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  Guide to buying a second hand bike


Having had some exposure to the second-hand bike market and the bike, I have tried to put together my views on the aspects of buying one. This guide relates to Bullets in India (especially in and around Mumbai), since I have had more experience with the same. Other bikes at other places may or may not follow the same methodology. However, the jist of it might remain more or less the same.

Standard disclaimer:
All bikes, like people have their own personalities and it would be difficult to generalize their characteristics. However, a humble attempt has been made to do so. Please note that all aspects mentioned in this guide are just MY views, and there is no guarantee as to their authenticity by me, or the web site hosting this guide.

Which bike/model?
First and foremost if you are interested in buying a bike, you should know the purpose you are going to use it for. Since all bikes are good when used within their capacity. Like a 50cc gearless moped would be ideal for a 90 pound newspaper boy, carrying his 10 pounds of newspapers and running around from house to house delivering them, whereas the same moped wouldn’t do for a 200 pound, burly traveler and his burly pillion, carrying another 100 pounds of luggage heading out on the highway to far out destinations. So the first thing to do is to find out what particular bike / model, would satisfy your needs. There are other aspects to consider. Such as reliability, endurance, stability, availability of spares, luggage-carrying capacity etc. All of these should go together in helping you make up your mind as to the bike that you would like to have.

The best way to go about trying to figure out which bike / model you would like to have is to go around to the various dealers and get a test ride. Then judge for yourself, what would make you most comfortable.

Where/whom to buy from:
Classifieds and other ads found on the net, in magazines are good to get a handle on the market. The best I’ve found however are recommendations. When the seller and buyer are known to each other, is when there is maximum transparency in the deal. In the absence of recommendations, the options are:

  • Dealers / mechanics:
    Most dealers / mechanics would have some or the other second-hand bike for sale or at least be able to tell you where you could get hold of one. The downside here would be that there might be a commission involved, and there might be an eagerness to get a better rate – so that the commission is also more. (Ofcourse that would depend upon your haggling skills.) The upside here is that there might be a warranty or service package thrown in, and if the bike has been maintained / serviced regularly by the dealer / service station / mechanic then you might be able to have the authentic history. Also a dealer might do the transfer of ownership for you (may / may not be for a price), without you going through all the hassles.
  • Web sites:
    Various web sites now cater to the second-hand market. You may get onto the WWW and log on to any search engine, where you could search for a second-hand bike. You may search for a particular make / model depending upon your preferences.
  • Private sellers:
    Private sellers can be found in any classifieds section of a newspaper, or by asking around at any motorcycle mechanic. You may also check out your local Automobile Association (such as the WIAA). The biggest fear from private sellers is of stolen bikes. Since if the bike were found to be a stolen one, you would require to write-off your money and the bike. Probably a good way to ensure that the person selling the bike is the owner, ask him / her to explain the bike and it’s controls to you. You should even prod him / her about the way the bike cold-starts or the mileage and other special characteristics of the individual bike etc. If the person is not very familiar then that might give you a hint about the ownership.

    You should always attempt to meet the bike owner at his / her residence, so that a proof of ownership / address would also be ensured. Beware of fly-by-night sellers, bogus contacts especially mobile numbers.

Inspecting the bike:
We’ve often heard the phrase “Love at first sight”. This phrase is not necessarily applicable only to humans, but even between you and your machine. Most times, if the bike appeals to you, the first time you see it, you will share a very strong bond.

Visual checks:
One can often know just by looking at the bike, whether the bike has been used well or abused. It is necessary to carry out all visual inspection during the day, when / where there is plenty of natural light. Since shadows can sometimes mask potential trouble spots. If you do not consider yourself an authority on bikes, then it might be a good idea to take along someone, whom you consider an expert, just for a second opinion and also to ensure that you are not biased, by your eagerness to buy a bike.

The first thing one should look for are obvious oil leaks. If the bike has not been washed properly then these become easier to spot, whereas on a freshly cleaned bike, they might be a bit more difficult to identify.

The place to look for oil-leaks is around the engine.

  • Area around the plug. If this are is found to be oily you should check the oil level – if the oil level is above the “High” mark, this condition MIGHT be acceptable. However, if the oil-level is proper or less, it indicates oil is entering the combustion chamber from the valve guides or the oil-scrapper ring is not efficient. Either condition means expenses.
  • Around the tappet covers. This could mean either a damaged tappet cover or a bad gasket / sealant used. Either of which is not very serious.
  • Engine nuts or around the (head / block) gaskets. This could mean either that the gasket / sealant is bad, it could even mean a slipping nut / stud, or worse it could mean a badly faced block / head. All of these would require removal and refitting of the engine block and new gaskets.
  • On the clutch cover, around the opening where the alternator / ignition wires go in. This is pretty normal, and may require just a new rubber stopper, to plug it.
  • If the bike is NOT fitted with an oil condenser then there might be some oil on / around the breather pipe. This is normal.
  • Droplets of oil below the sump might be cause for alarm. From under the breather-pipe or chain area, it might not be serious.

Corrosion / Rusting:
In places near the sea, it is very likely to find rust on many parts of the bike. Surface rust (Rust which comes of easily, even by rubbing your finger against.) is not necessarily a cause for concern, but deeper rust (Rust which looks like flakes, and the metal appears corroded) may be cause for concern. If the rusty part crumbles when poked, then replacement is the only option.

The only part of a Bullet’s engine, which could rust is the iron block, almost everything else on the engine is aluminum. Here, also if the rust is only surface rust then it is just a matter of cleaning and re-painting. However, if the rust has resulted in excessive pitting and large flaking, then it might require a block change, as the cooling would be adversely affected.

The entire chassis must be properly inspected for visible rust marks. Flaky paint should be inspected thoroughly. Newly painted areas should be felt for smoothness. The chassis should be thoroughly checked, as the entire bike is held together only by this. If there is a problem here, then replacement is imminent.

Other parts:
On other parts of the bike such as levers, yokes, carrier, handle, mirrors, etc… rust is not necessarily a problem, since these may only be cosmetic and could easily be replaced.

Cosmetically the bike should be as close to the original as possible, since that would ensure that the parts are replaceable if / when things go wrong. In case of cosmetic modifications (such as changing the riding position in any way, or re-locating brake / gear controls etc.), you must ensure that there should be no problem in the working or handling of the bike due to the modifications. Also ensure that in case of a collision safety has been considered. Such as when fairings are fitted, you must ensure that the fairing is made out of material which would bend on impact and not act like a knife. Any additional components should be looked at from a performance / safety point of view, rather than merely cosmetic.

However, in case of modifications, after weighing the pros & cons, the risk is completely up to you – whether to go with it or not.

Most bikes in busy cities like Mumbai may have their fair share of scratch marks. Some might even have taken a couple of small falls. Hence, to find scratches, scuffs, broken mirrors, broken tail-light / indicators etc. might be acceptable. However, you should check thoroughly for non-cosmetic damage like cracks or bends in significant areas such as the crank case, clutch case, gear-box etc. Since these will be expensive to rectify.

Evidence of a serious crash:

  • View the front fork from both sides. The fork should look absolutely straight from the handle-bar-end to the axle-end. Any bending here might be indicative of a crash. You may also try to budge the handlebar from side-to-side while holding the front wheel between your legs to check if there is any free-play in the fork or the wheel bearing. (Ideally, there should not be any.)
  • Inspect the frame / chassis and try to look for dents or weld-spots. This might indicate a repaired chassis.
  • Chassis / Swing-arm alignment can be checked by simply extending a string from the farthest edge of the front tyre to the farthest edge of the rear tyre, in a straight line. If the string touches the front & rear tyre at two points each then the alignment is fine, if not then some investigation would be recommended as to the misalignment.
  • Uneven tyre-wear could also indicate a crash. A tyre should be worn evenly along the complete span of the tread. If the tyre is bumpy, then the suspension needs doing up.
  • A bent handlebar or crash guard could also indicate a fall – generally small falls would not bend a handlebar.
  • Bent foot-pegs, grazed levers, scratched crash-guards etc. may not be a cause for concern.
    Point to be noted - Any evidence of a crash would require further probing. Ideally, an expert’s opinion should be sought, to ensure that the handling of the bike is not adversely affected in any way.

Detail check:
Don’t dismiss a bike just because you see a dulled, weathered paint, scratches or dents. Contrary to belief, beauty is not necessarily only skin deep. If time permits, a detailed check can be very informative and rewarding.

Items to check:

  • Spark Plug:
    Remove the spark plug to check the color at the points. It must be a have a light coffee-brown or wheat color, which indicates a healthy engine. A chocolate-brown color indicates a rich mixture – (no cause for major concern). A white color indicates a lean mixture, which means the engine will run hotter than normal, indicating that some excessive wear may have been caused. A black sticky plug indicates bad fuel used or excessive oil entering the combustion chamber – not the sign of a healthy engine.
  • Air cleaner:
    Remove the air cleaner / filter and check the condition. A clogged air-filter is no cause for great concern, however that would only mean that the engine would not running in proper tune. Clogged air-filters also result in giving a dark coloration to the plug, due to a richer mixture being fed to the carburetor. The important thing to remember is that the air-filter should not have any traces of oil.
  • Engine:
    • Fumes / smoke:
      Start the engine and bring it to a fast idle. Check for fuel fumes or droplets around the carburetor or fuel supply. This necessarily means a leaky and potentially hazardous fuel feed system. While you are at it, also look for traces of a fuel leak from the tank. This could involve some expensive repairs. Race the engine a few times and check for any smoke emerging out of the exhaust. If the smoke is white, then it could indicate excessive oil getting into the combustion chamber – not healthy. If the smoke is black – it could indicate bad compression and / or improper fuel mixture – not healthy. It is best to have an expert’s opinion on this, as there can be various reasons for a bike smoking, and these would require to be addressed on a case-to-case basis.
    • Noises:
      Open the tappet cover on a cool bike and check the tappet tightness as indicated in the owner’s manual. Now, start the engine, bring it to a fast idle and listen for any odd sounds emanating from the engine. If the tappets were loose, clicking sounds coming from the area around the head or barrel is not a problem. However, if tappets were perfectly set, then it might indicate loose rockers, or worn valve-guides – Cause for concern. A honing sound from around the timing wheels would indicate tight wheels – which might not be a problem. However, a random clatter might indicate timing wheels need replacement. Any grating sound should be further investigated.
  • Oil condition:
    Remove the oil dipstick and note the color and viscosity. If the oil is blackened the engine might be running hot or the oil has not been changed in quite a while. If the oil feels watery (very little oiliness / viscosity) then the oil may not have been changed in a while or the appropriate grade may not be used. If tiny metal particles / fillings are found in the oil, in all likelihood – the floating bush would have gotten busted, which would only mean that a complete engine overhaul is imminent.
  • Battery:
    If the horn and light(s) are powerful enough even when the engine is switched off, the battery might be fine. If however the current at the horn or light(s) is weak, check the battery. If the battery is dry then it might not have been topped regularly or the charging system may be overcharging the battery, in which case the regulator might need replacement. If the battery appears well and is topped up then try to disconnect all wires from the battery and taking a nice thick wire (at least a 3/20 or 7/10) hold it firmly against the negative terminal and attempt a spark at the positive terminal. If the spark is a bright blue, the battery is OK. Next, attempt to short the battery by connecting both the terminals of the battery, after opening all the battery caps. If bubbles emerge out of any one of the caps, that indicates that the cell is busted and the battery would need replacement, otherwise the battery is OK.
  • Brakes:
    Take the bike for a test ride. Then while moving at a speed of about 10-20 kmph. gradually apply the front brake only. The bike should slow down smoothly, without any intermittent jerking or rattling of the fork. Now repeat the test for the rear brake. Also note that there should not be any squealing sounds on braking, especially from the disk brake. Check for any grooves on the disk, too – grooves indicate improper wear of the disk, which might need replacement to rectify.
  • Sprocket teeth:
    Check the teeth on the rear chain sprocket. If teeth are broken or chipped – then chain tension may not be proper or the chain may have gotten too old. In either case the sprocket and/or chain may need replacement.
  • Gears:
    Take the bike on a test ride. The bike should slip into and out of gears easily (without a struggle). There should also be no grating / grinding sounds coming from the gearbox, which would necessitate an overhaul.
  • Clutch:
    Start the bike, slip it into gear with the clutch depressed. Then with full brakes applied raise the engine and gently release the clutch. The engine should slow down until it almost sputters and goes off. If the engine still moves with the entire clutch released, then the clutch needs a complete overhaul.

Verification of Mileage / Model:
The tyres make a good guide as to the model of the bike in case the bike is less than a couple of years old. Since company fitted tyres generally carry a date stamp on the wall of the tyre. If the tyre is older than the date specified in the RC book by more than a couple of months, then there’s a good chance that there is some goof-up in the RC book or that the original tyres have been replaced. Generally a new set of tyres lasts up to 30,000 – 40,000 kms. depending upon the terrain they’ve been used on and the way the bike has been ridden.

Generally rubber parts (foot-pegs, grips etc.) and paint form a good guide to the use of the bike. If the mileage done does not correspond with the wear on these parts then there might possibly be some foul-play.

Paper work check:
Once you are pretty sure that the bike is mechanically sound and you would be interested in purchasing it, you should check out the paper work.

  • RC (Registration Certificate) book:
    The engine and chassis numbers printed in the RC book should match the engine and chassis numbers embossed on the engine and chassis. The particulars mentioned in the RC book should all be authenticated, including the color of the bike (if and where mentioned). If the color is different, there should be a corresponding certificate from the RTO to validate the change in color. In case the bike is older than 15 years a “Vehicle Passing Certificate” is needed. (This might be just a rubber stamp endorsement inside the RC book indicating the validity of the passing.) The number of owners can be verified from the RC book, provided the RC book is the original and not a duplicate. In case the RC book is a duplicate, then authentication might be necessary from the responsible RTO.
  • Tax certificate:
    The Tax certificate should be valid. Generally all bikes now-a-days have a One-Time-Tax (OTT) paid, the validity for which is about 20 years (the validity date is indicated on the certificate). (This certificate again might be just a rubber stamp endorsement inside the RC book indicating the validity of the tax.)
  • Insurance certificate:
    There should exist a valid insurance certificate of the vehicle.
  • Wheel tax (local Municipal corporation):
    This tax is dependant upon the city / state to which the bike belongs. If this is applicable, there should be a valid receipt indicating the same. Information regarding
  • PUC (Pollution Under Control) Certificate:
    There must exist a valid PUC certificate. (This certificate might be just a sticker stuck on the bike somewhere indicating the vehicle number and the validity of the certificate.)
  • NOC (No Objection Certificate):
    An NOC is necessary from the RTO where the vehicle is registered, especially if the registration of vehicle is going to be transferred from one RTO to another.
  • Owner’s manual / Service book:
    This is not mandatory. However, an owner’s manual / service book would ensure that proper maintenance has been carried out periodically, and also that historical records can be confirmed with the service station / workshop.

Agreeing on a price:
Check on the price of a brand new machine of the same make & model, which you are interested in buying. Then consider the bike you wish to buy, and consider the expense you have to make on it, to get it to a similar-to-new condition. The total expense (without any drastic modifications) should come to about 50 – 75 % the cost of a new machine. That would make it worthwhile going in for a second hand machine.Ofcourse, the year of manufacture also plays a part in deducing the price. Most good auto magazines carry a section on this price index year-wise, so that might be a good guide to go by.

In conclusion:
There are a lot of second-hand bikes out there. Don’t be fooled by someone telling you that the market is down and nobody is selling a particular make / model anymore and that the piece in front of you is going to slip out of your hands if you don’t decide really fast. The bike for you will be there, no matter how long you take to decide. Don’t base your decision on your eagerness to buy a bike.

You should consider all view points, which would help you to short list the number of bikes you actually see.

This guide attempts to ensure that you consider almost all legal & other aspects, to help you make – THE RIGHT CHOICE!

No matter what folks tell you about the bike in question, do not get influenced by THEIR choice. Remember, you are the best judge of what you need, and the final verdict must necessarily be ONLY YOURS!.


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