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A question that everyone should ask before buying a used motorcycle is whether that particular bike has been involved in any sort of accident. There are physical signs as well as documentation that can be telling signs for whether it has ever been wrecked. Be mindful while you’re looking at a motorcycle and assess your own skills and ability to fix any possible damage.
So, how can you tell if a motorcycle has been in an accident? Some signs to look for are:
- Wobbly Wheels
- Bent or Gouged Front Forks
- Bent or Crooked Handlebars
- Dented or Scratched Gas Tank
- Bent Frame
- Large Crank Case Scratches
- Broken or Cracked Plastic or Fiberglass Covers
- Overall Strange Feeling While Riding the Motorcycle
Check documentation of the motorcycle if possible. A VIN check is a great way to tell if a motorcycle has ever been in an accident. Unfortunately, it’s not the only way because a lot of people don’t report their motorcycle accidents and attempt to just sell them if they’re able to fix up enough parts themselves.
To be clear, just because a motorcycle has been in an accident doesn’t mean you should shy away from it, you just need to know the extent of the damage before purchasing and know how much you’ll need to invest to get it safely functioning.
Luckily, this test is usually pretty easy to perform. Wheels on a motorcycle aren’t really that complex and it’s not that hard to detect if there’s something wrong with them.
The first test you’ll want to do is stand next to the motorcycle, stand it up straight, and roll it forward at least 20 feet. As you roll it forward, look at the front tire and make sure there is no wobble from side to side. Do the same thing for the back tire. If either one wobbles, it’s a sign of some sort of front or rear impact, most commonly cause by either the motorcyclist rear-ending someone or someone rear-ended them.
If it’s a slight wobble then the most common fix is simply a new front wheel, but if it has a large wobble then it was most likely a harder impact accident. Front wheel wobbles are a lot more common than rear wheel wobble simply because the front tire takes the first impact in most accidents.
The second test you can try will be while you’re riding it. After you’ve checked everything else out on the motorcycle and feel it is safe to ride, try to notice the wheels while you’re taking a stroll. If you notice any continuous “bumping” sound or you feel like you’re riding over little bumps on the road when you know you’re not, that may also indicate problems with the wheels.
A new front wheel for most motorcycles will cost between $150 and $450 (not including the tire) depending on the make and model of the bike. Sometimes you can just change out the wheel and re-use the old tire which can save you $150. This is not something that you can afford to overlook. It’s extremely dangerous and irresponsible to ride a motorcycle with a front or back wheel that isn’t perfectly straight.
Bent or Gouged Front Forks
This is a step that should never be skipped. Bent or gouged front forks may seem harmless at first, but can eventually cause serious problems as the bends will increase over time with continual use.
Have someone balance the motorcycle standing straight up and look at both front forks from the side. All forks should be perfectly straight to function properly. Any slight bends or big gouges in the metal are signs of a front end impact. If the forks look straight, look at the forks from the front to make sure they are straight and parallel from each other. If they’re not, that could mean a side impact.
Now get on the motorcycle and balance it between your legs. Push down on the handlebars to get a feel for the front suspension. If it’s way too easy to bottom out the front shocks then they have lost pressure and will need to be rebuilt. If they don’t move at all then that’s a sign that they are either rusted in place or they are slightly bent and the tubes can’t move in and out of each other.
So whether they move too easy or not at all, those are both signs that the front forks will need to be rebuilt before the motorcycle is safe to ride on the road. A poorly functioning front suspension can cause serious injuries.
The cost of new front forks varies by make and model and whether you get new or used ones. I’m a huge advocate of saving a few bucks and getting used parts for my motorcycles. Used front forks for older motorcycles are usually between $100 and $170 and front forks for newer motorcycles are usually between $200 and $500.
I get a lot of my parts from eBay and Amazon. One piece of advice when getting front forks for your motorcycle, beware of the forks that say “universal”. Front forks are specific to each make and model, so get ones that are made specifically for your motorcycle.
Bent Or Crooked Handle Bars
Another test that you can perform before spending your money is testing the handlebars. Some may not find it a big deal to have crooked handle bars, but for me personally it drives me crazy when I have to steer crooked. And in all honesty, it’s just not safe to have to drive crooked.
Get on the motorcycle with your feet on the ground. Balance the bike straight up and point the front wheel straight forward. The handlebars should be exactly 90 degrees from the front tire. If it is skewed at all then it has either been dropped really hard on the ground or has been in a front end accident.
The solution for crooked handlebars could either be changing the handlebars themselves or something on the triple clamp (the thing the front forks and handlebars bolt to) needs to be tweaked. But if the front forks are straight and the front wheel is straight then you probably just need new handlebars. This is an extremely easy fix on most motorcycles, and usually not very expensive unless you want some crazy handlebars to show off how cool you are.
I have replaced many sets of handlebars on motorcycles. It’s only an hour long fix and usually costs me about $75 for a good set. Many shops on eBay and Amazon sell clip on handlebars for unusually low prices; STAY AWAY! I’m all about saving money but do not buy the cheapest parts, your life is worth more than that. The last thing you need is to be driving down the freeway and your handlebars break.
Dented Or Scratched Gas Tank
Huge gas tank dents are pretty apparent and probably the fastest way to tell if the motorcycle has been in an accident. If there is a huge dent on the top of the tank that usually means the motorcycle was parked in the garage and something fell on it (not a big deal); it’s not as common for an accident to cause dents on top of a motorcycle tank.
But if there are large dents or scratches on the sides of the tank, that usually means the motorcycle has been on its side. You may be able to see how severe the impact was by looking at the scratches and dents that are apparent on the tank; Usually, if there are a few dents with minimal scratches, that probably means it was just dropped or tipped (which is very common for motorcycles).
However, if there are a few dents with large scratches, this usually means the motorcycle was tipped and dragged on the road, the tell-tale sign of an accident. To learn more about laying a motorcycle over on its side see our other article here.
Gas tank dents generally don’t affect the functionality of the motorcycle, so this is very low on the critical list. If you know the motorcycle was in an accident that greatly impacted the tank, make sure the motorcycle was not dragged so much that the road filed a hole anywhere in the metal of the tank.
If the tank has small dents and even large scratches on it, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve restored and repainted many motorcycle tanks and cosmetic issues like this aren’t a big deal. Fixes like this are cheap and easy to correct if you do it yourself.
A bent frame on a motorcycle indicates a very hard hit and can have all sorts of ripple effects on the rest of the motorcycle.
It’s often difficult to test whether or not the frame is bent at all because most of it is hid with all of it’s mechanics. It’s especially difficult to diagnose if you’re looking into purchasing a motorcycle with those extra bells and whistles, hardly exposing the frame at all.
Luckily there are a few general tests you can do to diagnose any possible frame problems. The first is to do your best at looking at any spots on the frame that are welded.
For example, look at the front motor mount bar and check where it’s welded to the rest of the frame. Do you notice any cracks or paint chips? Perform this assessment on any other corners and welds. The weakest parts of the frame are the points that are welded together, so a big impact on the motorcycle will break those apart first.
A second simple test you may try is looking at the shape of the motorcycle frame by doing the straight edge test. If you have access to these, use two long wooden dowels or metal poles and place them both on either side of the motorcycle. Have both poles touch the sides of the rear tire.
The poles should not be touching anything else on the motorcycle aside from the back tires. They should form a parallel line once set up; if you notice the poles are off and/or other parts of the motorcycle end up touching them, this is a good indication that your frame is crooked.
I personally have never attempted to fix a motorcycle frame. If you suspect a crooked or bent motorcycle frame, my advice to you is to not purchase the motorcycle. It is extremely difficult to fix a frame and you’ll probably just end up buying a new one which can be hundreds of dollars.
Large Crank Case Scratches
If a motorcycle accident happens, the crankcase is one of the first things damaged because it generally sticks out further than the other parts of the motorcycle.
The picture I have a above is from a motorcycle I had that had been dropped. If there are small scratches like this one, chances are it was probably just tipped or dropped. However, if you notice bigger and worse scratches than this, chances are it was in an accident and was dragged across the road.
Repairing a crankcase is actually pretty easy. You can sand down the scratches on the metal by starting out with course sand paper and switching off to more fine sand paper. This will easily get the scratches out but does require a few hours of work. If the crankcase was painted, after you sand paper out all the scratches you can tape off the case and repaint to your desired color.
If you’ve noticed the scratches are pretty severe or notice any cracks, you’ll probably want to just buy a new crankcase altogether. These usually aren’t expensive with the average price running from $75 to $175, depending on if you buy a new or used one.
Broken Or Cracked Plastic Or Fiberglass Covers
Again, this is a very obvious sign to look for if you’re suspecting a motorcycle has been in a crash. Not all motorcycles have plastic covers on them, but if they do be sure to look at their condition.
Check and inspect all covers around the motorcycle. You may notice some cracks or scratches. Again, minimal scratches may indicate the motorcycle may have just been tipped or dropped. Bigger and more dramatic scratches indicate a probable accident, especially if you notice consistent scratches in several different places.
To me, scratches on any plastic covers aren’t a big deal because I’ll usually end up throwing them away anyway because I like my motorcycles to have minimum equipment. But it’s still a good sign to look at because it can be a reflection of what the motorcycle has been through.
Cracked or scratched plastic or fiberglass covers on a motorcycle can easily be repaired, you just have to be willing to take the time to do it. There are many solutions to fix cracks like this, such as PlastiFix which was made specifically for this material. This is the most inexpensive way to fix it.
If you wish to replace the coverings entirely, that price depends on your make and model of the motorcycle and your willingness whether or not to buy new or used parts.
Overall Strange Feeling While Riding the Motorcycle
If you’ve conducted all the tests listed above and deem the motorcycle safe to ride, take it for a stroll. This is always a good rule of thumb when you buy any vehicle that’s running. You need to know how it rides before you buy it. See my other article here to learn about test-riding etiquette.
While you’re out on a motorcycle test drive, notice the wheels, the steering, and how the motorcycle handles when it turns, stops, accelerates, and goes over speed bumps. You’ll also want to test it at higher and lower speeds too if possible.
What is your overall feeling of the motorcycle? Does it ride smooth? Or is it difficult to handle and gives you an overall uneasy feeling?
Even if you looked at the whole motorcycle over and didn’t notice any signs of a hard impact on it, if you’re taking the motorcycle out for a ride and notice that it just doesn’t feel right, that may be your sixth sense saying “do not buy!” It’s totally okay to go with your gut feeling on a purchase such as this; it’s a big investment and also a huge safety issue.
You want to feel as comfortable as you can while riding a motorcycle and you need to feel like you are 100% in control. Don’t take any chances if your gut is telling you no.
Check out our YouTube video that explains more details about how to tell if a motorcycle has been in an accident:
How dangerous are motorcycle? Just like with any other sorts of transportation, motorcycles do run a bit of a higher risk of injury simply because you have less covering around you. If you are a safe driver, keep the speed limits, and wear the appropriate gear while riding, you’ll have less of a chance at getting a major injury.
Where can I learn to ride a motorcycle? Most states require you to have a permit before you start testing out your skills on a motorcycle. After you get your permit, it’s best to first start practicing in empty parking lots that you know won’t have a lot of traffic. Then you’ll be ready to test out riding in other conditions.