Buying a Second Hand Bike: What to Look For

How to make sure you ride away with a bargain, not a mistake

Buying a second hand bike can be a great way to save you some cash, and it’s definitely a good idea if you’re new to cycling and don’t want to splash out until you know it’s for you (and we promise you will be hooked in no time!)

While second hand bikes will always offer a great saving, you should be aware that there are a few risks involved with opting for a bike that may have a history. Knowing what to look out for will help you to avoid any unwanted surprises – so a thorough check of the bike is a good idea.

We’re rounded up some of the most crucial checks for you – but here’s the short version before we go in to more detail:

1) Know what you want and how much you want to spend. Don’t waver from what you want just because you’ve seen a good deal

2) Don’t meet anyone in ‘a park’, go to a fixed address, but be safe and take someone with you

3) Make sure the bike is not stolen by checking it on BikeRegister and asking for the history

4) Check it for damage and make sure you’re aware of any parts that need replacing, and factor the cost of these in

5) Test ride and make sure it fits. Don’t be tempted to buy a bike that does not fit, or with little available adjustment, because it’s a good deal. It won’t seem like such a good deal in six months time when you come to replace it.

Before you start shopping

Firstly, just like any other bike purchase, you need to be clear what you want. If you plan to ride exclusively on the road, go for a road bike or a hybrid. If you want to hit the trails, you’re after a mountain bike – a hardtail unless you plan on some serious shredding. If you know you’ll be riding a mixture of the two, look for a sporty hybrid, adventure road bike or cyclocross bike.

Unless you’re quite short, you might not need to shop exclusively for a women’s specific bike – this is a pretty big topic, and we’ve got more detail here. Essentially, you need to test ride a bike to see if it fits you but looking at unisex options will increase your choice (though you might need to pay out to fit smaller handlebars and saddle).

You also need to be clear how much you want to spend. We know you’ve probably heard it from sales people – but it genuinely is advisable to spend as much as you have available to ensure that you don’t find yourself spending more on upgrades a few months down the line.

In terms of where to look, local newspapers, eBay and Gumtree are popular options – but be very careful when meeting anyone you came across online. Make sure you meet them in a fixed place – a home or work where you have reference of the address, and tell someone where you are going, or ideally take someone with you.

When reading ads, make sure the advertiser has supplied pictures of the actual bike, not stock photos of the model. Look for adverts with multiple close ups, where the bike looks in good condition – this will save you wasting time on unfruitful visits.

If the seller has provided a size guide, or their own height, this will also help you determine if the bike will fit – but bear in mind two people can be the same height, but have different dimensions – meaning they’ll need different sized frames.

If the seller provides just the size of the frame, and no information on their height, check the brand website for a size guide – and remember to do this for each bike. One brand’s “52” is very different to another’s – frustratingly, they tend to measure from different points.

Avoiding a stolen bike

Bike theft is horrible – and you don’t want to be obtaining stolen goods. If the price looks unrealistically good, this should immediately set off alarm bells – the deal is probably too good to be true.

Ask the seller for a history of the bike – they should be able to tell you when they got it, and how long they’ve had it. A very trustable seller will have kept their receipt from the original purchase, but you can’t expect everyone to do that.

The frame should also have an ID number on it – police recommendation is that you check this number on the BikeRegister database. If it’s been reported stolen, it should be on here and you should walk away from the bike.

If you do buy the bike, ask the seller to make out a receipt for you, so that you have a proof of purchase, and then make sure you register the frame as your own via BikeRegister. If you’re buying online, use a service like PayPal which offers you protection should something go wrong.

Damage checking

As much as we’d love to believe that every seller out there wants to offer a good deal, we have to accept that there will be some people happy to pass off a damaged bike, putting the buyer at risk of wasting money or getting hurt.

Though you can buy a bike online and hope it’s in good condition – ideally you’ll be able to see it in the flesh. There are a few things to look out for:

1) Damage to the frame. You can’t always see this – but if the bike has taken a serious hit there may be some visible signs. Check over the frame for any cracks, especially around the chainstays, seat post, bottom bracket and forks.

2) Look out for replacement parts. It is possible that the seller has upgraded parts like the forks to improve the performance – but they might also have been replacing parts damaged in a crash. Compare the bike to a picture of the original model – if anything is different, ask why.

3) Check the seat post is not seized – ask to move it up and down (either undoing the bolt, or the quick release – depending on the bike). It should move freely, you don’t want to find you’re stuck with a bike you can’t adjust.

4) Check the wheels are true. Pick up the bike, spin the wheel – and make sure it travels in a neat, straight line – not swinging to and fro. Wheels can be replaced, but at around £100 each for a cheap set, so consider this alongside the price of the bike and your budget.

5) If you’re keeping it fairly cheap and cheerful, check the tyres don’t look like they need replacing soon, too. Looks for cracks or slashes. If you’re spending quite a bit, you will likely be buying new tyres soon, anyway – either way, factor in that new tyres could set you back £30 each or more if they do need replacing.

6) Check all the bolts on the handlebars, as well as pannier rack bolts or bottle cage mounts. Make sure all of them can be moved, none are seized or rounded. If they are, ask if you can speak to a mechanic about how easy it would be to remove and replace them before purchasing.

7) Check the cables and drivetrain. The cables should not be frayed, and should be in good working order – unless you plan to replace them or pay for a service. The drivetrain – chain, cassette and chainset – should not be rusty, and the cogs should not appear to be worn down, again, unless you have already factored in paying to replace them.

Test Ride

If the bike meets your needs, clearly isn’t stolen, and seems to be in good working order – you may be on to a winner. Ask the seller if they’re happy with you taking it for a short test ride. Around twenty minutes should be enough, and they may want you to leave a driving license or other form of identification, which is really only fair.

Before you get on the bike – check the tyre pressure. The tyres should be at a reasonable level that lies within the PSI on the tyre sidewall. Too low  and you’ll risk a puncture, and the bike won’t ride at its best.

Pull on the brakes, and make sure they are effective, then run though the gears to make sure they’re working properly. If not, they may need indexing, and it’s best to ask the seller to sort this before your ride, as struggling with poorly indexed gears will damage your opinion of the bike dramatically.

Check the fit

Check the bike fits. You have to be honest with yourself here – even if the bike is stunning and an amazing deal, a bike that just doesn’t fit is the epitome of false economy.

Sit on the saddle, and rest a foot on the pedal (unclipped, if you clip in). You should have a very slight bend in the knee. Your hands should rest comfortably on the bars, without feeling like you need to stretch.

Bear in mind that you will be able to swap the stem to shorten or lengthen the reach, but if you start with an ‘average’ stem (eg 100mm on a road bike) then you can swap it for a 90mm or 110mm comfortably. If the bike has an 80mm stem already, you don’t have far to go if you want to adjust at a later date.

The same goes for the saddle height – if you have to set the height at its highest or lowest, you’ll have little adjustment in future, so ideally you should be around the middle of the adjustment range on purchase.

Assuming everything works properly, and the bike fits – it’s up to personal preference. Different bikes do feel very different – geometry is not all in your head, and it is worth trying a couple before you make a decision and pick a favourite.

Good luck with the search! For more information, try our beginners guide to buying a new bike. 


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