaired before being sold, but the potential for any issues right after the purchase is also minimized. Plus, it’s easy to avoid a scam when going through a dealership. Take a look at the used motorcycles today and run through this checklist to find one you’re going to love riding.



Jake Robison


Jake Robison has operated powersports dealerships since 2003.  With an extensive background in the motorcycle industry including sales, service, parts, finance, management and powersports training, he covers all things motorcycles and enjoys sharing valuable information to newcomers on two-wheels

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