"Will you take $3,000?" people randomly text me, every time I list a motorcycle for twice that.
I think they're fishing for a deal, texting that to hundreds of people. From what I've read, this technique will eventually work with the right person. They'll get a bit of interest, then get a cash agreement, then show up with even less.
See also: Three great questions to ask to negotiate down a motorcycle's price.
It's a bit like messaging "hey" on tinder. It is easier to send 100 "hey" messages than 5 well-crafted and thoughtful messages, and the overall hit rate is higher.
But there's a better way when you're buying a motorcycle.
While everyone should have a comprehensive checklist for their motorcycle of choice, here are a few tests to do and things to ask to knock real value off whatever you're buying.
In this guide...
- How to check tyre date codes to make sure they're not too old (save US$3-500)
- How to check the charging system to make sure the battery isn't dead, the alternator works and the regulator/rectifier works (save US$500++)
- How to check steering head bearings
- How to check motorcycle frame alignment to avoid buying a dud (save thousands!)
Cheat sheet - Download it here!
Because I do this so often, I produce my own cheat sheets before I show up to an inspection. It saves time, and it helps everything go smoothly. Often I get caught up in conversation and forget to do a test or two. Or I feel embarrassed, or keep having "one more thing". Having a list to go over saves time with that.
OK, on with the tests...
Check the Motorcycle Tyre DOT codes to see how old they are
What to look out for in ads mentioning motorcycle tyres:
- "These are the original tyres - like new." — Isn't this motorcycle from the 90s?
- "Front tire 80%, rear tire 70%". Yes, but how old are they?
- "Has been in storage for five years. Tires still good" — are they, though?
For example, this otherwise great looking VFR800 I came across on Craigslist:
Negotiating down because of old tyres is a GREAT and honest way to knock hundreds off a motorcycle. Most motorcycle owners have no idea that there's something other than tread depth to consider.
(Of course, if the tread has worn — that makes your job easier.)
Tyres (or tires, depending on which side of the Pacific you're on) have a shelf life. This is generally around 5-7 years.
The trap you can fall into easily is thinking that just because there's lots of tread on a tyre and it looks fine, that it is fine. Not so. If a tyre is any more than five years old, there's going to be a tyre replacement in your near future.
And since a pair of tyres typically costs US$2-500 (depending on what you get), PLUS labour costs, this is a pricey bit of maintenance.
Here's the great part: you can check this on the motorcycle yourself by checking the codes on the side of the tyre. They're in "DOT" codes. Understanding and decoding DOT codes is a money (and life) saver.
Motorcycle DOT codes typically look like this:
And they're easy to read.
- Find the code that starts with DOT
- Find the the last 3-4 digit block
- If it's a 3-digit block, the tyre was produced in the 1990s and is definitely too old by now!
- If it's a 4-digit block, read the last two digits: that was the year of production.
- The first two digits are the week of production
For example, the code "0917" like in the photo above means the tyre was produced in the 9th week of 2017.
So take whatever year you're reading this guide, and subtract five years. E.g. right now it's 2019 and so a tyre that's getting old would be produced in 2014. You can now say: "I know the tread is fine, but this tyre will have to be replaced soon, so that's $500 I'll be out of pocket — I think the motorcycle price should reflect that."
Test the motorcycle charging system to make sure it works
What to look out for in an ad:
- "Always left on battery tender" — Why, and how long is "always"? Also, this can damage a battery long-term.
- "Starts right up from first push of the button" — Even if you haven't charged it?
- "New battery!" — Was the last one fried by your dodgy reg/reg?
A bad charging system is not only common on older motorcycles, it's very expensive to diagnose and repair.
There are three main bits that go wrong.
- The alternator (typically the stator coil): This sits inside the engine. The motorcycle's engine rotates the rotor inside the stator, which stays fixed. The rotor is just a few magnets, and doesn't have anything that goes wrong easily (as rocks rarely fail). But the stator is a complex web of coils that can deteriorate over time.
- The Regulator/Rectifier: This takes the wild, uncontrolled voltage generated by the alternator, and turns it into sensible, regulated DC, for powering the motorcycle's electronics, and charging the battery. It sits usually near the front of the motorcycle, and has fins so it can catch the breeze.
- The battery: The battery is the battery. It's easy to fix.
I've written a bigger post on checking the electrical system of a motorcycle with details on the tests - be sure to read it!
How do bits of the electrical system go wrong?
The alternator goes wrong because it gets old, or because someone dropped the motorcycle on the side of the alternator, smushing the coils into other stationary bits. (If this has happened, this is going to be an expensive fix, probably more than the value of the motorcycle.)
The regulator/rectifier goes wrong because it gets old, or over heats. It does a lot of hard work and gets hot. Over time, they'll fail. Nearly every motorcycle owner will say "these motorcycles are known for their regulator/rectifiers failing" because guess what, they fail on every old motorcycle. Technology improved over the last 20 years, too, so you can buy sturdier ones cheaply.
The battery fails for one of three common reasons.
- The motorcycle was left for ages and the battery drained. Once a battery has totally drained of voltage, it's basically impossible to restore to its former glory. It's cheaper to buy a new (and better) battery.
- The motorcycle was left on battery tender for too long. This is bad for the battery. The battery needs to be used in a normal way, not continuously drip fed. It depends a bit on the type of battery, but basically: if the motorcycle needs to be on battery tender, it's obviously not great...
- The regulator/rectifier fails. The regulator/rectifier's job is to take the crazy erratic binge-eating and crash-dieting of A/C produced by the alternator and turn it into a steady, balanced meal plan of DC for your battery to eat. If the reg/rec fails because it gets hella old, your battery will cark it fast.
How to test the electrical system
You're going to need a multimeter. Not an expensive one; literally the cheapest one you can get on Amazon will do!
- Make sure the red and black leads are in right holes on the front. There's only one place to put the black lead. The red lead goes into the one for "V". (not "A", which is for measuring current.)
- Put the multimeter into DC Voltage mode, in the 20 range. Usually this is marked as something like "—V 20". Others will be 2, 200, etc.
- Go and get a battery so your multimeter works. You forgot, right? (this happens to me all the time... damn things go flat because I leave them on)
- Put the motorcycle leads onto the battery terminal. Hopefully it's easy to get at the battery of your motorcycle you're testing. (A great reason to buy naked motorcycles!)
- Do the tests
The tests you do are to check the voltage: a) with it off, b) with it idling, and c) with it revving at 3-5,000 rpm.
You check the DC voltage at the battery. If you want to get fancy you can check the AC voltage at the alternator pins but that's a bit overkill for a used inspection.
A new battery is $100-200, a new regulator rectifier is about the same, and a new stator coil could be $300-500 to get wound.
Of course you might have just broken an alternator belt on a BMW!
The readings you should get:
- With the motorcycle off, what's the voltage? It should be 12.4V or above. Hopefully 12.8, for a healthy battery. If it's around 12.4V you probably need a new battery. If it's less, it's not charging (and the bike may not even crank).
- Read the voltage with the motorbike on. Turn the motorcycle on (disconnect the leads before you do, to prevent spikes from hurting your multimeter). Voltage should be about 13-14V. If it's below... charging system isn't great, and they might need a new stator, or to get it rewired.
- Rev the motorcycle to about 3,000 RPM and read the voltage. Voltage should increase to 14.5V. If it doesn't, your charging system DEFINITELY doesn't work. Either the stator or the reg/rec has failed.
- Rev the motorcycle to 5,000 RPM and read the voltage. If the voltage goes above 15V, then your reg/rec has failed (but your stator still works). This is just $100 off.
If the reg/rec has failed, this is a $200 repair (a new good one is about $100-150, plus installation time). I'd negotiate more off for the inconvenience.
If the stator coil has repaired, don't buy the motorcycle. You don't know if it'll be repairable until you crack the engine open to look at it. If it's just wear and tear it's fine, but physical damage is BAD news. And you don't know until it's open.
Check the steering head bearings
The steering bearings of a motorcycle have to be frequently lubricated (and infrequently replaced) to make sure they don't become "notchy".
To check steering head bearings, you have to get the front wheel up in the air.
The best way to do this is to get it on a centre stand. But if you can't... some people lift the bike up onto the kickstand and the rear wheel, and turn the handlebars in the air! The seller would have to really trust you to let you do that...
Check if the wheels and frame are aligned
This is the most badass check. You can do it with string, but it's even cooler to do it with a big straight edge.
This is really important to do on any motorbike that has been crashed — e.g. a salvage title in the US, or something that has been on the WOVR (Written Off Vehicle Record) in Australia.
Even if a motorcycle has been "written off", though, it doesn't mean it's unrideable unless the frame has been bent. If the motorcycle has been professionally inspected, that's fine. But if not, then you need to check alignment.
What to look out for in ads/unscrupulous sellers
- "Lowsided but no frame damage" — says who, your friend the mechanic? Says you?
- "Some light scuff marks from driveway drop" — how fast were you going on your "driveway"?
- "New fairings" — fine, but is the frame OK?
In all of these circumstances, the frame might be bent/misaligned. This means the motorcycle will track weird, feel weird, and basically be unsellable. Don't ride it, and don't buy it.
Note — you can't immediately detect frame damage on a test ride. It might be minor. Actually, a little tolerance (a few mm) is allowed. But the best way to check, and the best way to negotiate down price, is to do the test.
But the best part is: Checking frame alignment will reveal you're a professional. It gives credence to every other bit of evidence you find that a motorcycle's price should be reduced, whether it's something basic (leaking oil, cosmetic issues, brake pads), intermediate (old fork oil, worn sprockets) or advanced (no valve service history).
Simply doing the test will help you lower the price of the motorcycle.
How to test frame alignment
There are a few ways a motorcycle's frame might be misaligned.
- Pro: Use a builder's straight edge. Buy one from a hardware store or Amazon.
- Cool: Use a laser pointer. (A bit harder to do, actually)
- Easy: Use string. Brightly coloured, slightly thicker string. Get a spool, because you need about 5m of it... that kit you stole from a hotel isn't long enough.
Get an eight-foot or longer length of brightly coloured string.
When the string is taut against the rear-tire side-walls and pulled straight forward, it will form a reference for the rear wheel's alignment, in effect projecting the angle of the tire toward the front.
You want two things to be true for an aligned motorcycle:
- The strings should both be parallel to the front wheel, and
- The strings should be the same distance from the wheel at the front and back
If one (or both) of these is not true, you have an alignment problem.
The cause of frame alignment could be benign (someone threw the alignment off when tightening or changing the chain), or severe (crashed). It's up to you to judge. But if you know the motorcycle has been crashed, and the wheels are misaligned, then walk away.