How to buy a used (BMW) motorcycle


At least once a month, I get email asking for my opinion on a particular bike the writer wants to buy. Sometimes it's an attempt to get an outside source to say it's ok (for personal comfort, or to show the significant other, etc.), sometimes the writer wants to know more about foibles of his particular target of ambition, etc.

I'm not really an expert on BMW bikes, or motorcycles in general, but I do want to be helpful. I guess I know more than many people about the subject, though, so I try to offer what I know whenever asked. In an effort to provide that assistance to more people (if you don't want my help, hit the "back" button now!), I decided to write this guide.

I'm going to cover the situation of finding a bike in a paper or over the Internet, since I suspect that's how most people come to my site.

This guide is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of everything that can go wrong with a motorcycle, but rather a framework upon which you can hang specifics for the particular bike you're interested in. It's also a lot of common-sense stuff, so bear with me. That said, let's proceed.

Step one: Overall appraisal

The first thing to do is get an overall feel for the bike. If you can get a picture (assuming you can't immediately go visit it in person), that's best. Multiple pictures are nice, but usually not available. Look at your picture. Does the motorcycle look like it's in perfect shape? Does it look like it has "normal" wear? Does it look worn out?

Compare the asking price with the apparent condition of the bike. You'll need to know a bit about the market before you can make this assessment. But if you're looking at a 1983 Honda CB500 in average condition (30k miles, faded paint, all functional, a few scratches, etc.), and the seller is asking $5,000, you'll have to figure out why they want so much. Other bikes like this are selling for $1,500 in your market. This should be your first warning sign, and should be an obvious "bad" flag.

The same thing goes in the other direction. If you're looking at a picture of an immaculately maintained 1999 Harley Wide Glide with a $500 asking price, it better set off alarms in your head. Most likely the newspaper misprinted the price, but something's wrong there.

If you've got a bike ad in front of you that just about matches the market, then you're on the right path. Some of this will involve deciding how much you can spend, and what kind of bike you want. Don't expect to get a one year old BMW R1100 RS for $5,000 unless it's been crashed and set on fire. Likewise, if you've got $5,000 you want to spend, don't go around looking at '82 Hondas unless you're sure that's what you want.

Back to the point, if you've got a bike that looks about right for what you want, and you can afford it, it's time to get closer.

Step two: Communicating with the seller

Now that you've narrowed down your search to a bike or two, it's time to contact the seller for more information. Here's what I like to ask about:

  • How many miles are on the odometer? Is that likely how many are on the bike too, or was the odo out of commission for a while?
  • Has the bike ever been crashed?
  • Has the bike been involved in a drop from a stop or low speed?
  • What records exist of previous maintenance?
  • What is the seller's appraisal of the bike's condition?
  • Are there any known problems (hard starting, stumbling, weird suspension, weak brakes, smoking exhaust, etc.)?
  • Does the bike have a current registration and license/tabs?
  • Does the seller have the title in his/her possession, and is able to sign it over?
  • What extras does the bike come with (tools, manuals, helmets, etc.)

This is kind of a limited list if you're really interested in the bike, but it'll give you a better idea of what you're looking at. Almost none of the questions will give a definite "yes" or "no" as to whether you should buy the bike, but here are a few points:

Most motorcycles are worn out by the time they hit 100k miles, many well before. BMWs and some Hondas are the exceptions I can think of.

A crash is not a disqualifier if you're looking for a project, but don't buy a crashed bike if you intend to ride it straight away. Slow drops don't do much damage, but look out for damaged fairings, as they tend to cost literally more than their weight in gold.

Existing records are kind of a "feel good" thing. I always feel better if the previous owner kept records of what all she did to a bike, maintenance-wise, but they certainly don't disqualify a bike (all three bikes I've bought have come without any records at all).

License/tabs being current are not really anything to worry about, unless you live somewhere with exorbitant licensing costs. People like to put in their ads "current tabs!" as if it's a big thing, but it really only matters if the cost of tabs will be a significant percentage of the purchase price.

Titles, on the other hand, are very important. In most states and countries, it's annoying at best to replace a title, and in some places it's impossible. You'll have to investigate your local laws regarding titles.

Extras like helmets and jackets tend to be kind of worthless unless you happen to be the same size as the seller. Helmets especially should be discarded unless you're sure it'll fit you and hasn't had any damage -- we're talking about the thing standing between you and severe brain damage or death; don't you want it to fit well and be in good shape? Jackets, pants, gloves, and boots are all worth looking into, as they can add up to another $1000 on top of the bike if you go out and buy new ones. But again, you have to be the same size as the previous owner. ;)

Step three: Seeing the bike

By now, you've gotten the dope on your bike (well, yours someday), and you've looked at similar bikes on the market, to get an idea what they're selling for, if not the precise condition. It's time to go see the bike you've got your eye on in person.

If this is a private seller, you're at something of a disadvantage, as the seller may have restrictive terms to let you look at the motorcycle. But if you can, you want to look at the bike in full sunlight (or at least daylight), with clear walking space around it. You should ideally have a friend with you who knows more about this particular bike, or motorcycles in general, if you're not comfortable with your knowledge. In an extreme case, you can sometimes pay mechanics to come examine a bike with you.

If at all possible, you want to look at the spot where the bike is normally parked. Look for oil spots, and note their location -- engine leaks are usually more benign than gearbox or drive shaft leaks.

First things first. Check the obviously comparable stuff, like odometer mileage (remember that the owner may still be riding the bike, so her ad may have the mileage a little bit low compared to right now), apparent condition, and asking price. If any of these things diverge significantly from what you knew beforehand, it may be time to walk away.

The next thing to do is look for big glaring problems. Notable among these will be things like crash damage (look for bent frame tubes, big scuffs on exposed metal parts, cracked or scuffed fairing pieces, wheels that don't line up, etc.), old old rubber (cracked or brittle rubber parts, including tires), oil leak stains, etc. If the motorcycle you're looking at has a centerstand, get it up on the centerstand and spin the wheels to see if they're still basically true.

At this point, you can start looking for smaller problems, which will almost always be specific to the bike in question. Some examples might be worn-down chain sprockets (indicating poor adjustment of the drive chain), grooved brake discs, rust spots, etc. These are only examples, and you'll have to tailor your search for the particular bike.

The next step is to start the bike up and see what works. (Note that some owners won't let you do this. Walk away immediately and don't look back if this happens.) Make sure that all the indicator lights glow visibly (sunlight, remember) when you turn the key on. Hitting the starter button should produce immediate starting noises, not a click or a hesitation and then starting. Once the bike is running, check all the lights. The headlight should be on all the time if the motorcycle is newer than about 1980 in the US (non-US bikes won't necessarily do this). The brake light should be bright if you squeeze the front brake handle slightly or press the rear pedal slightly. The running light in back shouldn't dim when you hit the brake. All the turn signals should work, if they exist. Check four-way flashers if the bike has them.

When you start up the bike, check for black, blue or white smoke from the exhause pipes. Blue indicates burning oil (possible valve train or ring leaks), white is actually steam from coolant (probable head gasket leak), and black indicates poor combustion (dirty spark plugs, carbon, etc. -- not a bad problem). Many motorcycles don't idle at all well when they're cold, so don't take that as a problem. The seller will probably show you the correct procedure for starting and warming up the bike (choke, etc.). Don't be concerned if the bike doesn't start right away -- sometimes a motorcycle that's been sitting for a while will be hard to start, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Step four: Riding the bike

This is a step that some private sellers won't let you take, but any dealer worth their salt will have you sign a disclaimer and let you take a test ride. Seen from the selling side, you'll understand that they don't want to let someone ride off with their bike unless they're fairly certain you're not going to crash it or dissappear. Offering a deposit (if you're serious) or some form of collateral might appease a hesitant private seller.

The test ride is going to be a fairly subjective thing. If you're an experienced motorcycle rider (then why are you reading this? ;) you'll know what doesn't feel right. But if you're new, it's hard to describe what feels right and what doesn't.

Basically, the motorcycle should feel comfortable at its tasks. It should accelerate with very little hesitation; it should steer without requiring too much force on the handlebars; the suspension should absorb most of the road irregularities and bumps; the clutch shouldn't be grabby, and shouldn't break free under hard acceleration; and the brakes should slow the bike down without strange noises, grabbing, sticking, or excessive force. You'll have to be the judge of whether the bike you're riding passes that test or not.

A note about safety: keep in mind that a 180 pound person on a 500-750cc bike can accelerate about as well as a Porsche 911, so don't hit the throttle too hard unless you've got a clear space in front of you. Likewise, a bike with decent brakes can stop in a half to two-thirds the distance of a car going the same speed, so don't test the brakes with someone behind you. You'll also slip on gravel or wet leaves, so if you've got to cross over them, do it upright and without any brakes or accelleration.

If you ride the bike for 10 minutes and it all feels good, then you're well on your way.

Step five: Finalizing things

You're now ready to finalize the deal. There's one important step left before you hand over all your money, however: the lemon check.

I usually make it part of the terms of the sale that a mechanic will inspect the bike before the sale is complete, and if he finds anything wrong, that gives the buyer and seller a chance to renegotiate or cancel the deal. Then I take the bike to the nearest motorcycle mechanice I can trust (this will probably take some prearrangement, or it may delay things as you make an appointment), and have them do a pre-purchase inspection. At my local BMW dealer, this costs about $100 (1.5 hours of shop time, or thereabouts), and is actually a service described by BMW, called a 41-point inspection. Other dealers may have their own thing, but the important thing is you want an experience mechanic to look over the bike for any surprises you didn't discover.

I would make sure this includes checking compression, checking all the fluids for level and quality, and a ride test.

What I like to do is to place a deposit on the bike (shows the seller I'm serious) and arrange to get it to the inspection. Do not let the seller choose the inspecting mechanic, find them on your own. At this point, I write up a bill of sale with the owner (if it's a private sale), which usually looks something like this:

I, ____________ (buyer) agree to buy this motorcycle, ___________
(license number) from _____________ (seller) for $______ (price), as
long as a pre-purchase inspection at the mechanic of my choice doesn't
find any problem which would take more than $_____ (fixing price) to
fix, or I the buyer find to be a disqualifying problem.  I am placing
$______ (deposit) down as a deposit on this vehicle to indicate my
interest; this deposit will be refunded to me if the inspection turns
up major problems, and will be applied toward the purchase price if it

[buyer sign] [seller sign] [date]

* Note: I am not a lawyer! Don't trust me on this one, get your own bill of sale wording from someone you can trust!

If the inspection comes up with any "must fix" items, it's probably time to look at the deal you made, and consider renegotiating. 9 times out of 10, these problems will not be known to the owner (use your judgement here), so don't blame them for it; just readjust the price and get on with it. If the inspection comes up with something you can't live with, then back out of the deal and thank the owner for her time.

Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me.