5 Handy Tips on Buying a Used Bike

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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5 Handy Tips on Buying a Used Bike

If you’re in the market for a new ride but don’t have a ton of money to spend, it’s possible to get maximum bang-for-your-buck by purchasing a second-hand bike. While there will be some risks associated with purchasing a used bike online through a site like Craigslist or eBay, we’ve got a few tips to help you find a great bike that’s ready for the road.

Here are a few things to inspect as you sort through online used-bike deals to avoid being ripped off.


A damaged frame or fork makes a used bike virtually useless. Since this is the one part of the bike that can’t be replaced, you’ll want to make sure it’s in good working order before you decide on a purchase. Ideally, you’ll be able to inspect the bike in person to determine if there are signs of damage. Here are a few things to look for:

  • Cracks
  • Dents
  • Rust
  • Bends in the tubing that can throw off alignment
  • Bubbling under the paint, which is a sign of corrosion

Look over the bike very carefully for these signs of damage and go for a test ride, when possible, to see if the bike can maintain a straight line of travel.


While bearings themselves don’t cost that much, it’s still a good idea to check the condition of the headset before a purchase. You can do this by applying pressure to both brake levers and rocking the bike back and forth. If you hear or feel a knocking noise around the headset, it could require some maintenance.

A problem such as this could also be a signal the owner hasn’t maintained the bike very well. Use caution as you proceed with the inspection and look out for other common signs of neglect (see number 1).

If the bike you’re considering has a carbon steerer, you’ll want to be sure it’s free of corrosion or other damage. You can check this by either removing the fork to check the crown for corrosion or, more simply, by lifting the front wheel off the ground and allowing the handlebars to swing side to side. If the handlebars stay in the middle, instead of swinging left to right, you could have a problem.



While you can always use wheels from a different bike or upgrade them later, they are important to check if you don’t have the money for an additional set, as they’re more than likely the second most expensive single part of the bike.

You can check the wheels for trueness by lifting each wheel off the ground and watching it spin. A millimeter or two of wobble can be easily fixed, but be weary of any drastic side-to-side movement that could be an indication of a larger problem.

Check spoke tension by squeezing the spokes together. They should be tight and not have too much movement. Also check the braking surfaces for signs of extreme wear. If the brake track is concave instead of flat, the wheels have probably exceeded their lifespan.

Tires won’t be as expensive to replace as wheels, but while you’re inspecting, have a look at them to determine their overall condition. Look for cracks, bulges and gashes that signal the need for replacement.


When you inspect a drivetrain, it’s a good idea to check the chain first. While it isn’t necessarily the most expensive part of the drivetrain, problems with the chain could mean other parts of the drivetrain need to be replaced as well.

To check the chain, put the bike on the big chainring and the largest rear cog. Pull the chain away from the chainring. A very small amount of space means the chain is probably OK, but if there’s a large gap, over 1/2-inch or so, the chain and other parts of the drivetrain may be worn — like the cassette and chainrings on the front crank.

The next parts you should check are the front and rear derailleurs. Check these by shifting up and down the rear cassette and switching from the big chain ring in the front to the small. If the shifting is smooth, you should be good to go. If not, the parts or cables may need to be replaced.


Another fairly expensive part you may or may not have the money to replace right away is the bottom bracket. You can determine if this part needs to be replaced by grabbing one of the crank arms and moving it side to side. If there is excessive movement or a knocking sound, this part may be worn and need to be replaced.

When checking the function of the brakes, don’t squeeze the brake levers at the front of the bike since the problem could be the brake cables themselves, which are an easy fix. Instead squeeze the brake calipers together with your hand. The brake pads should contact the brake track easily and spring back to their original position without much effort.



Not all parts on the bike are a cause for concern. Tears in the saddle covering, dirty bar tape or stretched out cables can all be replaced relatively inexpensively and shouldn’t necessarily factor into your overall decision.

The function of the bike, on the other hand, should be your primary concern. Always test ride the bike before agreeing to a purchase and make sure it rides smoothly and is free of creaking noises. The steering should be straight, the shifting smooth and the wheels shouldn’t wobble. Ask if the bike has ever been involved in an accident or crash. If it has, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

Also, make sure the bike fits you relatively well and is within a range that can be adjusted to your height and reach. While the seatpost can be raised and lowered and the reach of the handlebar can be adjusted slightly, if the frame is too large for you there isn’t a lot you can do. If you’re unsure of what size bike you need, head into your local bike shop to see if they can offer you some advice on the correct size frame.

If you lack mechanical knowledge and don’t feel comfortable checking the basics listed above, you can always check with the seller and see if it’s OK if you take the bike to your local shop and have them complete an inspection for you. Be wary of sellers who try to keep you from having the bike inspected before the purchase.

For online sellers, like those you’ll find on sites like eBay, only agree to sales that allow returns and refunds after you’ve received the bike and had time to inspect it in person. Don’t send cash, checks, money orders or wire money, and instead use a safe payment option such as PayPal to protect your investment.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.


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