Finding a Project Bike: How to Buy a Used Motorcycle

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You’re set on rebuilding a vintage motorcycle but you don’t know where or how to buy one. Here’s a quick list to get you started and some more details below.

Ultimately, it all depends on what you’re looking for in a project and what you want to build.

Paperwork When Buying a Used Motorcycle

Here’s the paperwork and documents you should get when buying a used motorcycle:

  • Signed-over title from the seller. (Learn what to do with a motorcycle without a title).
  • Signed Bill of Sale.
  • Previous registration documents.
  • License plate (depending on the state).

When you go to register the bike and transfer the title to your name, you’ll also need:

  • Application for registration and title.
  • Insurance policy with at least the minimum coverage.
  • VIN Inspection forms (for out-of-state bikes in many states).
  • Safety inspection stickers/forms (in some states).

Can I Buy a Motorcycle Without a License?

In most states, you can buy a motorcycle without a motorcycle license.

However, you cannot legally ride a motorcycle without the proper endorsements.

In many states, you cannot register a motorcycle without a motorcycle license either.

Can I Ride a Motorcycle Without Insurance?

In most states, you must have a valid motorcycle insurance policy to legally operate your motorcycle on public roadways.

The only states that do no require motorcycle insurance are Florida, Montana, and Washington.

How to Choose the Right Project Motorcycle

  • Price research – compare similar bikes on Craigslist & eBay, search for local price estimates on NADA & KBB.
  • Model support – look for forums on the model you’re looking at. Some of the vintage Japanese motorcycles have cult followings and answers to almost every specific maintenance and repair question you can imagine.
  • Parts availability – search for parts for the bike on sites like bikebandit.com, z1enterprises.com, and eBay. You can get a sense of what parts are available and the abundance or lack of NOS, used parts, and aftermarket parts.
  • Vetting the advertisement – evaluate the ads you’ve found to make sure the seller is not promising something that’s too good to be true or trying to hide bigger problems. Check out any images provided, if there are none, ask for them. Reach out to the seller to try and get a sense of the state of the bike, registration/title details, etc.

Where to find old motorcycles:

  • Online – eBay, Craigslist, local classifieds.
  • Locally – Motorcycle salvage yards, estate sales, private collectors.

Depending on the motorcycle project you have in mind, the bike you’re looking at could be failing in every example above, but it might still be the perfect choice at the right price.

If you do your research up front, you’ll be able to better asses the value of the old motorcycle you’re looking at – running or not.

You’ll also be able to get a sense of what it’s going to cost you to restore the bike where you want it to be.

Where to Find a Project Motorcycle

If you’re patient, your options are endless – you can drive out to the countryside and knock on every door of every old farmhouse you come across, there’s bound to be some classic motorcycles stored away in some of them.

If you’re like most, your options are little more narrow.

Used Motorcycles on Craigslist & Local Classifieds

The most common and often easiest place to find old motorcycles for sale is on Craigslist or your local classified websites.

Depending on your location, you’ll find a wide range of local sellers with all types of conditions of motorcycles and a huge range of prices.

There’s likely a mix of pros and amateurs and everything in between selling bikes, which goes back to the range of conditions and prices. Sometimes a new baby or a kid who’s in over their head means a great deal for you.

Be patient and wait for the right bike in the right price range to come along – it’s really only a matter of time.

Depending on where you live, seasonality can play a big role in what’s available too. In colder climates, late winter can be a good time to buy as overconfident builders abandon their projects.

Use the MotorcycleZombies.com Used Motorcycle Search Engine to help out with your search.

Local Motorcycle Salvage Yards

Sometimes listed on your local classifieds are motorcycle salvage yards. These typically look like bike warehouses or fields with bike piled upon bikes and parts everywhere.

Finding a complete, titled motorcycle can be difficult, but if you’re looking for a major project or a secondary parts bike, salvage yards are a great place to go.

Prices are usually fair and there’s always the possibility that you’ll find something good – as long as you’re able to drag it out of there.

Project Motorcycles on eBay

There are plenty of project bikes and old motorcycles listed on eBay everyday. If you’re lucky, there might even be some local ones for you to check out.

Shipping the bike adds another level of complication to your project, and if it’s your first time rebuilding a motorcycle, let alone shipping a vehicle, it’s recommended you find something within driving distance.

eBay is great for an initial search. The problem is, most of your local sellers won’t be on there – and the sellers that are on eBay are often pricing their motorcycles for more than what you’d see locally.

So eBay is a good place to get some ideas of what kind of old motorcycles are available and what price ranges might look like, I find it better to stick to eBay for parts rather than complete bikes.

Motorcycle Parts Availability & Cost

For the first time builder, the availability of used, new old stock, and aftermarket parts for your motorcycle are key to a successful rebuild project – even more so if you hope to restore the bike to its completely stock form.

Once you’ve found a few motorcycles you’re interested in, it’s time to do some price comparisons and a quick parts availability check before you see it in person.

To get an idea of how easy and costly replacement parts for your bike will be you can check out eBay, Bikebandit.com, and specialty sites like Z1enterprises.com – Search by the year and model of the old motorcycles you have in mind to get an idea of prices and availability.

It’s a good idea to check multiple sources before you make your final decision. If there’s a wide selection of parts – used, new, aftermarket- at reasonable prices, you may have a little more wiggle room on the price and condition of the motorcycle you buy.

However, if you’re finding that it’s difficult to locate parts for a specific motorcycle year/model, that’s an indicator that you’ll want to look for a bike that’s in better condition with most of its parts and components present, intact, and hopefully operable.

Assessing the Motorcycle’s Condition

Once you check out the motorcycle in person, you’ll need to asses the true condition of the bike. Typically classified ads overstate the positives and understate or fail to mention the problems their motorcycle has.

If you have a tight budget or want to avoid getting into a project that might be too challenging for a first time home-building, do a thorough check with your eyes, hands, and ears to be sure no major problems are lurking in the motorcycle.

Look for damage, missing parts, and any indicators that the bike has been dropped. Feel for crankcase damage, loose parts, chain tension, suspension and steering play. Listen for abnormal engine noise.

If the motorcycle is advertised as running or firing up, ask the seller to wait until you arrive to start the bike. You’ll want to assess how the bike starts when cold.

Ultimately, the condition of the motorcycle you should be willing to buy should depend on your project goals.

If you’re looking for a short term project that’s relatively easy, you’re definitely going to want to start with a bike that is in fairly good shape – intact and running probably.

If you’re in it for the long haul and expect to put in a good amount of time and money into your motorcycle rebuild, you can cut some of the upfront cost with a motorcycle that’s in poor shape or even in pieces.

Should You Buy a Dropped Motorcycle?

A dropped motorcycle is not necessarily a deal breaker. In most cases, the damage from the drop is going to be mostly cosmetic or minor.

If you’re rebuilding the bike anyway, a simple dropped motorcycle shouldn’t be an issue. It may even help you get a better price.

However, if by dropped, the seller means the motorcycle has been involved in a major crash or was hit while parked, you may need to do a bit more of an inspection to make sure it’s worth it.

If you notice major damage or bending of the frame, forks, swingarm, or engine cases, you may want to reconsider the purchase or try to talk the price down and use it as a parts bike.

Buying a Used Motorcycle from a Private Seller

The price you’ll be able to get for the motorcycle itself is going to depend on a few different factors – ones you can assess, such as the condition of the bike, KBB or NADA price estimates, and local price ranges, and factors you can’t always control – like the seller himself.

A cheap motorcycle is not necessarily an indicator of a bad motorcycle, but you typically get when you pay for. If you’re up for a challenge, a cheap rolling chassis and a box of parts might be right for you.

On the other hand, more expensive does not necessarily mean better condition either. The seller is almost always going to value the bike for more than it’s worth.

If it’s a failed cafe racer project, you can be sure he’s already dumped some money into likely unnecessary parts and is trying to get something back from it – at the end of the day, a box of junk is still a box of junk and should be priced accordingly.

The best advice is to do your homework so that you can negotiate the price of the bike to the best of your ability. If the seller has overvalued the machine and/or won’t budge on his price – you’ll be better informed to walk away.

Make sure to inspect the bike thoroughly as part of your purchase. Some questions you may want to ask the seller include:

  • How long have they owned the motorcycle?
  • History of previous owners and registration?
  • Last time it ran or was used regularly?
  • Any known issues?
  • Is the title included? And if not, will they help you track it down?

Always remember to get a Bill of Sale as part of the transaction.

Good Project Motorcycles

Not sure what kind of bike to get? It really depends on your personal preference and budget, but some popular project bikes for rebuilds and restorations include:

  • Honda CB models.
  • Yamaha XS models.
  • Kawasaki Z-series.
  • BMW Airhead or Oilhead Flat-Twin.
  • Harley-Davidson Ironhead Sportster.

As a general rule of thumb, the more common the bike, the cheaper it will be and the more range you’ll have to do whatever you want with it. A rarer or highly desirable bike is going to cost you more and is probably best restored back to stock.

Motorcycles from the 1970s and 1980s are often great choices for project bikes as they are often common, cheap, and have a large availability of parts.

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