Nuts About Bikes

Motorcycle Buyer's Guide: New or Used?

A few years ago, this article would have been heavily skewed towards buying used. A few years from now, I might write a piece with a similar slant.

I'm still a used first kind of guy, for all the reasons I'll outline below. But now is now. And if you really, really want to put a motorcycle with zero miles on the odometer in the garage, now's the time to do it.

The economic collapse has been particularly hard on the bike business. Once gasoline prices started to plummet along with everybody's 401K value, motorcycles went from being categorized as transportation to toy, in about the time it took Lehmann Brothers to crash and burn.

Harley-Davidson seems to have taken a disproportionate hit. While Triumph, Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki have posted moderate gains in first-quarter 2010 sales, Harley's were down 24 percent. It's so bad that Harley dealers are shutting their doors, all over the country.

If you're looking to put a new Harley in your garage, there are bargains out there. The rumors circulating among the Harley Owners Clubs is that Harleys are selling for as little as $1,000 below dealer invoice these days. Compare that to $2,000 over invoice in better economic times. Even $5,000 in some places.

That was in the heady days of Harley's "take it or leave it" business model. The thinking was that Harley is the premium brand and riders will pay the asking price. If not, there's the door. But with dealer closings, plant layoffs and sales figures still in the dumps, those days are gone – at least for now.

That's not to say that you can walk into a Harley dealer and haggle your way to a crazy price on a new bike. You can't, because the dealers still have to pay homage to the old "no negotiating" rules. But motor vehicle dealers are a creative bunch and they'll find a way to make you happy, with various incentives, rebates, sweepstakes and other strategies to get you into the bike you want for less than you'd have paid a few years ago.

And even if you're looking at a foreign make, the relatively slow pace of dealer activity in general will benefit buyers of new rides.

Time-honored tactics still hold. Visit more than one dealer, even if you have a drive a few hours to do it. You'd be amazed at the price differences, floor to floor. And ask for everything: rebates, option upgrades, free toys and apparel – you definitely have the upper hand right now.

But that's only for those die-hards among you that just have to have a new bike. Buying used still makes more sense in my humble opinion, for a number of reasons:

Reliability: I go back to my old college professor Bob's definition of the word new: "New just means nobody's had any trouble with it yet." In other words, new is no guarantee of quality. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. In all likelihood – the owner of a bike that's a few years old will have already taken care of those goofy, nibbly problems that pop up in just about every new bike and require a trip back to the dealer.

Toys: the average rider spends a small fortune on bolt-on doodads during the life of the bike. Chrome eye candy, bags, tassles, windshields, cup holders, cigar lighters, whatever. Then, the day he sells the bike, he takes half what he paid for all that swag. If you're looking for a bike tricked out from stock, the better value is always on the used market. But do be careful when it comes to engine and exhaust modifications. If you live in California, for example, many common mods render the bike illegal for street registration. And a lot of small towns are cracking down on sound levels.

Price: Harleys still hold their value – but you're still likely to do better on the expensive aftermarket mods on the used market. And for the most part, the Japanese bikes depreciate more, so there's really no reason to take that depreciation yourself when you can let somebody else shoulder the burden.

To find out what it's really worth, it's best to troll as many motorcycle sales websites as you have time for. Ebay is one of my favorite tools – for just about any object that can be bought or sold, including motorcycles. Once you set up a free account, you can look at "completed listings," which shows true market value regardless of Blue Book value and other traditional pricing guidelines. Craig's List can be helpful for local market activity, as well as the major motorcycle sales sites, like Cycle Trader.

Selection: This can go either way. A bad economy can flood the market with bikes from riders looking to raise fast cash. But it can also increase the value and limit selection since used is more in demand during a slowdown. But in the final analysis, I think it balances in favor of the buyer, for all the other reasons listed.

The caveats are as in any other purchase. Most bikers are fairly fastidious and keep their bikes clean and well-maintained. Every rule was meant to be broken, though – so you'll want to sniff around for signs of abuse or neglect: rust, oil leaks, tire condition, spray paint, engine noise.

Of course there's a point at which used delivers diminishing returns – when the age of the bike requires expensive rebuilds, repairs or big-ticket item maintenance. That varies from bike to bike and you're best info will come from existing owners.

At a minimum, spend some time on the online forums and user groups where that bike model is discussed. Most will have an FAQ page where common problems are listed – the odd oil leak, exhaust issue, recall or other idiosyncratic gremlin, like that expensive internal bearing that breaks at X miles. Do your homework. Talk to the experts.

And for new or used bikes, get on the manufacturer's mailing list – you can do this through their websites. That way you'll be first to know about new incentives and deals coming from the marketing department, which will help you make a decision when the time comes to buy.

-Sal, Editor
Spring 2010