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How to buy a used bicycle

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Buying a used bike is a great way to save money, especially if you're new to the sport. However, buying used requires research and and a little precaution. Below are a few suggestions you should consider before buying a pre-owned bike.

Used versus abused
When searching for a used bike online, whether it's from eBay, Craigslist, or a bicycle forum, you're bound to come across phrases such as "hardly ridden," "only ridden one season," or "like new." These are extremely subjective terms and don't tell you how worn a bike might be. Get photos, and more importantly, ask to take the bike for a test ride before buying.

Worn out parts
Many bike components can be easily replaced. However, it's important to see how worn the tires, chain, cables, gears, and brakes actually are. Are there any significant dents or cracks in the frame? Do the brakes stop quickly and smoothly? Do the tires go flat seconds after adding air? If possible, lift the bike and turn the crank gently. Next, turn the crank backward. Does it run smoothly? Does the chain remain on the chainrings? Likewise, when spinning the wheels, make sure they don't move side-to-side or up and down.

Some items, like cables and brake pads, are affordable to replace. But if the gears are worn, the chain appears stretched or rusty, or the wheels have a wobble when they spin, those parts are worn out and replacements can be expensive. A worn out bike isn't a bargain.

Ask questions
Don't be afraid to speak up. "Ask about routine maintenance on the bike," says long-time bicyclist Dave Masino, who ran an online bike exchange. "When were the hub, headset, or bottom bracket bearings last serviced, and how often was it done? If the answer is 'never' or 'what do you mean?' then factor in the potential cost of replacing these items in your final price."

Size matters
A used bike isn't of any value if the size is wrong. As a result, when searching for a used bike, especially online, it's important to get the right size. Some bike frames come in sizes such as "small, medium, and large," while others are measured in centimeters (50cm, 52cm, 54cm, etc.). Fine tuning a bike for your body frame is a matter of adjusting the height of its seat, the length of the stem to the handlebars, and other specific adjustments. It's even possible, and not entirely unlikely, that you'll find the perfect fit with a used bike and won't have to make any adjustments. But even replacing a stem or making subtle changes to it can be worth it, especially if the price is right. However, it's important to ask questions about the previous owner/seller. Find out how tall the seller is or the length of his/her legs and arms. This will give you a good idea of how well you'll fit the bike.

Stolen property
One of the biggest problems with buying a used bike is that you don't necessarily know if the bike was stolen. The owner of a local bike shop told this reporter that he found his stolen bike recently when someone rode by on it. The rider bought it for a price that "was too good to be true." If possible, try and buy a used bike from a reputable source, such as a shop or other legitimate seller. And if the bike has a serial number (usually located on a label on the bike), see if you can look that number up before concluding the purchase. A good place to look is the Stolen Bicycle Registry. Keep in mind that some people remove these stickers to give their bike a cleaner look. So if a bike doesn't have a serial number, it doesn't automatically mean it's stolen.

Bikes can also be registered with local police departments, which provide a small glue-on metal serial number for your bike. If you find such a tag on the used bike you're looking to buy, you can call the police and find out if the bike is stolen. Anytime you're offered a high-end bike at a bargain price ask additional questions, such as when and where it was bought and how much the seller knows about bikes. No one buys a high-end $3,000 bike without asking questions, and if you're offered a used high-end bike for $1,000 or less it might be too good to be true.

Ask an expert
If you're buying a used bike locally, whether on Craigslist or from a friend, see if you can meet the seller at your local bike shop. Meeting a stranger, especially if you're paying with a thick wad of cash, is safer at a public place. Likewise, a dubious seller is less likely to bring a stolen bike into a shop. Finally, you can get advice from the shop and get the bike tuned up while you're there.

Bicycle safety isn't limited to wearing a helmet and following the rules of the road. It also entails making a safe purchase where the seller walks away happy, and you as the buyer, ride away just as happy.

Good places to find used bikes online:

  • eBay.com: The king of auction sites has many deals and you can bid as high or low as you want. Plus, PayPal offers an extra layer of protection should your transaction go bad.
  • Mtbr.com: This forum provides a great platform to browse for used bikes, and because it has an active membership that helps police the site, it's generally a safe place to shop. Plus, you can get advice from other members before making any purchases.
  • UsedBikesOnline: This e-commerce-style site offers used bikes for sale, plus provides classified listings to its members.
  • Craigslist.com: You'll always find used bikes listed on Craigslist. Just use common sense when dealing with someone you don't know.

For tips on buying a new bike, see our previous Bike Buyer's Guide.

— Peter Suciu

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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