New or Used, There Has Never Been a Better Time to Shop for an Affordable Motorcycle
My first motorcycle – a 1999 Kawasaki Ninja 500R – was already 10 years old by the time I owned it. It had lived a fairly substantial life before it met me, racking up nearly 40,000 km and plenty of “patina” on its red and black paint job.
Despite its age, the 500R came with nearly 50 horsepower and an engine that screamed when you wound it up to its 11,000 rpm redline. It was honestly one of most fun bikes I’ve ever ridden when it comes to riding slow in the city.
Oh, and it only cost me $2,500… which also happened to be how much I sold it for when I upgraded to an SV650 a year later. Outside of an oil change and some gas, the Ninja was effectively free for the time I owned it. There are lots of bikes out there like that Ninja, my favorite of which are listed here.
Bargain Bikes Don’t Win Beauty Contests
Let’s just get this out of the way: when you set out to buy the best but cheapest motorcycle that you can, you have to accept some compromises. Cosmetically, your motorcycle is going to have its fair share of scratches, dings, scuffs, and other minor-moderate problems.
When you shop cheap, what you’re really wanting to find is the “unicorn”: that rare bike that is cosmetically and mechanically excellent. But, just like unicorns aren’t really real, it’s far more likely that you’ll find a lot of bikes with well-maintained brakes, suspension, and engines, but with cosmetic blemishes and a black eye or two.
5 Tips for Getting a Great Deal on a Motorcycle
These are the rules that I live by when I’m shopping value. While my wallet may be feeling cheap, I still want to get the best bike that I can, but I don’t want to hop on something that is unsafe or a mechanical disaster waiting to happen.
To narrow my options and hone in on the right bike, I always consider these five rules:
#1: Don’t Buy a Motorcycle More Than 10 years old
The older something is, the more likely it is to break. This is especially true when there are engines involved.
As much as I love vintage bikes, they’re more likely to need ongoing maintenance (and leave you stranded). My ’07 FZ6 left me stranded last summer (which led to a fun ride in a tow truck), and I’m looking at having to replace the brake rotors and stator this season. At 13 years old, it’s getting into that time of its life where it requires more frequent mild-moderate repairs.
The sweet spot for most beginner bikes is 7-9 years old. If you shop a bike that’s in that range, you’ll be looking at entry-level standard and sportbikes, as well as some smaller displacement cruisers. You might even find a few bikes with ABS and traction control.
If your budget gets to $5,000, there are plenty of great brand new bikes that are perfect for new riders. You just can’t beat that bike feeling 😉
#2: Look at Both Really Popular & Unpopular Models
This is classic supply and demand at work: the cheapest motorcycles will be the ones with huge supply, or the models that nobody really wanted in the first place.
Example: early model-year Suzuki SV650’s. The SV650 wasn’t an immediate sales sensation, and you can find early model years for a great price. Per Kelly Blue Book, a 2004 SV650 averages $2,575. A 2004 Suzuki GS500F – a model that wasn’t as popular as other models in the entry-level sportbike category – averages $2,175.
Apply the same concept when shopping new.
#3: Look for Motorcycles With Under 40,000 Miles / 64,000 Kilometers
Whereas a car with 40k miles / 64k km’s is practically brand-new, the same is not true for your bike. Motorcycles are ridden harder and are more exposed to the elements, and so 40k for a car is like 90k for a bike (think: human vs. dog years).
This isn’t a “hard” rule, as you’ll often find cruisers and touring motorcycles with higher mileage that still run great. I use it as a guide, as while I can handle small maintenance (like cleaning the chain, oil changes, etc.), I’m not interested in doing more serious maintenance that higher-mileage engines will require.
#4: Know the Fair Market Value (& Don’t be Afraid to Look Outside of Your Area)
People think that lowballs are the way to get a great deal, but they’re not generally well-received and are likely to start the conversation off on a sour note. The best way to get a great deal is to know what a fair market price for the bike you want is, and then to be prepared to pay it for the right bike.
If you can’t find one in your area, look at sites like eBay to see what’s nearby. Shipping a motorcycle is surprisingly affordable if you find something that is only a few hours away.
#5: Buy the Person, Not Just the Bike
When I’m shopping, it’s the owner that makes or breaks the sale. I want to buy a bike from someone that has kept up on maintenance and invested in keeping the motorcycle in good shape. Signs you’re buying from someone trustworthy:
They have service records, parts receipts, etc.
The bike looks good aesthetically – there may be small dings/scratches/etc., but all the fairings and trim is in overall good condition. If there are repairs, they are performed well and generally don’t take away from the overall look.
They are direct and forthcoming with information about the bike (I totally avoid considering buying from someone that is evasive or noncommittal when answering questions).
They are organized and generally seem to have their shit together
Pro-tip: if you find yourself talking to someone that ticks all those boxes, it may be worth it to pay a bit more for their motorcycle…
If you live somewhere with mild/easy trails, gravel roads, or other light off-riad areas for riding, you’ll appreciate the novelty and utility of a dual-sport motorcycle. If you want a brand-new one cheap, the TW200 is one of the better picks.
While it may only have 11 horsepower and is relatively unchanged since its 1987 introduction, the TW200 is surprisingly capable at light off-road riding and feels great on paved roads as well. It won’t win any races, but it will unfailingly start, get great gas mileage, and get you where you need to be (even when the road isn’t paved).
The V Star 250’s classic style and a capable 249 cc v-twin has proven to be an enduring combination. The first bike I ever rode was an early 2000’s V Star – the riding school I went to had a bunch of them for the class. Thanks to low center of gravity, this entry-level cruiser is great for new riders that are learning how to ride a motorcycle.
The v-twin makes about 21 horsepower and 15 ft-lb of torque, and has a top speed of an estimated 85 mph / 140 kph. The V-Star can comfortably cruise at 70 mph / 110 kph, though its light weight of just 326 lbs is both a blessing and a curse: while the light weight makes the V Star maneuverable and responsive in the city, it also makes it easier for wind to blow the bike around (especially at highway speeds).
With a range of about 200 miles / 320 kilometers, the V Star 250 is probably one of the best barebones commuter bikes you can buy.
With 27 horsepower on tap, Honda’s smallest cruiser is a lot of fun to ride. Responsive controls, led lighting, and great brakes make the Rebel an excellent daily riding machine. It’s a superior machine to the V Star in just about every way, but it’s also about 40 lbs heavier. Give and take, right?
The naked heritage/cruiser styling works, but the 286cc single-cylinder engine looks pretty wimpy compared to the V Stars chromed-out V-Twin. Like the V Star 250, the Rebel 300 gets an impressive 78 mpg and is endowed with a range of 200 miles / 320 kilometers
Legendary BMW build and a potent 34 horsepower single-cylinder 313 cc engine make the G 310 R a great motorcycle for daily city riding. This BMW is a great size for almost everyone, weighing in at 411 lbs and a seat height of 31.5″. It has a standard/upright riding position and is very comfortable for all-day riding.
The BMW G 310 R is the sportiest of the list here, both in terms of how it looks and how it rides. This model comes with ABS, sporty inverted forks, and brembo brakes. Nice!
Named the best lightweight street bike of 2019 by Cycle World, the Kawasaki Z400 is objectively the fastest and most capable motorcycle of the five brand-new bikes listed here. Its 399cc parallel-twin engine puts down 49 horsepower which, thanks to a light curb weight of 368 lbs, makes the Z400 an absolute riot to ride.
The riding position is a bit more sporty than the other bikes here, and while it may not be as comfortable as the BMW or the Honda and Yamaha cruisers mentioned above, you’ll still enjoy it for everyday commuting or some enthusiastic time spent on long, winding roads.
The Best & Cheapest Used Beginner Motorcycle to Buy for 2020
If you aren’t keen on going brand new and want to keep the budget as low as possible, the 10 bikes listed here are all great options. All the bikes mentioned here are reliable and affordable (prices checked via eBay, Kelly Blue Book, and Auto Trader).
Use these prices as a guide and a starting place for negotiations, but expect some variance based on where you’re looking. Depending on your circumstances you maybe be able to get some of these bikes for even cheaper than the prices I listed.
Don’t forget: Save Money for Motorcycle Gear & Training!
Now that you have a starting point for a motorcycle to buy, it’s incredibly important to save money for gear. Motorcycle gear is what keeps your skin on your body, your brain in place, and your bones in one piece.
Of course a motorcycle and gear are useless without the proper training. I always recommend people get in person instruction on how to ride. There are courses offered by MSF, Harley Davidson, and STARS depending on where you live. Often those training courses cost between $100-200 and last a weekend. The skills you learn in them though will last a lifetime and set you up for a safe and healthy motorcycle career. What I learned about target fixation in my MSF course has literally saved my life on more than one occasion.