How to successfully buy a used bike and pitfalls to avoid

Pile of used bikes in shop
The used bike market can be a potential minefield. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

If you’re looking to grab a bargain second-hand bike from a bike shop, an online auction site such as eBay or selling pages like Facebook Marketplace, make sure you read our advice first. It could save you in the long run or keep you from falling into the pitfalls that can surround the used bike market. There is a whole other area of potential pitfalls when buying a used e-bike, and we will cover that in a separate article, soon.

From shops to online sites there are bargains to be had, especially now with the financial cost of living crisis biting hard and, in the lead up to Christmas as people look to sell their unused bikes quickly. It can be easy to think you're grabbing a bargain, but beware, if it's too good to be true, it more than likely is!

In general, unless you're a mechanic or have researched well and know what you're looking for in your possible purchase, we wouldn't advise buying your first used bike online. Although they might cost a little more than online, some bike stores do sell used bikes. These bikes should have had a shop inspection, giving you extra assurance that the bike is in good condition.

The classic old-school bike shop is a fantastic location to start looking if you're new to the second-hand market, at least until your knowledge and confidence grow.

However, if you are delving into the online market here are some of the major dos and don'ts to consider.

bike being serviced

A good service history is essential. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Questions you should definitely be asking when buying a second-hand bike

People are often selling their pride and joy, so it is common to see lengthy and detailed descriptions – these are good and should inform you well as a buyer. Always be respectful to the owner's bike, they may be reluctantly selling and it may help further down the line to have built a rapport with them.

If the seller’s description doesn’t give you all you need to know about the bike you intend to buy or seem’s vague then be sure to ask any questions you want the answers to. The more you ask the better, and while a particularly sparse advert shouldn’t put you off, you will need to do some in-depth probing.

Before you arrange a viewing, long journey or commit to buying, be sure you find out the general condition of the bike, including any parts that are broken or may need work. Ask for receipts for maintenance work or parts that may be under warranty.

Some questions you should be asking and a genuine seller will be able to answer:

How long have you owned the bike?

Have you got the original purchase receipt?

When was the last time the bike had a service, where was it serviced and what work was carried out?

Has any component or the frame ever been replaced or repaired under the manufacturer’s guarantee?

Is anything currently not working as it should?

Pictures, pictures, pictures make a big difference

Tarmac SL6 Camo

Ask for lot's of pictures of your potential purchase. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Good positive answers to those questions and you may be on your way to securing a purchase. Another clue to you being on the right track is quality images and lots of them – do not trust sellers that use stock photos. If you can’t see all that you need to in the supplied listing photographs then don’t be afraid to ask for more. Again, someone genuine who truly wants to sell their bike will take images of areas or components you want to see.

It also gives you an idea of how the owner treats the bike. If the photographs show a dirty bike, then that can often be a reflection of an owner’s bike maintenance schedule.

By now you should have received enough clues and vibes from the seller to arrange a viewing, depending on the location it may not always be possible. Either way, there are a few other factors to consider before you commit.

Signs of damage or neglect

Rusty bike chain

Signs of neglect? Maybe look elsewhere. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Ask or look and make sure the bike hasn’t been subjected to neglect and check whether the frame has been damaged. These are two of the most important things a second-hand bike buyer can do. However, looking for these things in images can be tricky and daunting, especially if you’re new to buying used bikes or aren’t an expert.

It’s important to begin your checks with the most expensive components first, working your way over the bike to its cheaper parts.

Take the frame for example: are there any cracks or dents? If there are any visible defects. Pay particular attention to carbon frames because cosmetic damage could well be hiding a structural issue that wouldn’t be as obvious as on a metal bike.

On metal bikes, check the welds for small hairline cracks that follow the shape of the weld. If there are cracks around the welds, take your money elsewhere.

There’s no harm in asking how many miles the owner has clocked on the bike. Remember that no matter how well a bike is maintained many items are consumables and will wear out. This isn't a reason to pass on a bike, just remember not to blow your entire budget, keeping some aside for parts like pads, tires and other consumables.

A rusty chain and bald tires are obvious signs of neglect, and these sorts of bikes should be avoided unless their condition is reflected in the price and you’re confident about doing some work or paying the local bike shop.

damaged bike frame

Inspect every part of the frame for damage. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

What to look for in used suspension bikes

If your prospective purchase is a mountain bike and has suspension front, rear or both it's vital to ask when servicing was last carried out. Suspension and shocks rely on lubrication oil (much like a vehicle’s engine) to prevent damage and reduce wear and tear. The condition of the oil also affects performance as the oil degrades over time performance is reduced.

Manufacturer's websites will show recommended suspension service intervals and this is important knowledge worth having to add to your list of questions. Other factors regarding bikes with rear suspension systems are both the bushings and bearings, consumable parts that, if worn, can result in rattling and knocking noises that make the bike's back end seem loose.

The rear suspension will need to be overhauled if the shock and pivot bolts are snug but the rear suspension rattles or feel loose and a professional bike mechanic is advised. If required, factor this into your budget and offer.

Make sure it fits

Another obvious thing and so obvious that people forget or get carried away seeing the dream bike they’ve been hunting for is to make sure you’re buying a bike that fits.

If possible, check out the size of the same (or a similar) model of bike before buying to make sure you’re choosing the correct frame size. Don’t be tempted to buy a bike that’s too big or too small.

If you can take it for a test ride, all the better, but expect to be asked to leave your phone, wallet or cash deposit with the seller.

Could it be a stolen bike?

bike being stolen

Be confident that your potential purchase is not stolen. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

Bike theft is a daily occurrence, with many bikes making their way on to selling pages, it is advisable to check that a bike has not been stolen before buying it.

Frame identification numbers can often be found stamped into the bottom bracket area, you can ask for a picture and check against numbers on the national database (opens in new tab) to find out whether a bike is stolen.

Bike serial number

Check the serial number against the National Database. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

If the seller is reluctant to provide this or the bike is being sold way below market value then it's a warning sign to walk away.

Other potential red flags are seller's that can't provide or don't have the original purchase receipt. They seem unsure of the bike’s full history, or have made errors in the listing.

Buying on eBay you can view a seller’s feedback and their selling history. Lots of satisfied previous customers are helpful and you can question any negative feedback before making your purchase decision.

On classified websites you may not have this luxury, so take extra care.

Remember if it's a stolen bike, regardless of the temptation to get a bargain, the bike was somebody's pride and joy and having your bike stolen is a horrible experience.

Postage

Bike boxes

Be sure the seller will package your bike correctly. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

We’d recommend collecting the bike in person – it’s a more personal experience and if there are any big issues you can deal with them at the time. Collection in person isn’t always possible and if you do go the postage route, be careful. 

The bike needs to be well packed and travel with a reputable firm to prevent damage in transit. We also recommend insuring the bike for its full value in case it gets damaged in transit or goes missing. This might cost a bit extra but is worth it. Be sure to ask the seller to package up the bike carefully, most bike shops are happy to offload bike boxes so a genuine seller should be happy to do this for you.

Meeting the seller

hands shaking

Shake on the deal in a safe location. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

If you do decide to meet in person to do a deal, make sure you take reasonable precautions to stay safe.

While it might feel sensible to meet them at their house or have them come to yours, a public place – like a coffee shop – is a better bet. It’s more likely to have CCTV coverage and there’ll be plenty of strangers and witnesses around should something untoward happen.

It’s wise to take a friend with you, if possible. If that’s not feasible, tell people where you’re going, who you’re meeting and what time they can expect you to check in to confirm everything is okay.

If you’re paying with cash, make sure you keep it in a safe and hidden place until you’re happy with the bike and want to buy it. 

Trust your instincts, remember if something looks too good to be true then it probably is. Seriously, if a seller isn’t making the situation easy for you, or anything is even slightly suspect, then turn away. Chances are you’ll find a similar bike from a better seller at some point soon.

Beware of fakes and scams

Fake bike

Beware of the counterfeit frame. (Image credit: Paul Brett)

The truth is that there are plenty of counterfeit products out there, and that includes bikes. Classified sites are littered with fake frames from the likes of Look and Pinarello. If you’re considering buying a product that you know people have faked before, then check owners’ forums or manufacturers’ websites, which should hold the information you need to determine whether a bike is genuine.

Similarly, the web is full of scams, so try and ensure your payment methods are protected with sites like PayPal. If a seller asks for something odd, then there's a good chance it's a scam.

And finally, enjoy

If you’ve managed to tick all the boxes on everything mentioned then fingers crossed it’s time to do the deal, always be prepared to haggle whether it’s an online offer or the slightly more tension-filled face-to-face, have your price in mind and stick to it.

And finally, when the handshake is done, enjoy your bike, you’ve done everything possible to now own a used bike that’ll give you years of riding experience.

mountain bikers riding

and lastly enjoy your new, used bike. (Image credit: Paul Brett)
Paul Brett
Staff writer

Paul has been riding bikes for as long as he can remember. From racing mountain bikes in the 1990s to endurance riding on the North Coast 500. He put his knowledge of all things cycling to good use when Paul founded his own adventure and cycling magazines back in 2018, Proper Adventure and Proper Cycling, which has led him on some memorable experiences. 


From riding with and interviewing World Champions to riding bikes all over the world. Based in Edinburgh he has the stunning riding locations that Scotland has to offer on his doorstep and has recently embraced the freedom and adventure of gravel riding.


Rides: Scott Spark RC Team Issue, Bergamont Grandurance Elite, Standert Kreissäge Team Edition


Height: 176cm


Weight: 85kg