Buying a Used Dirt Bike – The Ultimate Guide

So you have decided to take the leap and purchase a new (to you) dirt bike.  Congratulations!  Riding dirt bikes is one of the most rewarding past times out there.  But it can also be a major headache if you end up buying a bike that is not in the condition that you expected it to be in.  This article will walk you through the steps you should take when buying a used dirt bike.  So, let’s get started!

Where to look when buying a used dirt bike

These days, the most common place to buy a used dirt bike it by finding it online.  Gone are the days of buying a Cycle Trader magazine and finding the bike for you (although this is still an option, especially if you have a very specific type of dirt bike you are looking for).  Let’s review some of the most common ways of finding a bike online.

Craigslist

The first place that comes to mind when trying to find a dirt bike online is craigslist. Craigslist is pervasive and is often times the first place people think of when they are trying to either buy or sell used goods.  In the olden days (a few years ago), craigslist was a great place to find dirt cheap items.

However, given its rising popularity, excellent deals are on there for a very short amount of time.  With that in mind, if you are looking for a used dirt bike on craigslist, you should be checking the site at least daily, ideally a couple of times a day.

Be aware of scams on craigslist.  Along with its rising popularity, there are a rising number of scams.  That super clean 2019 KTM that you see on there for 900 dollars isn’t real.

I have found that I have best results searching for the specific model number I am interested in when buying a used dirt bike.  For example, if I search for something generic like “dirt bike” on craigslist, most of the results are not going to be relevant to me.  However, if I am looking for a Yamaha YZ450F, I will search for “yz” or “yz450f.”  This does a couple of things.  First, the results will mostly be relevant.  Second, since the results will be relatively limited, craigslist will automatically search your search term in surrounding areas. 

Facebook Marketplace

Relatively new to the scene is the Facebook Marketplace.  This is accessed via the Facebook app on your phone.  You should be able to limit your results for your area and you can set up notifications to let you know when a new bike that you are interested in pops up.  Similar to searching on craigslist, set your alerts for the model number of the bike.  For example, KX, YZ, CR, RM, TTR, etc.

Apps

Depending on where you live, your mileage may vary with using mobile apps.  In my area there has been a recent shift of people moving towards using mobile apps to sell dirt bikes.  Apps like Letgo and OfferUp give local people a way to quickly snap a picture, put a limited description of the item they are selling, and chat with prospective buyers. 

I have never personally purchased a dirt bike through an app like Letgo or OfferUp, but I have purchased other things, and it is still part of my routine when looking for dirt bikes.

eBay

Lastly, eBay Motors is an option if there is a very specific dirt bike that you are looking for.  The likelihood of you finding a bike locally is slim with eBay, but if you have the money and don’t mind driving, that ultra clean CR500 might be available.

Used Dirt Bike Checklist

buying a used dirt bike checklist

What to look for when buying a used dirt bike

So you have found a bike and are on your way to check it out.  Make sure to give it a thorough check before you buy it.  Go ahead and assume that you know nothing about the bike, and assume that it has not been maintained properly.  Looking through this lens will allow you to be much more objective about your decision.  Also, just because the seller says the oil was recently changed does not give you a pass on changing it first thing when you get home.

VIN Number

buying a used dirt bike vin location

The very first thing you need to do when evaluating the bike is to check the VIN number.  The VIN number can be found on the frame of the bike, generally on the head stem. 

The first dirt bike I bought was sold to me as a mid-80s Honda 250.  I got it cheap, and took it home.  When I started looking for the parts I needed to repair it, I was having trouble finding stuff that worked.  So, I did a VIN check on it.  Turns out it was a late 80s Yamaha YZ125 frame with a late 70s Honda Elsinore motor stuffed in it.  I promptly put it on craigslist and sold it (I was honest about what it was and ended up taking a loss on it). 

The next bike I bought was a 1998 KX250.  Again, I didn’t run the VIN and bought it late at night when it was raining.  Got that thing home and checked the VIN and it was actually a 1989.  I got a good deal on it, so it was fine, but I was still irritated.

So, please take my advice and check the VIN.  I have a link to some VIN checking resources hereIt just takes a minute to do and can save a ton of headache down the road.

If you live in an area that requires your dirt bike to have a title, then make sure it has one before you buy it.  Otherwise, you will be spending a decent amount of time in the DMV trying to get that sorted out.

Frame, Subframe, and Swing Arm

buying a used dirt bike frame

So you have found that the VIN number matches what you think you are buying.  Great, time to fire it up and rip around the yard right?  Not so fast. 

Spend some time going over a few key things before you even try and fire it up.  This will keep your emotions in check.  You are much more likely to forgive some leaking oil after you have ridden it than before.

Start with the Frame.  Make sure that there is no slop in the steering (indicative of bad bearings in the head tube).  Then move down the frame on both sides, check to make sure there have not been any shade tree “repairs.”  If it looks like someone has done some garage welding on the frame, walk away.

After the Frame is the subframe.  This is the part of the bike that is under the seat.  What you are looking for here is any bending or warping.  Stand behind your potential used dirt bike and look from the rear fender to the handlebars.  Is the rear fender cocked or twisted at all?  This is indicative of a bent subframe which happens in relatively hard crashes.

The last thing to do is check the swing arm.  Since you are already behind the bike, grab the rear tire and move is up and down.  Is the arc smooth?  Any slop?  Don’t be surprised if you can’t move it very much because of the rear shock and spring, but just check it out and make sure everything is sound.

Suspension

buying a used dirt bike suspension

Throw a leg over that used dirt bike and compress the suspension.  Does it bottom out with you sitting on it?  The shock probably needs either resprung or rebuilt completely.  That is a 300 dollar job if you do it yourself and 500 if you take it to the shop. 

Next, check the forks for any leaking oil out of the dust seal.  One tail tell sign of this is brown gunk at the bottom on the fork tube.  While you are looking for that, make sure that the fork tubes are not dinged up and have no scratches or gouges in them. 

Next to the engine, forks are one of the most expensive parts of the dirt bike, so make sure that you give them a thorough look.

Wheels and Tires

Check the tires for wear.  If they have sharp knobs on them then the tire is probably pretty new.  If they are well worn and rounded or have torn or missing lugs then you are probably looking and needing to replace them in the near future. 

Replacing tires is just part of riding dirt bikes, so I don’t let worn tires be a deal breaker for me when I am buying a used dirt bike. 

While you are checking the tires out, make sure there are no cracks in the wheels.  Most used dirt bikes that you are going to be looking at will run a tube instead of a bib or tubliss system.  They will still hold air with a cracked rim, but the structural integrity of that rim is compromised. 

You might be able to get it repaired, if you can find someone to do it.  If not, an inexpensive name brand wheelset will cost you 500-600 dollars (or you can get a no named shady set from eBay for 350ish, but I would not recommend that), so don’t overlook this step. 

Plastics and Seat

buying a used dirt bike plastics

This generally is just a sign of how well the current owner has taken care of the bike.  I don’t let bad plastics deter me from buying because a new set is around 100 dollars.  But, if you can use a crusty looking set of plastics to your advantage when negotiating the price, then by all means go for it.

Controls

buying a used dirt bike controls

Hop back on the bike again.  By now, the seller is probably wondering when you are going to fire it up.  The answer is not yet. 

Turn the bike to the left, twist the throttle and let go* (see important note below for 4 strokes).  The throttle should snap back to its resting place when you let it go.  Do the same on the right, and again in the center. 

If the throttle is slow to return in all three positions then you will need to lube the throttle cable.  If it is just slow in one of those positions then the throttle cable is likely routed incorrectly and will need to be addressed. 

Important Note Regarding 4 Strokes – Important Note if you are buying a 4 stroke dirt bike, you only twist the throttle after the bike has been started.  Many 4 strokes have a carburetor with an accelerator pump to help even out the flow of fuel.  If you twist the throttle with the bike not running, it will still squirt fuel into the combustion chamber cause the bike to flood and not start.

In my opinion, riding a bike with a throttle that does not snap back when released is not only horrifying to do, it is extremely dangerous.

Next make sure that the front brake (lever on the handle bar) and the back brake (by your right foot) both work to stop the bike.  Roll it a little and engage each brake to make sure it is functioning correctly. 

After the brakes, check out the clutch lever and shifter.  With the bike off, put the bike into first gear by stepping on the shift lever on your left.  Try and roll the bike, it shouldn’t roll if you are in gear.  Now pull in the clutch and try and roll the bike.  It should roll, even when you are in gear.

Bearings

buying a used dirt bike bearings

This will be quick.  Lift up the front wheel and see if you can rock it side to side without moving the handle bars.  Too much play indicates a wheel bearing that will need replaced.  Do the same with the rear wheel.

Radiators

buying a used dirt bike radiator

Last step, I promise.  If the used dirt bike you are buying has radiators make sure they are clean and not bent.  A bent radiator generally means the bike was dropped at some point and can be semi expensive to repair.  Expect to spend around 100 dollars for some Chinese radiators on eBay, or far more for OEM radiators from the factory.

Engine, Compression, and Running Condition

buying a used dirt bike engine

Now is the moment you have been waiting for.  Time to kick the bike over and start it up. 

Let the kick starter go through a couple of cycles with your leg by slowly pushing down on it.  What you are looking for is compression. 

If your used dirt bike prospect is a 2 stroke, then make sure it is hard to press over.  4 strokes might have some decompression features on the cam to make them easier to kick, but there should still be a little resistance. 

If there is no resistance, then the dirt bike generally has no compression and unless you want to do some major engine work, it’s time to walk away.

Compression Testing

A compression tester is the easiest way to get an accurate reading of the compression.  These tool screw into the spark plug hole and measure the amount of compression inside the cylinder. 

If you have a compression tester, bring it with you.  Anything under 100psi on a 2 stroke, I would walk. 

Testing compression on a 4 stroke with auto decompression is not really accurate with a compression tester, so you will need to go by feel.  The way you check compression in that case is a leak down test which is probably more time than you want to spend. 

Provided there is compression, go ahead and start the bike.  Turn the fuel on, pull the choke out and push the kick starter down to get it started.  Once it has warmed up, push the choke back in.  Give the engine a few blips of the throttle in neutral to make sure it isn’t bogging down, which is indicative of a fueling problem.

If everything checks out, pull in the clutch, kick it into first, and get riding.

Transmission

While you are out on the test ride, be sure shift through all the gears.  Find out how many gears there should be on your model and make sure you can get into all of the gears easily.  You don’t need to be going 60mph to check 5th gear.  Just putting around and making sure it will get in all the gears without any grinding or strange sounds is good enough.

Recapping the Checklist

So, to recap here are the major areas you are going to want to investigate:

  • VIN Number
  • Frame, Subframe, and Swingarm
  • Suspension
  • Wheels and Tires
  • Plastics and Seats
  • Controls
  • Bearings
  • Radiators
  • Engine
  • Transmission

Negotiating the Deal

Entire books have been written about negotiating a deal.  Here are just a couple of things to keep in mind.  Kelly Blue Book and NADA are typically not going to have an accurate price.  Things are priced by their market.  The market is much more volatile in used dirt bikes than it is in cars.  So, just because NADA says that the bike is worth 400 dollars, don’t expect to get it for 400 dollars.

Know Your Seller

Figure out why they are trying to sell their used dirt bike.  Is it because they just don’t ride it enough, because their spouse wants it out of the garage, or because the bank is going to repo their car if they don’t get the cash today.  Knowing why they are selling it will go a long way into deciding what you are willing to spend.

Factor in any repairs when buying a used dirt bike

As you were going over the bike, make a mental list of what needs replaced or repaired.  Be sure to take that into consideration when coming up with a price, as it truly is part of your cash outlay to buy a used dirt bike.

Know what you are willing to spend

Bring only the amount of cash that you are willing to spend.  I will give you a couple of examples here, both unrelated to dirt bikes, but the point is valid.

Cash Talks

When I was buying my first boat, the seller had it listed for $5500 dollars.  I only wanted to spend $5000.  The blue book on the boat and trailer was $5300.  But it was craigslist, so I figured I would get it for $5000.  So, I went and took the boat on a test ride, liked it and decided I wanted to buy it. 

I asked the guy, will you take $5000 for it.  He said “Absolutely not, most people think craigslist is for negotiating but I am not selling it for less than what I had it listed for.”  I responded “Well, I only have $5000.”  He suggested that I go to the bank and get some more, or borrow some from my buddy.  I told him that the banks were closed, but maybe it we were lucky they had miscounted the money.  

So, I sat on the deck of the boat and proceeded to count out $5000 dollars in $100 dollar bills in front of him.  “Nope, looks like the bank counted right,” I said, “Sorry for wasting your time.”  He responded with “Wait a minute…”  I got the boat for five grand.

Same thing happened when my father in law wanted to buy a boat. The boat was listed for $14000, so he called and inquired about it.  He got the owners wife who wanted it out of the yard and said they would take $11000 for it.  So, I told him to get $9000 out in cash.  

We went and looked at the boat, he decided that he wanted it, and we went to the seller.  We didn’t have to count it out that time.  He just said here is $9000 in cash for your boat, will you take it.  The owner said absolutely.

My point is that when people type a price into craigslist or whatever they are using to sell something, it is just a number.  Cold hard cash in their hand changes a lot of minds.

Congratulations on buying a used dirt bike!

Congratulations!  Now you know how to buy a used dirt bike, what to watch out for, and how to go about making the best deal.  The next thing you need to do is to do some basic maintenance on your bike to get it in tip top shape for riding.  Check out my article on basic dirt bike maintenance for the steps you need to take to ensure a long life for your dirt bike and many hours of joy filled riding.

Recommended Reading

How To Ride A Dirt Bike
Dirt Bikes For Beginners
2 Stroke or 4 Stroke for Beginners
Smoking Dirt Bikes Explained