Beginner buying a USED motorcycle. Help!?
March 12, 2010 6:49 PM   Subscribe

Hey Mefites! This is my first post and I definitely need help. I have my motorcycle license and took the MSF course. I most certainly will buy good gear to protect myself. I consider myself a safe driver (car so far), no accidents or speeding tickets and generally drive slow.

I finally have enough saved up to buy a used motorcycle. I've been looking on craigslist for used motorcycles and found a few that I like. Buuut here's my issue. I don't have anyone to rely on to help me test ride or inspect a used motorcycle. I'm very nervous about test riding a bike and dropping it. Even though I've taken the MSF course, I've never owned or practiced on other bikes. I'm also slightly concerned about getting scammed, although I've been looking at newer models (hence usually safer) and I figured there are basic things I can always look out for from researching the web.

So my question is two fold. Has anyone else been in my situation? What did you do? What Happened? Mishaps? How did you buy a used bike?

Second: Below are some links from craigslist that I've been eyeing.

I can't tell if I want a 600cc bike or a 250cc. I'm worried the 600cc will be too strong, but like I said, I consider myself safe so I keep telling myself that a 600cc will be ok so long as I take it slow.

Thank you again!
posted by Wanderer7 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What's your daily riding going to look like, your intended use? Will you be on the highway frequently?
posted by tumble at 7:15 PM on March 12, 2010

Response by poster: Casual riding. Once in awhile for commute but definitely not normal use.
posted by Wanderer7 at 7:26 PM on March 12, 2010

There are a ton of internet motorcycle forums (some by interest [example]; others by brand [example]; others by geography). Just like MeFi, they have meetups and brunches and get togethers. And, more to your issue, they are populated by mostly nice people, many of whom would be delighted to show you own bikes and help with the bike shopping. In other words, you don't need to approach this as an isolated newbie -- there is plenty of potential help out there if you look for it.

Finally, there's everything to be said for starting small, and eventually working your way up to the super-fast rocket bike. Small and cheap means you can learn on a forgiving machine, and if it turns out to be the wrong type for you, no biggie -- you just sell it and move on.
posted by Forktine at 7:28 PM on March 12, 2010

Buy an inexpensive, beat-up but running 250cc bike. Ride it for fun, when the weather's good, you're not in a hurry, and traffic's light. Don't spend much on it; consider it your trainer bike -- but initially, it'll be enough, because you'll be enjoying yourself and your riding experience.

As you get more experience, you'll start to notice shortcomings in your trainer bike; you'll find it rough, or not sized right, or the handlebars are crooked, or whatever, and you'll want something else. That something else might be a 600cc, or might be even bigger, or might be a 250cc that's in better shape or sized differently. The thing is, by buying an inexpensive trainer, you'll spend as little as possible on a bike that might be the wrong bike for you -- and which will teach you what it means to have the wrong bike for you. In the meantime, you'll be able to save up more money, and coupled with what you get for selling your trainer, you'll be in better shape financially.

In my neck of the woods, I'm riding around a little 1984 Honda Elite scooter (the Devo-advertised one with the popup headlight) and having a great time, but after a year the shortcomings are becoming quite clear. However, the bike I initially wanted instead is not the bike I plan to get now, because riding daily has really changed my perspective about what I want.

and what I want is a Triumph Bonneville T100, which wasn't even on my radar initially, but that's another conversation
posted by davejay at 7:28 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

How much do you weigh? 145 or 250. Like most things in our society motorcycles are bigger now. 25 years ago a 350 was a big bike. Jus sayin! Good Luck!
posted by Pecantree at 7:29 PM on March 12, 2010

Most people and dealers won't let you test ride a bike for the reasons you've listed. Too easy to drop it.

Depending on your weight, a 250 is fine for a lightweight for just purring around town or a short commute. People do it on 50cc scooters.

A 600 isn't too powerful, it was my first bike, probably heavier if you tip it over, but better if you want to cruise along backroads or highways for a getaway daytrip. Another advantage is to get you out of situations quickly, as the MSF course should have taught you, the throttle can be your best friend if you get too low in a corner, or for obstacle avoidance.

Be aware at all times of what's going on around you.

Congrats on taking the course. Keep the shiny side up, and best of luck on your rides.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:32 PM on March 12, 2010

If you're a newbie-ish rider, it might be better for you to buy from a bike shop rather than a private person. In this economy you can get just as good a bargain from a dealer (especially if you're buying used) without as much worry about getting scammed or getting something that's not mechanically okay. A reputable bike shop will usually offer some kind of a warranty even on a used bike.

Also, since you're worried about dropping a bike during a test ride, a bike shop is less likely to freak out over something like that than a private seller would be.

Try going around to different shops in your area, especially ones that have been in business a long time and have a good reputation, and try out a few different bikes until you find one you're sure you're comfortable with, and you'll be able to make a good decision.
posted by amyms at 7:34 PM on March 12, 2010

Some independent mechanics will looks over a used bike for a fee. Might be worth your money to have a bike checked out this way.

And yes, start small. There's a thriving resale market for used 250s for beginners. You'll likely be able to resell your first bike for close to what you paid for it if you go the beater 250 route.

Welcome to riding!
posted by mollymayhem at 7:38 PM on March 12, 2010

I agree with all the advice so far and say to go to a local shop and buy a beat up 250 that you can drop a few times and then sell when you're ready to move on. They might even take it back as a trade-in on your next bike.

Good job on the MSF class. Once you've got your bike and have some miles on it, go back and take the next class. The experienced rider class is valuable.
posted by tumble at 7:43 PM on March 12, 2010

I'm with davejay on this. Get a little Honda Nighthawk or Rebel 250, maybe an old CB350, or one of countless other old Honda/Kawasaki bikes in the 250-350cc range. You're odds of dropping it in the first couple years are way, way, way higher, and who wouldn't rather drop a $1,500 bike than even a $4,000 one? Also (and I speak from experience) the odds of letting adrenaline getting the best of you and doing something stupid are much higher in your first couple years. While there's plenty, and I mean plenty, of room to do something stupid on a 250cc Nighthawk; there's still a measure of safety brought in by your being unable to do that stupid thing on the freeway. Also, the maintenance skills you learn on an older bike are pretty valuable, and transfer up fairly well for the most part.

I know you've taken the training class, but I highly, highly recommend picking up Proficient Motorcycling by David L Hough. His analysis of risks is backed by plenty of data and experience and will definitely help you gear up and determine what you want as far as both bikes and safety gear. I make anyone that wants a ride with me read the first chapter, it's seriously sobering stuff.
posted by piedmont at 7:50 PM on March 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think all four of those are too big and a crotch rocket is a bad style to choose for a first bike. I also think that $4k is way too much to spend on a first bike. You will drop your first bike. I promise. All four of those bikes will cost you a lot of money to fix when you do, because of all their fiberglass. When this style of bike falls over, it pretty much rolls over until the handgrip hits the pavement, busting everything in the way.

Also, if you haven't ridden a crotch rocket yet, realize that they are hella uncomfortable. In the area where you wish your stomach (and testicles) want to be, there is a gas tank. When you stop at a light, you cannot stand up and still hold the clutch in, so you do the put-it-in-neutral dance and then the get-it-back-into-first dance later when you're ready to go again. When you're driving, you're looking "up" instead of "forward". They're built to go very fast, and they're good at that - the tradeoff is convenience in traffic and comfort.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think these bikes are a style where you can add crash bars (these make a bike survive a simple drop, like a mistake while parking, with no damage). Consider one that already has crash bars or that will let you add them, for a first bike. Either that, or get a bike you expect to beat up and then get rid of in a year.

Your second bike, the one you buy after you know what you want and how you will use it, will be the one you will be able to keep for a while and be happy with.

(If you will ever be on the highway even for a bit, 250 might be too small. It may go 60 mph, but barely.)
posted by fritley at 7:54 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

My first bike is a Suzuki V-Strom 1000. I don't regret it at all. I do wish, however, that I could have found a deal on the 650 version (better gas mileage, fast enough, smoother engine).

Are you sure you want a sport bike? The SV650s that you linked will put you in a fairly sporty posture. You might like that, or you might be terribly uncomfortable after 20 minutes.

I think the SV650 (not the S version) is an excellent first bike, as is the Ninja 250, or a GS500. Especially the SV650. I almost bought one. Get a naked bike, because plastic is stupid expensive when you accidentally drop it in the parking lot, because your shoe lace got hung up on your foot peg and you couldn't put your foot down. that was so embarrassing.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:56 PM on March 12, 2010

lots of factors in play here... I would be glad to talk to you if you want to give me a call. I've been riding since I was 15 (let's see, that would make it about about 46 years...damn...). Everything from a Whizzer motorbike to a Harley... e/mail is in the profile, drop me a line and a good time to make a contact...
posted by HuronBob at 8:11 PM on March 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I bought a used SV650 (naked, not S) as my first bike, and I love it - in fact, after 3 years, I have yet to outgrow it. My buddy's first bike was a Ninja 650R, and he loved that, though he's since replaced it.

The SV's a great bike - it's pretty much bulletproof, easy to ride, throttle roll-on isn't rapid so it won't take you by surprise, and it's easy to work on. That, and because it's a very popular bike, the forums get a lot of traffic.

Personally, it's been a great beginner bike for me, a 250 or 500 would have been sold after year 1, mainly because I started doing longer trips (3-4 days), and extended highway jaunts on smaller bikes just isn't much fun.

A few notes on the SV:

* Acceleration is predictable and controllable, which is great - but holy cow, if you want to open it up, you'll be breaking every speed limit in the state in no time flat.
* The suspension is crap, both front and rear. If you do get one, and like it, expect to invest in new springs for the front, and an entirely new unit for the back.
* The stock seat is crap too. Expect to pay ~ $300 for a Sargent or Corbin to replace it.
* Get frame sliders - it's worth it.

I've thought long and hard about keeping the SV and investing $ in it, or buying something else (I've been looking at the Triumph Speed Triple and the Duc GT1000), and I'm staying put. I have money, space and time for only one bike, and the SV does a good job of being sporty, reliable, cheap to maintain, and able to cruise 300-500 miles/day without difficulty.
posted by swngnmonk at 8:21 PM on March 12, 2010

250cc is too small. You will outgrow it quickly and then you'll be stuck trying to sell it. Not to mention that you wouldn't really want to take it on the freeway. Even with the Ninja 250, which seems quite fast enough for the freeway, the problem is that it's light. The wind might blow you around and it just won't feel too stable and confidence inspiring. I'm surprised most of the answers seem to be rooting for a 250. I would say 650cc or higher.

I think maybe the most important factor for the first bike is being able to reach the ground comfortably (no tippie toes), and all-around comfort level of how it feels sitting on it. Some people don't allow test rides on their bikes, beginner or not, but you should at least be able to sit on them. You can/should even visit some dealerships and just sit on a bunch of bikes to get an idea.
posted by jclovebrew at 8:21 PM on March 12, 2010

I was in a very similar situation as you a couple years ago. I took the MSF class, but had basically no other motorcycle experience. I looked around and researched and more or less settled on the Suzuki GS500 (GS500E in the later models, not the current F since it has all the extra plastic, unless you can find a good deal). The Honda CB500 is very comparable. I've been very happy with the GS500, a 2001 with 18,000 miles on it. I've had to have the carbs cleaned out, which isn't unexpected; beside that, it's been nothing but normal work (the GS500 does need better front forks and rear suspension, but both can be bought for less than $100 each and replaced in a couple of hours yourself if you want.) I put engine guards on, but I've been lucky to not drop it in the last two years. Although I've only ridden for a thousand or two miles, I've liked pretty much every mile.

The buying process I had: I found a Craigslist post that looked good, contacted the seller, went to his place. He turned it on and offered to drive it around for me, and so I watched him ride it some. It seemed fine and since it was offered at sub-$2k, I felt okay taking a chance. He was willing to ride it to my place and I gave him a drive back. Then I could ride it in my local streets until I felt comfortable. I quickly looked in your market and there are a few GS500s that seem decent.

The 500s aren't crazy fast, but compared to normal cars, they can still give you a surprise when it comes to acceleration. And based on what I've sat on and ridden since, I agree that the naked SV650 would be a better pick if you want a 650. The GS500 forums are quite active.
posted by skynxnex at 8:25 PM on March 12, 2010

I'll nth the preference for 250 over 600 for a starter bike. You'll learn how to be comfortable riding on a machine that won't get you into too much trouble, and a used 250-500cc bike will go for a decent resale price if you manage to not fuck it up too badly.

You will outgrow it, and that's fine! Eventually it will probably start feeling too small for you, but not until the simple act of riding across town is no longer terrifying on some level. Err on the side of safety -- motorcycle riding is wonderful and rewarding AND DANGEROUS. It's better to be on a machine that you're never worried about losing control of so that you can put your attention where it belongs: on all of the people in giant steel boxes hurtling around you unaware that you exist.
posted by kitarra at 8:34 PM on March 12, 2010

The SV650 is a great starter bike. Mild mannered when you're beginning with the ability to open it up when you get more experience. The bike you linked to is a beaut.
posted by torquemaniac at 9:13 PM on March 12, 2010

I think you could be fine with either a 250 or a 600-650. My current bike is a V-Strom 650, previous bike was an SV650s. I loved the engine but didn't care for the riding position. I've owned and ridden big liter bikes and little dinker 80cc's. If I were starting fresh now, I'd probably start with a 250, the Ninja 250s are decent and quick enough to be fun but you will outgrow it before too longer.

Your learning curve on a 600 or 650 will be steeper which may stunt your confidence for quite some time as the available power difference between a 250 and 650 is quite large.

Think of your first motorcycle like your first bicycle, you probably had training wheels for a while, a 250 is like training wheels. Get comfortable, get used to keeping your head on a swivel, get used to cars not seeing you and having to make sharp stops, get used to leaning over in turns and then, when you've got a solid foundation of riding, upgrade to a 600 or 650 and you'll be much further along the continuum than someone who just jumped on a 600 and roared off.

Have fun and welcome to the two wheeler world, don't forget to wave to other bikers when you see them (though don't expect Harley 'noids to wave back if you're on a Jap bike, some will but most won't).
posted by fenriq at 11:22 PM on March 12, 2010

AND - one you've gotten whatever your first bike is - seek out the local race track and ask about "track days." These are track use days where you can pay a fee, ride your bike on the race track with safety workers, instructors and the works. Do this not because you want to race motorcycles but because it is the safest possible environment to figure out how your bike handles, especially so at speeds and in conditions you don't ever plan to get into on the road. If you know from experience that it will take a corner of a certain radius at a certain speed safely and in control you will be amazed how that knowledge gives you comfort and confidence on the road. AND face it, one reason you got into this was for the thrill and at least a few times you've thought "what would it be like to really open this thing up and gun it?" but being responsible you've immediately said "nope, too dangerous on public roads."

Get the to a track, even on a little 250 tiddler (and I nnnth the 250 as a starter). I've had 2X the fun on small bikes as on large ones.

Oh, and if you really have $4k to spend you owe it to yourself to check out an aircooled BMW twin. Fabulous machines.
posted by BrooksCooper at 11:36 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why not try a dual sport? There are a lot of good 250cc bikes or get a 650. I would get one of the street oriented ones and put on street tires. Riding position is about the most comfortable without getting a big cruiser. Very maneuverable, cheap to buy and run and if you drop so what? It just makes it look broken in. You sit up high where you can see and be seen. Also, at least around here, the dual sports have better resale value when you decide to move on to a non-compromise bike. Another big point for a naked or dual sport is that maintenance, and trust me, their will be maintenance, is much easier without all that plastic in the way. Kawasaki makes a klr 250 that is a good bike and Yamaha has the tw200 (i wouldn't recommend this one) and the XT225 (great bike, in laws use it as their run around after parking the RV). I have KLR650 right now and am saving for BMW for a permanent bike. The KLR is about the best dual sport for every day driving I think. The 650 V Strom is also almost a dual sport and would be a great first bike, that might be one you don't have to replace with a bigger bike depending on your needs.

Speaking of which don't get all flat black or dark clothes. White or some other bright color is much easier to be seen in and cooler on hot days. Most fatal accidents seem to be one of two things-going to fast for experience and conditions and leaving the road then hitting something or getting creamed by some cager who "never saw him". BE SEEN.
posted by bartonlong at 9:20 AM on March 13, 2010

find someone whose spent a lifetime riding, buying, and selling bikes. see if they will shop with you---
posted by zoesmom at 10:49 AM on March 13, 2010

Dual sport all the way. It's the Swiss army knife of bikes. I've ridden 6+ hours on my V-Strom and have had no comfort problems. I've put about 14,000 miles on it since May and all I've done is change the oil, coolant, and brake pads. I've upgraded a couple of other things, but that wasn't necessary maintenance.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:20 PM on March 13, 2010

Oh and here's how my buying process went:

After deciding on a budget, I did tons of research to narrow it down to either an SV650, V-Strom 650, or V-Strom 1000. I found a seller near me who had a Strom in my price range and went out there with a friend to check it out. He showed me the ins and outs of the bike, handed me the keys, and I went on a 10-minute test drive around his neighborhood. The bike was perfect.

I handed over the cash, he signed over the title. I checked that the VIN on the frame matched the VIN on the title. I had called my insurance company the day before and gave them all the details of the bike (minus the VIN) and got a quote number for insurance. I called them back while standing in the seller's driveway, gave them the quote number, the VIN, and my credit card number, and then rode the bike home fully insured. I got it registered/inspected a couple of days later. If you're going to finance the bike you might want to ask the seller to meet you at your bank so they can sign the title over to the bank instead of over to you. Most dealerships in my area won't let you test ride a bike at all (with the exception of BMW, but they're waaay out of my price range).

Everyone says to start out on a small bike, and that's great advice. I just couldn't find a good deal on anything else (this bike was a steal), so I went with the 1000. The main thing to know is that the throttle on a 500/650/750/1000 whatever is going to be much more responsive and violent than on the 250 you probably rode in the MSF class. The first time you goose the throttle accidentally coming out of a turn, and you feel the back end slip out, you'll know what I mean.

As my MSF instructor said, it's all about treating the throttle and clutch like hot, buttered kittens.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:47 PM on March 13, 2010

I'm late N(-1)th-ing what's been said, but "Yup."

You *will* drop your bike. Not even necessarily while moving, just in parking, or slipping in oil, or a multitude of things you'd much rather learn about on a naked 250.

Crash bars mount to the frame. That's not the same as slider pucks that mount to the motor which can total your bike when it tips over and cracks the case because the slider works like a punch awl. Oops.

A 250 is plenty faster than the cars around you. You'll be amazed. The best part of spending your first year (half-year?) on a sensible bike is that you get into trouble two-tenths of a second later and slower than on a "fast" bike. This means you have a chance of stopping or avoiding things. The same misjudgement on a literbike is devastating. Full throttle on a 250 is fun and a great learning experience. Hard throttle on a 1000cc sport bike at only 7000rpm and you'll see god, and pass him, front wheel in the air at 135mph.

This advice brought to you by your friendly, lifelong, California sport bike rider who may have been autobiographical in the preceding sentence. I wear out the edges of my front tire every 2000 miles. I live on a popular twisty mountain road. We judge how nice the weather is on spring weekends by how early the volunteer fire department gets a call to scrape up a motorcyclist off a redwood tree or Armco barrier. The organ donors are almost always either dui Harley riders, or squids riding above their skills.

Lastly, safety gear is stylin'. As a kid I motorcycled for years in my Members Only jacket. That's parachute material. Real safe. Not. I now wear close-fitting body armor built into my jacket and pants (and gloves and boots). I have slightly better survivability in an accident, won't need skin grafts, plus I feel like a superhero when I'm riding. Consider "ATGATT", because you'll hear most of the folks still riding after ten or twenty years saying it.

Have fun. Welcome to the club. I'm the guy waving at you as we pass each other on that twisty mountain road.
posted by lothar at 9:13 AM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I second amyms's advice about buying used from a dealer. There are way, waaaay too many things that can be wrong on a used bike. Unless you bring along a mechanic or an experienced rider to help you inspect potential purchases, it can be very risky. If you must buy privately, read this guide first. And experienced or not, as others have mentioned, many sellers will not allow test drives. With a dealer, you'll have some form of recourse if you discover a problem.

Fortunately for me, my dad happens to be both a mechanic and an experienced rider. Not so fortunately, he's also the grumpy, tough-love kind of dad. I spent many a day happily clipping out listings of cute, zippy little things. He chose for me an old, HEAVY, SLOW 600cc sportbike of the 80's instead. At that time I weighed all of 100lbs.

He also bought it for me so I could not complain. I was confused by his choice at first, but it makes some sense now that I have a few seasons under my belt.

His reasoning?
- He did not want me to look too cool and be tempted to go showboating around.
- He did not want me to get going too fast too soon.
- He wanted me to develop superb balancing and handling before hopping onto something fully faired and expensive.

What did I learn on my first bike?
- You WILL drop it. Perhaps a few times. Perhaps quite painfully, on top of yourself. You will scratch and crack things on it. You will be thankful that it's just a beater.
- I do NOT recommend such a heavy bike for a begginer. Once it starts going over it is very difficult to save it, and you will have a hell of a time trying to pick it back up. Especially if you are underneath it.
- Even on a slow, old bike you can get yourself into a lot of trouble very quickly.

If your heart is set on a sportbike, get one. But preferably something naked or with half fairings. If you fall in love with a fully-faired beauty, take the fairings off... at least for the first season or two. Or else, have frame sliders installed. Contrary to some advice given above, you can install sliders on the frame rather than the engine. I know many people who have "tested" them (some multiple times) and swear by them.

As for the engine-size dilemma, I think a 250 is plenty of zip for a beginner and for getting around in the city. However, many find that a 600 is more comfortable, particularly for longer distances and taking passengers. They also tend to be smoother, less work to ride, and a better fit for taller people. You seem to be a sensible, level-headed guy. You'll handle a 600 just fine and you'll probably be happy with it for longer. My recommendation is the 600.

Happy riding!!
posted by keep it under cover at 4:31 PM on March 19, 2010

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