The Hunt: Buying a Bike Off Craigslist

Nov 03, 2012 View Comments by

Shopping for a new bike can be a whole lot of fun, but actually buying one can turn into a nightmare. For many of us, going to a dealership to look at brand new (or almost new) bikes just isn’t financially an option, so to get what we’re looking for we’re forced to turn to the second hand market. One of the most powerful options available to those seeking a used bike is Craigslist.org, which offers far more listings and search options than your local classifieds section. However, Craigslist comes with its own set of pitfalls and hurdles so it’s important to know ahead of time what they are so you can avoid the dreaded plague of buyer’s remorse.

One of the most important ways you can make your life easier is to decide definitively what you’re looking for. When you’re shopping for a bike it’s important to have narrowed your search to a few specific models that fit your needs. It’s also important to have decided ahead of time what you’re willing to pay, what condition is acceptable, and any other make it or break it issues. Making these decisions prior to your search will save you a lot of time, and potentially save you a lot of money.

Once you have narrowed your search down to a few models and have a strong set of criteria a potential purchase must live up to, it’s time to hunt. Begin your search in your local area then, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, expand your search to nearby cities. Once you’ve found a potential candidate, first make sure there’s no scam involved. Here are some potential warning signs:

  • The bike is in your local listings, but, for whatever reason, needs to be shipped. This is almost certainly a scam unless the listing is from an actual dealer.
  • Though not a definite indication of a scam, if the pictures show an out of state license plate, be wary.
  • Escrow companies, though also not always a scam, are nevertheless to be avoided. Paying cash in person is always the best option.
  • If the sellers name doesn’t match the name on their email address, be careful.
  • If the buyer is requesting a money wire transfer, this is almost certainly a scam.
  • And of course, if the price is too good to be true, it most likely is.

Once you’re sure there’s no scam going on, make sure there are no title or other legal issues with the bike. Ask the seller directly if he has the clear title in hand. If he doesn’t, ask why. Many times if the bike is older the title has just gotten lost along the way, this isn’t unusual. Check with your state DMV about getting a new title and be aware that a lost title may add cost and bureaucratic headache to your transaction. For more information and the legal side of things, read this article.

Aside from scams and title/legal issues, the bike itself is also very important, here are a few of the many things to look for when visually inspecting a bike:

  • When you first show up at the seller’s house, check to see if the engine is warm, we all know that a stone cold bike can be harder to start than a warmed up one. While this doesn’t necessarily indicate any treachery on the seller’s part, it’s good to know whether the bike is starting up warm or cold.
  • Look for rust anywhere on the bike; this can be an indication that the bike hasn’t been taken care of, and, if it’s bad enough, of serious structural issues. Also look for rust inside the fuel tank as this can lead to serious money down the road.
  • If the bike is chain driven, check the chain and sprockets. Chain upkeep is one of the simplest and most fundamental aspects of bike maintenance, if it’s been overlooked, chances are other more serious things have been too.
  • Likewise, check out the air filter. An old, dirty air filter is also a sign of a poorly maintained bike.
  • Check for every leak you can imagine, oil, hydraulic, brake lines, coolant, fork seals, etc.
  • Ask for service records, most of the time there won’t be any, but either way you’ll have learned something.
  • Look for signs it’s been dropped or wrecked, these may include, but are not limited to: new fairings, new paint, scuffed bar ends, pegs, turn signals, or levers, dents in the tank, or any mismatched parts.

If the bike passes these, and any other, checks during the initial inspection, it’s time for a test ride. Most sellers understandably will not allow a test ride without cash in hand, though it doesn’t hurt to try. Presumably, you wouldn’t have gone through all of the previous steps if you weren’t serious, so fork over the cash in exchange for the keys.

As in the previous steps, here are a few things to pay attention to as you take your prospective purchase for a spin.

  • Pay special attention to the brakes—do they squeak, squeal, or make any other pig-like noises? Do they feel notchy? Is there any grinding?
  • Be sure to shift through all the gears feeling for any clutch slip, stubborn gear changes, grinding, or any other transmission issues.
  • Are there any disconcerting wobbles, shakes, or skittishness exhibited during acceleration, braking, or turning?
  • Lastly, are you comfortable, does the bike fit you well, and is it fun to ride?

If the bike has made it through the gauntlet of inspection and the price is right, chances are you’re ready to pull the trigger. Two more pieces of advice, one: don’t let yourself get emotionally attached to a bike you don’t own—this can blind you to any faults or flaws the bike may have and lead you to make a less than wise decision. Two, if you don’t feel up to the task of checking out the bike mechanically, don’t hesitate to invite someone along who is, or to ask the seller if you can have the bike checked out by a mechanic. As they say, better safe than sorry! Happy hunting.

For more information, read our previous article Shopping for a Used Motorcycle  and blog by Michael H. Rosenzweig, Buying a Used Motorcycle? What You Should Know.

Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive guide, and each situation is different. Be sure to do all your homework before making a purchase.

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