Five things I look for in every example of a great used motorcycle that means I'll be able to ride it without losing much money

I love to buy — and sell — used motorcycles. I don't do it to make money (that's a tough gig), but in general I try to be close to cost neutral. Even that is hard, considering taxes, registration costs, and insurance — to own a motorcycle costs over $1,000 a year.

To keep close to cost neutrality on owning a motorcycle (basically riding for as close to free as possible), I have to look for a few signs of a great example.

Below is what I look for. I hope it's helpful to you.

In a nutshell, find motorcycles with...

See below for more details. Happy hunting!

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1. Recent Full Service with One Magic Word: "Valves"

A recent full service will save you US$500-1000. Or more, if you have a BMW (because dealers charge more to service them in hourly rates), Ducati "desmoquattro" (these are harder), or another expensive-to-service motorcycle.

Ducati desmodromic valve system
Ducati Desmodromic valves. This is mercifully a 2-valve motor

It's common for motorcycles to be cleaned up for sale. Often an owner will have to replace tyres and a battery from a motorcycle that has been sitting a while. They might have even done a minor service — change the fluids, plugs, and perhaps filters.

A basic service is almost necessary. But a GOOD motorcycle will have a recent full service that includes two magic words: "valve service".

It's easy for motorcycle owners to claim that oil is changed regularly and so on. Usually you can tell signs of neglect very easily when you see a bike — torn seats, rusty screws, etc. If a motorcycle is clean, you can generally believe it has been taken care of.

But a really well taken care-of motorcycle will have had its valves serviced regularly.

There are lots of reasons people ignore valve service. It's SUPER common.

  1. A valve inspection and adjustment is expensive. You have to remove the valve covers, which often means an hour or two of labour removing other bits.
  2. A valve adjustment not always necessary. Often, a mechanic checks the valve clearances and they're just fine! So once owners figure this out, they stop paying for the expensive check.
  3. People often sell motorcycles at the service interval without doing the service. And then the next owner might assume it's done. (Or the previous owner lies about it.)

So for all those reasons, I always think it's a good idea for an owner to show a receipt showing a valve inspection was done. A receipt that's dated and has the name of a mechanic on it.

If you get a receipt showing a full service this, you could be saving you $500-1000 of service — or a day in the garage.

Not sure when the valves should be serviced? Look it up on the owners manual, or better, check get your motorcycle's maintenance schedule.

2. Full Exhaust system with a Full Tune (or Power Commander or other computer)

A slip-on muffler is the bare minimum, but more often than not I'll pass on a motorcycle that hasn't even removed the catalytic converter. It just means more work and expense for me later.

Ducati S2R800 with slip-on exhausts but still a catalytic converter
This Ducati S2R800 is very nice, but the owner left the catalytic converter on there.

When the cat is left on, it means at very least you'll have to buy mid pipes for your motorcycle. At most, a full set of exhaust headers.

This is not only expensive, it might be impossible for older machines with more limited supply.

A full exhaust system is better. They look nice, perform better, and sound better. Ideally it must be a respected brand name, like

  • Arrow
  • Termignoni (popular on Ducati motorcycles)
  • Akrapovic
  • Yoshimura
  • Leo Vince
  • Two Brothers

There are other brands but these are by far the most common.

Look out for a) fakes, and b) brands that sound fancy but are actually just cheap (like DanMoto). You can just google a brand and see if it's carried by a major dealer.

But any full exhaust must be accompanied by a tune or a Power Commander module.

Similar to exhausts, a Power Commander is the most common way of uploading a custom tune to your motorcycle, aside from doing a direct tune on the motorcycle's ECU (something either a mechanic can do, or you can do yourself with TuneECU software on some motorcycles).

Common alternatives to Dynojet Power Commander or TuneECU are:

  • Bazzaz Z-Fi Fuel Controller
  • Rapid Bike Evo
  • RexXer
  • BoosterPlug (note: this is just for low-end smoothness, not the same as an ECU)

All of these are better than nothing — the first three are far superior to (and much more valuable and and expensive than) the last.

3. Fresh Tyres (or Tires... or both)

Firstly, my apologies to my American friends for spelling things in the British sense sometimes. I include equivalencies between metric and imperial. I love the riding community (and roads) in the USA, but it's easier to just pick the spelling of my passport country rather than annoying everyone with "tyres/tires" every time. That said, I do switch randomly...)

Date tyre codes on a used motorcycle

Two things happen to tyres as they age...

  1. They get used — tread goes down
  2. They age — rubber gets old

Tyres can last a long time. But if you want to be aggressive, don't buy a motorcycle with tyres that are more than five years old.

They'll last past five years, but you'll just be counting down the time before they slip.

Aside from general disuse, it's really common for a motorcycle to have old tyres if

  • They it hasn't been ridden much recently ("Has been in garage for last few years")
  • The motorcycle is old but has low miles — I've even seen one that says "Still has original tyres" as if that were something to be proud of (and it's impossible to bargain down someone who thinks that's true)

Look at my guide to deciphering motorcycle tyre codes to understand how old the motorcycle tyres are for more information.

4. Good description and lots of photos

This might sound obvious. But I want to caution people away from trying to find "hidden gems".

I have never seen a good motorcycle for sale that didn't have lots of high quality photos and a lengthy description.

A terrible motorcycle for sale will have a few photos in poor lighting and the description will have phrases like "gr8 runner", "as is", "just needs a new battery".

I don't care how good or bad you are with a camera. Everyone has a cellphone with a camera.

  • Good photos show that the owner cares about how it looked, and therefore cared about its condition.
  • Good description show the owner knows about the motorcycle.

The absence of either good photos or description might indicated a bargain. It might mean someone is so clueless they'll part with an OK runner for $500, and then it's up to you to restore it to glory. That's if you want a project.

But in my experience I've never come across a bargain like that. I'm not a professional buyer, just a guy who likes bikes. I've only seen bad motorcycles.

By the way, the best place to find hidden gems, I think, is in places where there's a liquidity trap — something that's difficult to buy because it has low demand, is located far away, or is on a website nobody uses.

5. The motorcycle is a "Cult" machine in high demand

... but the owner doesn't know it.

BMW R1200S for sale
Look at this schmo selling an R1200S for a princely sum.

There are lots of motorcycles out there that have pockets of followings around the internet, but owners who have just ridden a machine for a while have no idea.

A few examples of these have been/are:

  • The Honda Hawk NT650. These became "The Original Ducati Monster" and people love them (I personally have mixed feelings).
  • Honda CB750 Nighthawk. These are a great example of unknown cult motorcycles because they are on paper quite boring!
  • Honda MC22 CBR250RR. These four-cylinder screamers made between 42-45 hp and redlined near 20,000 rpm.

Yes, I just mentioned three Honda motorcycles. I guess other brands must have some too, but they're usually more obvious ones.

The ones above have active Facebook groups and website forums and still can be found for under US$2,500 in good condition in many countries (though the MC22 isn't almost unavailable in the US).

The point is — there are other cult motorcycles that are undervalued. Go find them.