Home / How to Buy a Used Motorcycle: A Beginner’s Guide

For some riders, buying a used Harley—or any other quality motorcycle, for that matter—is a great option. Sometimes the reasons are financial, and sometimes they’re personal. Other times you find a bargain that’s too good to pass up. Motivations aside, you need to know as much as you can about buying your first motorcycle so you don’t get taken advantage of by shady private sellers and dealerships.

Why? Even if you’re savvy enough to recognize a lemon, there are hidden issues you need to know about and questionable sales tactics that may come into play as well. So let’s dive in and learn about how to buy a used motorcycle without getting scammed.

Before buying a motorcycle, it's important to know some basics like your needs and the condition of the bike.

The Basics: What Do I Need to Do Before Buying a Motorcycle?

Rule 1—Nail Down Your Needs 

The first step when you decide to buy a bike used is to nail down your needs. That means have a budget, know the type of bike you want with a list of desired features, and shop with a plan. Many times that’s half the battle, and from there, you are able to outline any additional purchasing guidelines you may want to follow.

Rule 2—Buying New-ish is Better

Rule two—it’s generally better to buy newer. This sounds obvious, but it can help you avoid funky bargains that may (falsely) look like great deals on the surface. It’s also usually easier to evaluate a newer bike, especially if you’re buying used for the first time.

Rule 3—Don’t Discount Dealerships 

Rule number three is don’t rule out a professional dealer. I know, I know—a lot of them have questionable reputations, but most are running quality operations, especially if you’re working with a licensed Harley-Davidson dealer. The last thing they want is for a bad purchase to boomerang back on them. This means they’re going to sweat the details when it comes to the bike’s condition, and they generally have the resources to do it. Individuals, on the other hand, may not, especially if they’re selling for the wrong reasons (i.e., “I need cash fast, so I’m selling this bike”).

When buying a used motorcycle there are some red flags to keep an eye out for.

Red Flags When Buying a Used Motorcycle

Beyond that, the next step in the process is to check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). Once again, it sounds basic, but temptation takes many forms, and if you find a great bargain, you may be tempted to skip this step.

Don’t. The VIN can tell you if the bike is stolen, and it will help you trace its owner and service history.

Make sure to examine the bike cold, too. This one sounds counterintuitive—what difference does temperature make, after all? Don’t you want to evaluate the bike on the road and make your decision accordingly?

Not necessarily. The trap behind this rule is that it’s much easier to disguise issues with a warm bike that will start easily. You also need to hear the startup process—if starting is a struggle or the bike sounds rough early on, your best bet is to thank the would-be seller for their time and walk away with your bank account still intact.

Inspect the condition of a preowned motorcycle before buying it.

Questions to Ask When Buying a Used Motorcycle

Do the Levers, Bars, and Footpegs Match the Age of the Bike?

The next thing you want to look at isn’t what you think it will be—levers, bars, and footpegs. Why? Because these things should fit the age of the bike, and if they don’t, they can indicate some things you need to know about the bike without having access to its service record. If they’re damaged or they’ve been replaced, it may mean the motorcycle has been in an accident, so if you see that, understand that you don’t know what you don’t know. 

Once again, it may be time to walk away. Or, if you’re already set on this specific bike, it may be time to hire a professional motorcycle mechanic to give yourself some peace of mind before walking away with the bill of sale and a whole host of unknown problems waiting to arise. 

Are There Horizontal Grooves in the Tires?

Now we get to some of the fun stuff. You need to know how hard the bike was ridden, regardless of what the seller says about that.

Horizontally grooved tires can indicate that the seller was fond of burnouts, and other seemingly minor disfiguring like pilling or feathering can tell you that the bike was used at the track. You may still want the motorcycle if you see these things, but they may help you change the price and get the bike for a lower offer. They can also help you get a better idea of what to ask about other potential problems.

Is the Used Motorcycle Stolen?

Let’s go back to the VIN for a moment. We said the VIN could help you tell if the bike’s been stolen, but unfortunately, there are other issues relating to theft that go beyond the info the VIN or license plate number can give you. You also want to check the ignition lock and the fork lock. If the keys don’t match or if one or both keys are broken, that may mean you’re dealing with a theft recovery bike. The bike may be in good condition, and the seller might offer you a good deal, but if that information is being hidden, it’s time, once again, to walk away.

Is the Electrical Wiring of the Used Bike Safe?

The last specific we’ll talk about here is the seat—simply put, you need to pop it open to check the wiring. It should be neat and clean, hopefully complete with factory connectors. If you see stray or extraneous wiring, that’s a clue that you may be looking at the history of an electrical problem, which is definitely something you don’t want to inherit.

What to Look for When Buying a Used Motorcycle?

Now that we’ve hit some of the major specifics, let’s back off and look at the big picture.

The combination of the odometer reading, the condition of the paint and trim, and which items have been replaced will tell you a lot about the condition of the bike. If you see noticeable problems that look like they have a serious history, ask more questions. Similarly, if the motorcycle hasn’t been ridden in a while, you may be looking at a different set of issues that will keep you and your checkbook busier than you’d like.

Now that you know how to buy a used motorcycle, go to your local Harley-Davidson dealership for a test ride.

Tips for Buying a Used Motorcycle

Finally, remember that the old phrase “ignorance is bliss” can actually help you get a great deal on a pre-owned bike when you do your general assessment—i.e., make sure to take the opposite approach.

If you don’t know something, don’t be shy or embarrassed. Try to ask the right questions and make sure the answers make sense to you. Different motorcycle brands and types of motorcycles have different quirks and nomenclature, so this process can educate you, save you a lot of money, and ensure that you end up happy with your purchase.

The Final Step: Scheduling a Test Ride

Now we’re at the climax of the used motorcycle story—the test ride. This can be tricky to negotiate, as you may have to leave your license or your purchase money with the seller when you take the bike out for a spin. This is an exchange that basically boils down to due diligence and mutual trust, so make sure you and the seller are comfortable with what you’re doing. It also doesn’t hurt to ensure the seller maintains current motorcycle insurance.

Also, make sure you do a safety check before you go for your ride. It’s easy to assume the seller has done the necessary due checks in advance, but some sellers are less knowledgeable or less scrupulous than others. The motto here is that if you want something done right, do it yourself, so add an extra layer to the process and check out the bike long before taking it out on a long-haul road trip.

Shop Certified Pre-Owned Motorcycles at Harley-Davidson of The Woodlands

If you’re looking to buy a used motorcycle from the top of the food chain, pay a visit to your local Harley dealer and shop Harley-Davidson of The Woodlands. Our team has a large roster of quality pre-owned bikes that have been thoroughly vetted. Our experts can walk you through this entire evaluation process and help you find the answers you need. 

Whether you’re looking for a sportbike with serious power or something you can cruise on, your best bet for getting a safe, reliable used bike is shopping with a reputable dealer in your area. Now that you know how to buy a used motorcycle, all that’s left is visiting our team at Harley-Davidson of The Woodlands to schedule your test drive today!


Harley Davidson of The Woodlands blog author
Harley Davidson of The Woodlands

Harley-Davidson of The Woodlands has been serving Southeast Texas for more than 20 years. We provide the Greater Houston area with new and pre-owned motorcycles, riding apparel, parts, maintenance service, and more at our state-of-the-art dealership. Whether you’re a new rider or a seasoned Harley vet, our friendly team of Harley-Davidson experts is ready to help you find the perfect bike today. Stop by and visit the Harley-Davidson of The Woodlands Showroom off of I-45 North in The Woodlands, TX.