11 Things to Consider When Buying A Project Motorcycle

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Over the past five-years, I’ve restored or bought more than a dozen motorcycles.  Each motorcycle purchase taught me something about buying a project bike and what to look out for.  I’m sure I bought my fair share of lemons during my first motorcycle ventures. But I soon learned what to look out for and found diamonds in the rough.

Here are the expected details.  You’re with the owner looking at the motorcycle.  This is an exciting time! Keep in mind, if you are looking for a project motorcycle, the motorcycle will not be perfect (which is why you’re hopefully getting a good deal on it!). Don’t be nit picky about everything.  Every motorcycle has at least one defect.

When looking for a project bike, there are many things to consider. Your willingness to learn and the expertise you have in building a project motorcycle are important. Ask the seller to provide documentation and details about the motorcycle’s past. Look for signs if the motorcycle was involved in an accident. Calculate how much it will take to fix it.

If this is your first purchase of a project bike, you might feel anxious or stressed. There are many people who have been in your shoes and built beautiful motorcycles. You’re taking the first steps to such an outcome. Continue reading to learn more about what to look for when purchasing a project bike.

Take Charge of Your Expertise and Willingness

YouTube and the internet are great resources for learning how to fix anything.  If you have the drive and skills, you can repair and restore a bike without any prior experience. (For more information, see our article Do you need experience to restore a motorcycle).  

However, you should be aware of how much expertise and experience you have.  For some, small problems may be way over their head and for others, an engine rebuild isn’t a problem.  Make sure you know what you can and cannot fix before you even look at a bike.  

You do not want to get into a project bike, get halfway through and realize you’re over your head, then have to sell the thing for less than you bought it for in addition to a damaged ego.  You are confident that you can do it, but you need to be able to overcome your doubts.

If you’d like to get into rebuilding motorcycles, I have created an entire video series on how to restore a motorcycle from start to finish. This product was made with beginners in mind. It will answer all your questions and guide you through the entire process. This series also features in-depth videos on complex components such as body work, electrical, and carb rebuilds. Click here for more information if you’re interested in viewing this helpful video series!

Do You Have a Title for the Seller?

This is the first question you should ask the owner. If the owner holds a lien on the title, it is acceptable. However, you will need to take the lien to the bank to complete the transaction and have your title transferred to your name by the bank.  Otherwise, If the owner doesn’t have the title, you should walk away immediately A title is essential for any motorcycle purchase. Here’s an example:

A good friend of mine bought a motorcycle while I was in college.  He had never purchased one before so he didn’t know much about what to look for.  The seller reported he had a title for the motorcycle but didn’t have it in hand. My friend bought the motorcycle after the seller promised that he would send the title. “in a few days.”  

Guess what? It was only a matter of days. No title. My friend tried to contact the seller but was unsuccessful. He tried to contact the seller but was unsuccessful. To his horror, the DMV informed him that the lien on the motorcycle, which had been placed for several hundred dollars, still existed.  

My friend originally paid more than $1,000 for the bike. He was required to pay a lien and purchase the motorcycle to own it. He was in a complete mess. Because of the title issues and the fact that the motorcycle had numerous problems, he ended up selling it to a friend for $200.

You risk the possibility of having a lien placed on your motorcycle, which will require you to pay the balance if it is not titled. (because heaven knows the seller won’t pay it).  

You also have the risk of buying an untitled motorcycle that it may be stolen. You might be surprised at what happens to your motorcycle if it is stolen. It’s confiscated and you’re out the cash you just paid.  The seller pockets your money and chances are they’ve run to the next state over.

Here are a few other things the check on the actual title itself:  make sure it does not say “duplicate” You can pawn it to get a loan.  

Make sure the VIN numbers match between the title and the motorcycle (remember, the title goes with the motorcycle frame), and make sure the person’s name you’re buying the motorcycle from has their name on the title.  If it’s not, they legally cannot sell you the motorcycle. For more information on buying a motorcycle with no title, see my article.

Is the Motorcycle able to Run?

Alright, if you’re at this point, that means the owner has a title ready to give to you if you purchase the motorcycle. Next, check if the motorcycle is running. You may be surprised with this, but I’ve never been too worried about purchasing a motorcycle if it does not run.  

This is the project motorcycle that you want, so there will be issues. Most of the times, it is not the engine that is the problem. I’ve found that about 90% of the time the reason a motorcycle does not start or runs poorly is because of clogged up carbs This is an easy fix.

If this is your first project motorcycle, it’s still okay to buy one that’s not running, but if you’re more comfortable buying a one that’s already running then that’s fine too.  Follow your instincts and feel at your level. Don’t take on more than you think you can handle; you want this to be a fun and positive experience!

What Are the Problems Owners Should Be Aware of?

Hopefully the owner of the motorcycle you’re interested in is honest, but don’t count on it.  People will usually fib a little when they’re trying to sell something. However it doesn’t hurt to ask what problems he/she is aware of that the motorcycle has.  They may not tell you every single issue, but they’ll at least tell you some of the biggest issues.

Consider the problems it faces and your level of experience.  Is it something you can do yourself? It would be much more expensive to have it fixed by a professional.

The Last Registration and Why They Have Stopped Riding

If it’s been a while since the motorcycle was registered, this shouldn’t be much of a cause for concern. This question is a sneaky way to find out other problems the motorcycle may have that the owner didn’t initially discuss. It is important that the owner discloses this information, especially if they do NOT have the registration papers.  

Many of the motorcycles I was working on were old motorcycles that had been in fields for many years. It was difficult to register them. Often times people stop riding their motorcycles because they can’t get it started and don’t want to bother with fixing it (again, usually the carbs).

The Motorcycle’s Reaction While Rolling It

Turn the bike on and put it in neutral. Then, start it up.  If it rolls easily then that’s a good sign. You can click down to first gear. If the clutch does not pull, it could be a problem with your clutch or transmission. You can repair your transmission yourself if you’re concerned about it. It may be worth replacing the whole engine which, with older motorcycles, really isn’t that expensive.

While you are driving it, be sure to inspect both tires. Are they wobbling? This could indicate a collision. Again that shouldn’t be a turn off, just be aware of the amount of work required to repair it.

Signs that the motorcycle has been tipped over

An old motorcycle I had restored and flipped was up for sale.  He came to my home, asked many questions, looked over the bike and then decided to purchase it.  We met for a while, and I soon discovered that he was an experienced motorcyclist.

He gave me the cash and I gave him my title.  He got on the motorcycle, started it up, pushed up the kickstand and……..tipped the motorcycle. We removed any oil or gas that had leaked, cleaned the motorcycle, and discovered a few scratches as well as a bent handlebar.

It didn’t matter that the guy drove it on the freeway for over 30 miles without any issues. It happens, so don’t sweat it too much if your potential motorcycle shows signs of being tipped.

There are two types: those who have ridden a motorcycle and those who will tie a bike.

If you’re looking for a project motorcycle, chances are the motorcycle you’re interested in has been tipped. This should not alarm you and shouldn’t discourage you from buying the motorcycle.  

You should look closely at this to see how much damage they have caused, such as:

  • Large dents and deep scratches on a gas tank
  • Pegs for bent feet
  • Engine fins bent or broken
  • Any scratches or marks on the engine’s painted metal that are not too large
  • Damaged crankcase
  • scratched air intake (if it’s one that pokes out of the side of the motorcycle)
  • Bend throttle, brake lever, and/or clutch hand
  • Handle bars bent or crooked

You will need to again assess your willingness to fix it and what you can do without. For more information on this, check out our article Is It Bad To Lay A Motorcycle On It’s Side.

What is the length of time that the seller has owned the motorcycle?

Many times I’ve purchased motorcycles from the only owner the bike had.  The bike was owned by the original owner, who bought it when they were younger and kept it throughout their adult lives.  This situation gives me a special sense of nostalgia.

I’ve also met a few people who own the motorcycle for less than a year.  I ask these owners a few questions to find out why they have had the motorcycle for so little time.

Try to dig a little deeper. Maybe they thought they could fix it up but never gave it the time of day it deserved, or maybe there’s a bigger problem.  It’s okay to ask a lot of questions because this is a big investment.

The Motorcycle’s Worth After Working On It

This may be a hobby for you that you’ve either been doing for a while or you’re just getting started with.  It’s a good idea to do some math when you purchase a project motorcycle. What is the cost of purchasing the motorcycle?  How much are you estimating the cost of repairs?

With these two prices, Will your motorcycle be worth 75% more than the amount you invested in it?  For example, if I buy a motorcycle for $1,000 and know I will need to put in about $1,000 to fix it up, will it be worth $1,500 when I’m done?

Even if you’re not planning on selling the motorcycle right away, you still need to be smart with your money in case a situation arises and you have to sell your bike. Check out my list of essential tools for working on motorcycles.

How does it sound when you first start it?

If the motorcycle supposedly runs, hopefully you contacted the owner before hand and requested they not warm the motorcycle up, meaning the owner didn’t start it up before you got there.  Is it easy to start? How easy is it to get started? Does it backfire?

Once again, these are not things that should turn you away from the project motorcycle, just be aware of what you’ll need to fix.  My project motorcycles had trouble starting when I first bought them. Most of the time, it was due to plugged carbs.

Is the Engine making any tickling sounds?

If you’re able, take the motorcycle for a spin.  It’s good to get familiar with how well the clutch works, how well the brakes works, and altogether functionality of the motorcycle.  Listen to the engine and any ticks. If you do hear any ticking, that’s a sign the engine may go out soon.  

You can negotiate with the seller about this if you are open to it. Tell them what the engine ticks and ask for a reduced price. The reason I don’t discourage you from buying a project bike with a bad engine is because if your potential future motorcycle is a common one, getting a working donor engine for it is only a few hundred dollars.  If you can reduce the price so much, then it is worth it.

It’s okay to not buy the motorcycle right away.  Tell the seller that you’ll be in touch with them within the next few days if you have any questions.  But be swift and don’t put off your contemplation. You may not be the first to buy, and the seller might have other buyers.  

Before You Go

There are a few things you’ll need to take care of before you even look at the motorcycle.  First, Never buy a motorcycle without seeing it. Before you purchase a motorcycle, make sure to inspect it thoroughly.  You can always send someone you trust to help you look at the motorcycles.

Second, If you decide to purchase a motorcycle, make sure you print a bill of sale.  You can write a bill of sales if you don’t have the bill of sale, but you do have some paper and a pen.  

Within the bill of sale be sure to include your name and address, seller’s name and address, motorcycle make, model, and year, motorcycle vehicle identification number (VIN), the date of transaction, how much you bought it for, and signatures from both you and the seller.  Here’s an example of how to write it out:

MOTORCYCLE BILL – SALE

Seller’s name and address:

Buyer’s name and address:

Make, model, year, and year of motorcycle:

VIN for Motorcycles:

Date:

Price:

Seller’ signature:

Buyer’s signature:

Third, contact the seller to arrange a viewing and testing of the motorcycle.  You should schedule your appointment during daylight hours. I’ve made the mistake of looking at motorcycles at night in which I ended up purchasing, only to find scratch marks, handle bar bends, etc. that I didn’t see because it was too dark.

Make sure you have enough time in your day to attend the meeting.  It’s not a good idea to rush and make a mistake. You don’t necessarily need to take a whole hour to examine the motorcycle, but I’m always put at ease knowing I have the extra time for a thorough examination if needed.

Fourth:  If the owner reports the motorcycle is running, Ask the owner not to run it before your arrive.  You want to make sure you initially see the motorcycle while it’s cold (meaning it hasn’t been turned on for at least a few hours).  This will give you a better idea of what the motorcycle will be like every time you go to start it up after it’s been sitting for a while.

Conclusion

You did a great job and it was a pleasure to read through the entire list while looking for a motorcycle to purchase. Congratulations on your new project motorcycle!  Don’t forget, restoring motorcycles is no easy task as it is to restore cars.

People seem to compare the two and they’re nothing alike price wise and experience wise. Electrical, suspension, brakes, and tire issues are cheap fixes and nothing to be too concerned about when you’re looking into buying a project motorcycle.

Similar Questions

How long can a motorcycle be left on its battery before it dies? The average motorcycle battery will die after 2 – 4 months without running. Newer batteries can last longer with an average of 3 – 5 months until dying whereas older batteries will not last as long giving it an average of 1 – 3 months until the battery dies while the motorcycle is sitting. This article will provide more information.

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