Buying a Used Motorcycle Part Two – How to Make a Private Purchase

Buying a Used Motorcycle Part Two –  How to Make a Private Purchase

In this article, we'll be going into more detail about buying a used motorcycle. There will be top tips on what to look for, advice on negotiation, the test ride dilemma and a look at the necessary documentation you will need.

Apart from deciding on the make and model, and carrying out a heap of research on its potential shortcomings, when you go for a look- see, take someone with you.

Preferably someone who knows their way around a bike, but there are two perfectly good reasons why a non-biker is better than nothing. Firstly, bike euphoria may blind you to certain things, but even your Uncle Bob will wonder why the tires are flat and there’s a quart of oil under the engine.

Secondly, and in all seriousness, you’re going to a stranger’s house with cash. Think about this for a moment.

While you’re on the phone with the seller, ask if they have all the relevant paperwork including a clear title. You should request the VIN and ask them not to start the bike before you arrive.

This last request may seem random, but if a bike has no issues, it should start from cold and once warmed up, run evenly. If you arrive and the cylinders feel warm, that means the owner has already fired it up due to concerns about it starting!

See the motorcycle in the daylight and make sure you can walk right around the bike. As there’s a lot to remember, break it down to the basics: will it start, will it stop, does it look good and will it cost me any money?

Will it Start? 

Does it start easily, rev freely and tick over nicely? Are there any overly loud ticks or knocks and does it smoke? Check the level and condition of the oil.  

Pull the clutch lever in, while the engine is running and check for any changes in noise. With the clutch still in, click it into gear. Keep a couple of fingers on the front brake just in case it jumps (which it shouldn’t).

Will it Stop?

With the front brake on, sit on the bike and rock it. It shouldn't move an inch and if the front end clonks or knocks, there may be a problem with the brake caliper or steering head bearings.

Do the same with the rear brake. While you’re inspecting the brakes, check for excessive travel in both lever and pedal. Also, make sure the bike rolls freely with the brakes released and check that the brake lights illuminate correctly.

Tires should have plenty of tread with no unusual wear patterns, scuffing or flat spots. The drive chain should be correctly adjusted and lubed. 

Does it Look Good? 

This section covers paint, bodywork, frame, and electrics. Step back so you can see the whole bike. Do the front and rear mudguard, tank, and side panels match and are there any scratches or dents?

If the bike has a fairing, check that the panels are in good condition and all the fasteners are in order. Non-OEM colors may mean damage repair and don’t be bamboozled into paying extra for a custom paint job.

Frame tubes should be straight, and curves uniform. Kinks, dents or paint ripples could be the result of a shunt. Inspect the triple trees too; the handlebars should turn lock to lock, with no damage to the stops. Don’t forget to pop the seat and make sure the sub-frame looks good.  

While the seat is up, check out the electrics. You should be able to see the condition of the wiring harness, battery connections and any electrical components like CDI's, etc.

Drop the seat down and check its condition for tears, splits, and sagginess. With the ignition on, make sure the idiot lights, indicators front and rear lights, brake lights and horn work. 

By the way, does the key fit in the ignition correctly; does the same key fit the gas tank and any other locks on the bike such as helmet locks or seat and if not, why not?

Will it Cost Me Money?

The finish line is now in sight. All of the various items we've checked so far should work correctly, be capable of doing their intended job and look correct. 

If not, putting them right will cost you money, so make the owner aware, and use them as bargaining chips. Don't be afraid to flag up any shortcomings, just be polite in doing it. 


Paperwork is a pain in the butt, without it though, you risk falling head first into a world of hurt. Start with the documents the seller should have. I mentioned earlier that you should ask for the VIN before seeing the bike, this is so you can run a check on it.

You can get a vehicle history check, either through the DMV or any number of private companies, it will cost you a few bucks (anything between $5-20), but it could be money well spent.

It will give you all kinds of information such as the number of previous owners, accident damage, attached liens, and if the bike has been subject to theft.

The owner should also have the title, and from this, you should check that the VIN and engine numbers on the bike match the paperwork. The title should be in the current owner’s name and address. 

Registration documents are slightly different as the owner usually retains the license plate; you therefore, have to register the bike in your name to obtain a plate.

As each state has its requirements for the paperwork necessary for completing this process, you will have to search for the relevant information. 

Details can be found online from your DMV or licensing authority, and you can also find out the costings.

Transfer and Registration Costs

In California for example, a registration fee for a motorcycle is currently $56, plus the vehicle license fee of .65% of the bikes value. There is also a district fee of anything from $1-19.

To complete this process, you will need the title (pink slip) signed by both the seller, plus the lien holder if applicable. The buyer also needs to sign the title. If the bike is less than a decade old, you also have to disclose the mileage.

Now in CA, the DMV says you only need to produce a bill of sale if the title doesn't have the current owners address on, but most other states say you need a bill of the sale period.

Some states require the transfer documents signed by a notary, so the golden rule is, check on your state’s requirements. Don't forget; you only have a set number of days to complete the transfer process and get the bike in your name, in CA this is ten, but it varies.


Everyone needs insurance, and this scenario presents a chicken and egg situation as you can’t insure a bike you don’t yet own.

Insurance can be taken out over the phone; all you need is the make, model, year and VIN. Get insured the moment your signature is on that title.

There are lots of insurance companies around, and they can give you an online quote. It's a good idea to check this out before you buy, so there are no nasty surprises, e.g., cruisers cost a lot less to insure than sport bikes and prices can vary wildly depending on where you live.

To give you an idea of how insurance costs can fluctuate, at the time of writing, a quote for a 20-year-old living in Orlando, Florida owning a CB300F came in at $156 for Basic Cover. Choice Cover came in at $1028 and a wallet annihilating $2524 for Plus Cover!

The golden rule is, get a quote for the bike you're interested in first. 

With the paperwork checked, inspection complete, and the deal struck, you need to know if the bike goes as well as it looks. So when negotiating the price, practice the words ‘I agree to the price as long as the test ride checks out.'

Demand a test ride when you arrive, and the seller will likely tell you to kiss a nasty part of their anatomy. Do it at the end of the negotiations and offer to put the greenbacks in their hand and there shouldn’t be a problem.

Finally, decide on how to get the bike home. It is easier by far to put the bike on a trailer or truck. Failing this, if you're not confident in riding home or can't do it legally, work out the logistics.

To recap, this is the order to follow when making a private purchase:

  1. Decide on a make and model 
  2. Research your choice
  3. Get an insurance quote from at least three providers
  4. Call your local DMV to check on documentation
  5. Find a bike for sale and arrange to see it
  6. Get the VIN from the owner and carry-out a vehicle details check
  7. See the bike, taking with you everything needed to close the deal and a method of getting it home
  8. Complete your inspection checklist
  9. Take a test ride
  10. Buy 
  11. Live happily ever after