For newcomers entering into the all too fun dirt bike arena, the first prerequisite is of course buying a dirt bike. A well-maintained, previously owned machine can make an excellent choice to start riding, but it’s important to know what to look for when you buy a used dirt bike.
When buying a used dirt bike, there are several specific things to check when examining a potential purchase. The most important things to check are the engine, transmission and clutch, but if possible you should also ask the seller about the bike’s maintenance history, and test ride it if you can.
Below, we go into more detail about the importance of doing your due diligence when buying a used dirt bike. We’ll cover the differences between buying a new versus buying an old dirt bike, before also giving you a checklist of things to ask and bear in mind when buying a used dirt bike.
Table of Contents
Should You Buy A New Or Used Dirt Bike?
The primary benefit to a showroom sweet, brand new bike is that you know exactly where it’s been – the assembly line, and after shipping, the dealership floor. Although new machine warranties can be quite limited for competition machines, you nonetheless have the assurance that no major problems (should) occur.
Manufacturer defects are essentially nonexistent, and for the extra money you guarantee yourself a trouble free bike that is ready to ride from day one. Just add gas and go. However, a previously owned dirt bike that has seen proper care and maintenance is certainly a viable alternative.
Major changes in dirt bike design have slowed considerably from the early days of the sport. Where technological advancements once drove manufacturers to make major changes in every model year, today’s machines are relatively stagnant in design. It’s long been worked out what works best and there is little variance in the final product, save for cosmetic or minor design changes.
Suspension travel, steering head angle, wheelbase, and other major factors in how dirt bikes function and perform are all somewhat standardized. Without getting into the nuances of frame geometry and engine design, for all but the most expert of riders, a five or even ten-year-old machine can be just as capable as brand new one.
In fact, most new dirt bikes are now produced largely in four-year cycles, with manufacturers generally offering nearly the same machine with only minor updates from one year to the next after introducing any substantial revamp. And even then, there are 15-year-old dirt bikes that suffer only the slightest when compared to the latest and greatest in overall performance.
A well-maintained older machine is no less fun to ride than a brand new one, and unless you’re already racing at a very high level it won’t make much difference that you’re aboard an eight-year-old machine. So by all means, a previously owned machine purchase is worth considering, especially if you’re on a budget.
What Are The Advantages Of Buying A Used Dirt Bike?
If this is to be your first ever motorcycle of any kind, you’re starting off on the right foot. You will almost certainly experience a few minor tip-overs and falls along the way, but that’s par for the course. It can be best to acquire the basic skills of motorcycling in an environment that does not include drivers on four wheels, like an open field, rather than learning on the road.
Dirt bikes are ideal for learning to ride because they are pretty much designed to be crashed as well as ridden. Dirt bikes are durable and built to take a beating.
A Cheaper Way To Learn
Even if you do have prior experience riding, a dirt bike allows you to fall off or drop your machine without needing to be overly worried about its well-being. Buying a used bike will also teach you what you need to know about the proper care of a dirt bike with a lower initial investment. If it’s not your first purchase, you can bring the net cost down further by selling your own dirt bike.
Owning a used dirt bike is certainly preferable to having no bike at all. If a pre-owned machine better fits your budget, go for it. Be aware, though, that you will need to reserve some of that budget for parts, maintenance, and refurbishments. However, you can also learn a lot about how to work on your bike yourself and keep costs relatively low.
How To Approach Buying A Used Dirt Bike
With brand new machines often costing in excess of $10,000, used machines can be found in good condition for a relative fraction of the price. But with any used purchase, there are risks involved. Approach buying a dirt bike with patience, common sense, and if at all possible, a buddy who might know more than you about what to look for – and what to shy away from.
Don’t fall in love with the first bike you see advertised, and don’t buy it without a careful inspection and asking a few important questions of its current owner. Take your time to shop around and you can find what you want at a price point that matches your needs. But where can you buy a used dirt bike?
Where Can You Buy A Used Dirt Bike?
You can buy a used dirt bike at a dealership or from private sellers. It’s likely that your local dealership has trade-ins, but unless they find themselves with a surplus of previously owned inventory – which does happen – they’ll usually still charge premium pricing for used units.
Better buys are to be had with private sellers. If you have already surrounded yourself with a circle of friends that ride, that’s the best place to start. A near ideal situation can be had when someone you know and trust desires a new bike, but must sell their old one first.
Such an arrangement can be a win-win situation, with you paying your fellow rider less than you would for the same machine through the dealer, but still more than he might receive as trade-in value.
Otherwise, like anything else, motorcycles are advertised all over if you’re looking in the right places. Facebook marketplace and other social media, Craigslist, and even a good old fashioned ad in the local newspaper are all places to find a lead. But what should you consider when you find a used dirt bike you want to buy?
What To Look For When Buying A Used Dirt Bike
Buying a used dirt bike is just like purchasing any other previously owned vehicle – you never really know just exactly what you are getting. A seller may claim that its motor has recently been rebuilt. But was that professionally, or was the work done in a shed? And by whom? There are no guarantees. And the quality of previous maintenance is unknown.
It’s not always that a seller is disreputable or lying. Some might also be relative beginners to the game. One of the best used bike buys out there can be from another newcomer who purchased a new machine only to find the sport wasn’t what they thought it would be.
In any event, it is your responsibility as a buyer to do as much research and investigation into a prospective purchase as possible. The more you know about the specific machine you might buy, the better you will be able to judge its value. Most issues you might come across, however, are common to all makes and manufacturers of machines. So what are the key things to look for?
13 Top Tips For Buying A Used Dirt Bike
1. Initial Appearance Can Be Revealing
If you arrive to look at an advertised machine and it is obviously filthy, has weather cracked tires, bent handlebars, and broken levers, you can be reasonably assured that the most basic of maintenance – properly serviced air filters and engine oils – has likewise been ignored or overlooked.
In short, if it looks like junk, it likely is. Don’t try to a find a diamond in the rough – the rough will eat up money fast, as you replace tires, tubes, chains, sprockets and the like simply to bring the bike into a reliable and rideable state.
Also, take a look at the machine’s surroundings. If you happen to be in a garage where the floor is well swept and tools are neatly hung above a clean work bench, it’s much safer to assume that the dirt bike itself has seen proper care. Conversely, if there are a couple of old cars on blocks in the driveway and a busted lawnmower left amidst overgrown grass, you can take that as a cue to move on.
However, a spotless and well-cleaned machine covered in some sort of shiny spray to make it glow isn’t always a sure bet either. That’s why you need to start looking a little closer.
2. Start Your Inspection With The Tires
Are the tires worn, with no sharp edges to the knobbies? Or worse by far, cracked and worn from age? Worst of all, are they clearly baked by sitting unsheltered in the sun or inclement weather? That’s hardly a deal breaker, but it is a quick bargaining point to start from.
A pair of premium tires for a full sized dirt bike will likely run $200 or more for replacement. Although tubes don’t always need to be replaced with the tires, it’s certainly a safer bet to do so on a machine that you’ve only just acquired. So factor in another $40 or so for quality inner tubes.
There are less expensive tires available, but they usually offer far inferior performance when compared to premium makes and models. If you’re new to the game, consistent and reliable traction will be all that much more important in your initial outings.
3. Inspect The Rims And Spokes Of The Wheels
With the bike on a stand, spin each wheel. Do they appear to be reasonably round? It’s helpful to use anything handy – an ink pen, a screwdriver, whatever – and hold it in a fixed position near the edge of the rim as you spin the wheel. Does it hit it sometimes? Or does it stay uniformly away from it?
Barring any obvious dents or divots, a spoked wheel can be easily re-trued by an experienced mechanic if it is only slightly out of round or has side-to-side run out. The key word there is “experienced.” Wheel building may fall short of an actual art form, but it’s far easier to pull a rim out of true than it is to get it right.
Are the spokes uniformly tight? A properly torqued spoke will give off a sharp “ping” when tapped with a wrench. Loose spokes will sound dull and low in pitch. Take a hard look at the spoke nipples – the threaded bit that meets up with the rim – for any signs of corrosion or damage.
4. Check The Wheel Bearings
Again, spin the wheel and listen closely. Do you hear anything other than a little chain and sprocket noise? Bearings should run silent when rotated.
Also, check for lateral run out, or side to side movement. Up front, grab one fork leg firmly near the top of the tire and push and pull the wheel with your other hand. There should be no discernible play or movement. Repeat the same procedure at the rear by grasping the swingarm while wiggling the wheel.
5. Check The Steering And Swingarm
The pivot points at the steering head and swingarm are highly stressed, and all require the proper grease. Dry or damaged bearings can add up quick at the parts counter.
Check the steering stem bearings for play by grasping both fork legs towards the front axle and pushing and pulling the assembly towards and away from the frame. There should be no noticeable play. Now move to the handlebars and turn them from side to side, taking note of any uneven resistance or notchiness.
At the rear of the machine, check for swingarm play much like you did with the wheels. Grasp the frame itself in one hand and the swingarm in the other and give it the old push and pull. Also check the play in the linkage beneath the lower shock mount by holding the seat or subframe while lifting the rear wheel.
All of these pivots should exhibit little to no free play. Linkage bearings are often neglected, and the succession of pivot points of a modern suspension design transfers tremendous force to the bearings. When one fails, the others are soon to follow.
6. Inspect The Suspension
Both the fork sliders, or lowers, should be inspected. These components are generally a shiny chrome surface, with the rare exception of some high end forks that may be coated in one color or another.
In any event, look closely for any nicks or dents in the surface. These will allow suspension oil to seep away, leaving your forks with no lubrication and loss of damping performance. Damping is what keeps your forks and shocks from acting like a pogo stick.
Check For Damage
The same goes for the rear shock assembly. Inspect the shock shaft for any obvious damage. The shock shaft is the shiny bit in the middle of the spring. Of course, any accumulated oil or grime in these areas is a sure sign not only that repairs will be needed, but also a likely indicator that the machine hasn’t been maintained properly in general.
Minor leakage could simply be a case of worn fork seals. Seals are cheap and relatively easy to replace with the proper tools – but those are specialty tools most riders won’t own. Having a qualified suspension technician do the work is most common, but not inexpensive. If they are barely seeping, you might be able to get away with just cleaning them.
The Benefits Of The Right Setup
Be aware that having a qualified suspension shop or technician actually set your forks and shocks to a spring rate and damping setup best suited to your weight and skill levelgreatly enhances both the performance of and your ability to control your dirt bike.
If you are in the magical weight range targeted by most manufacturers, typically 140-170 pounds, you might be fine with the stock settings. But suspension oil both front and rear should be changed from time to time even for the most casual of riders.
7. Inspect The Chassis
Once upon a time, most dirt bikes had painted steel frames. A well-used machine inevitably showed scuffage and loss of paint above the footpegs where the rider’s legs continuously touch the frame. This was most helpful.
Now, with the exception of Austrian based machines from KTM and sister companies Husqvarna and Gas Gas, frames on most competition type motorcycles are made from aluminum. Arguments can be made for either material in terms of performance, but the longevity of aluminum is now proven.
Alas, aluminum also rarely shows wear. So the age old “check the paint for cracks” is obsolete. Still, carefully inspect the lower frame rails beneath and behind the motor for damage. Rocks and other debris can dent and damage the frame.
Check The Welds
Inspect all the weld areas, looking for any signs of cracks or previous repairs. Finally, stand behind the bike and sight along the seat to the tank. Does it appear to be straight and inline? Crash damage to the subframe – the bit that bolts to the main frame and supports the seat and rear fender – is common. Subframes can generally be carefully straightened if bent. Main frames cannot.
The aforementioned KTM family of motorcycles continue to use steel frames, and again, there are arguable performance benefits. Likewise, many “play bikes” from all manufacturers also use high tensile strength steel in construction.
This is fine. There is nothing inherently right or wrong with either material. But it bears mentioning that longevity has proven to be one of aluminum’s attributes. Aluminum grows stiffer with use, and though there were early concerns that frames made from the material might grow “brittle” with age, there have been few occurrences that support that worry.
Aluminum vs Steel
Steel, conversely, grows more elastic with use. In short, it stretches. As it stretches, your wheelbase increases as your steering head angle grows slack, effectively “choppering” your motorcycle and slowing steering response. Footpeg mounts can also sag over time. Upper rear shock mounts can stretch and break.
Serious racers can measurably change the chassis geometry of a steel frame over a single season. At the highest level, this can happen over just a handful of races. In days gone by, regular frame replacement was part of the game for professional caliber riders – and it still is, for some teams.
For more mundane and normal use, steel frames can also last for several seasons with no discernible loss in stability or performance. If you are considering a machine with a steel frame, the same basic checks apply – check the bottom frame rails for damage, and inspect all welded areas for signs of previous stresses or repairs.
8. Inspect The Air Filter
While some prospective sellers are understandably reluctant to have you show up in their garage with a set of hand tools and begin disassembly, it’s not too much to ask that the seat be removed to check the filter and air box for proper maintenance. If the seller refuses, keep your money and move on.
9. Ask About The Oil
This is just as important as the air filter maintenance, but unfortunately a bit harder to check unless the seller is willing to allow you to drain the oil.
Unlike a street bike, most competition machines will not feature a looking glass for the oil level, nor a dipstick attached to the oil filler cap. They rely on a prescribed amount of oil being carefully added at each change. Some bikes do have a check bolt, which can be removed from the crankcase so oil can be observed reaching its proper height as it begins to flow out of the hole.
Still, most sellers will balk at removing even the check bolt. So at a minimum, ask the right questions and be wary of how they are answered. An owner who has performed proper maintenance will confidently respond in manner that indicates specific knowledge of the task and materials used.
If the seller hems and haws and is not specific about the amount, brand, and viscosity of the oil used, that’s a warning flag.
10. Check The Chain And Sprockets
This can be costly, and easily in the neighborhood of $200. This, like tires, is not a deal breaker, but it can be a bargaining chip in your price negotiation.
Even under heavy use, a quality dirt bike chain can actually last a very long time if it is properly cleaned, lubed, and adjusted for tension. But if it is neglected and left to run dry and loose, it can wear out before you so much as go through a rear tire.
Checking The Chain
Inspect the chain for kinks. Also, check the tension. As a very general rule of thumb, you should be able to just fit three fingers between the swingarm and the chain at its midpoint between the two sprockets. But be aware that chains stretch unevenly. Check it once, then rotate the rear wheel one-half of a turn and check it again. Same gap, or different? If the tension varies, replacement is needed.
Also, take a look at the adjustment of the rear axle. The axle is designed to be slid forward and back in slots in the swingarm to allow tension adjustment. If the axle and the blocks it rides in are pushed nearly to the far end of the slot, the chain is stretched and again will need to be replaced. If the chain shows visible corrosion, kinks, or if it skips on the sprocket teeth, it’s shot.
Take a hard look at those sprocket teeth. Are they uniform in appearance, with the material “ramped” in equal proportion on each side? Or are there teeth that are “hooked” or show signs of leaning to one side? These parts are easily replaced, but the cost involved, if discussed in the negotiation, might prompt some concession on the selling price.
11. Check The Brakes
If the pads are thin and close to their wear limit marks, or worse, down to metal, they will have to be replaced. As for fluid, many master cylinders have a sight window to check levels. Fresh brake fluid is nearly clear. Old fluid will be discolored to a yellow or even brown appearance.
Of all repairs or replacements that a used dirt bike might need, this is probably the least consequential – both pads and fluid are fairly affordable and easy to refurbish.
A big caveat is that you also need to check the rotors – the discs themselves. It is imperative that they are smooth and show no signs of metal to metal type wear from expired pads that went ignored. Replacement rotors are readily available, but a bit pricier than pads.
12. Check The Radiators For Damage And The Fluid Level
Pop the cap, which simply twists off, and check the coolant level. It should be at or near the top of the cooling core within. If it’s appreciably low, it could be a sign of an overheated engine.
After having a look at the coolant, take a hard look at the radiators themselves. Due to their function, they necessarily have to be mounted in a location that can be susceptible to crash damage. Generally made of aluminum, radiators can be smashed or bent in the event of a crash.
Also inspect the fins. They don’t all have to be perfect, but if they are sufficiently in disarray and misalignment, it’s generally a sign of previous damage and/or repairs. This again doesn’t have to be a “shut your wallet and leave” scenario, but more a reason to negotiate the price down a bit.
13. Check The Engine, Transmission And Clutch
This can be a sticky situation, in that the best way to test these things is undoubtedly an actual test ride. Is the seller okay with you taking the dirt bike for a quick spin? If you can, get a test ride when buying a used dirt bike.
At minimum you’ll want to start the motor and let it idle. Listen for any unusual engine noise. On a four stroke motor, tell-tale ticking is sometimes indicative of something relatively inexpensive like a worn timing chain or tensioner. On the other hand, if there is discernible engine noise that seemingly gets quieter when the engine is fully warmed, that may be indicative of deeper concerns.
The best way to test a transmission is a test ride, but if that’s not permitted at least run the bike through its gears manually. With the engine not running, nudge the gear shift lever into first. Rock the bike back and forth to rotate the rear wheel a bit, and then shift into second, third, fourth, etc, and make sure all gears are engaging and that gearshift changes are smooth.
Checking The Clutch
The clutch is essentially impossible to test without a ride. So if you can’t ride the bike, you’re rolling the dice on this one. If you are allowed to take it for a spin, try as best you can to ascertain that there isn’t a disconnect between how much noise the engine makes as it revs relative to actual acceleration.
A slipping clutch causes a motorcycle to rev “too quickly” without actually accelerating and will make the bike feel like it’s more noise than fury. You can also “dump” the clutch – let it out quickly – at low revs with the motorcycle in gear to see if the clutch slips, or engages immediately.
Carburetors And Fuel Injection
Some machines will be fitted with a carburetor. Carburetors can plug up easily, but can also be cleaned easily and affordably – albeit also carefully to retain crucial adjustments within. It’s hard to know, however, whether a simple carb clean is the answer to an ill-tuned engine.
More modern or serious competition machines from about 2010 or so have largely been fuel injected. Fuel injection is usually completely hassle free.
The Exhaust System
Finally, inspect the exhaust system. Check the head pipe (near the cylinder) for any bends or dents. Check the muffler assembly for any damage, which will be readily apparent. If the machine is unduly loud, it may simply need its silencer or muffler assembly repacked. This is easy and cheap – but also a sign that the machine may not have been maintained on a proper schedule.
Muffler packing is a wear item. It requires periodic replacement to keep your machine sounding crisp and running right.
Other Things To Check On A Used Dirt Bike
The list above contains the primary baker’s dozen of things you’ll want to check when considering the purchase of a used machine. But wait, you ask, what about the handlebars? The levers? The grips? What about the condition of the dirt bike’s plastics and the overall appearance?
Well, those things are the easiest to fix, and if you find yourself riding regularly, all will be high on the list of things you’ll be replacing from time to time anyway. Handlebars get bent, grips get torn, levers get broken, and fenders get scratched. It’s all part of the fun!
Also, all these areas are reasonably affordable to address, and are often changed for individual comfort choices anyway. There’s no reason to let a bent set of bars dissuade you from a purchase – unless they are indicative of the overall condition of the machine.
How To Avoid Getting Scammed When Buying A Used Dirt Bike
Aside from the mechanical and cosmetic concerns, there are other important factors to consider when buying a dirt bike. First and foremost, is the seller the actual owner?
Ownership requirements for off-road motorcycles vary widely from state to state and from region to region. In some areas, a full title for the vehicle is required and the machine must be registered. But there are also places where off-road use is not so regulated, so some machines are never registered.
Ask to see some sort of proof of ownership – whether it’s a government issued title of record, the manufacturer’s statement of origin, or even insurance paperwork or repair receipts, a legitimate seller should have some sort of paperwork.
Because registration requirements are a bit loose, dirt bikes are often stolen and resold. The chances are not particularly low that you might be looking at a stolen bike. The serial number on the frame will be located on the steering head tube, just between the fork legs.
If it is, run the number. There are websites that will check the 17-digit identification number against a data base of theft reports. If it isn’t there, or if the serial number shows any sign of being tampered with or removed, it’s deal breaker. Do not buy!
Is The Price To Good To Be True?
If you have to ask yourself that question, then it most likely is. Sometimes, circumstances can create a situation where the current owner just wants the machine gone. But if the price seems suspicious, in many cases it will be because the motorcycle is stolen, or it is in excessively poor condition.
One strategy is to research the price of similar bikes for sale, particularly in your local area. Establish a credible range for what you’d pay, and be suspicious of machines priced lower than what seems reasonable.
Ask The Seller The Right Questions
You can put the seller through a bit of a “test” of sorts by asking questions that are designed to ascertain his familiarity with the machine. Uncertain answers can be a big red flag.
You don’t have to make it seem like an interrogation. Over the course of 15-20 minutes of carefully inspecting the machine, keep it casual and conversational. If the seller stumbles over his answers or doesn’t seem certain about what he has or how it’s been cared for, there is every reason to be suspicious. Confident answers can go a long ways towards establishing the credibility of the seller.
Buying A Used Dirt Bike Checklist
Questions to ask the seller when buying a used dirt bike are:
- Why are you selling?
- Do you have a title?
- Do you mind if I check the VIN?
- What have you done to maintain the motorcycle?
- How often do you change the oil?
- Has the air filter been serviced regularly?
- Has it given you any major problems, or required major repairs?
Things to check when buying a used dirt bike are:
- Initial appearance
- Wheel bearings
- Suspension and steering bearings
- Air Filter
- Engine/transmission oil
- Chain and sprockets
- Engine, transmission, and clutch
When buying a used dirt bike, it’s best to understand the things to check before you agree to a purchase. These things include inspecting the engine, transmission and clutch, and checking the bike’s overall condition to learn whether or not the bike has been properly maintained in the past.