Eight tips for buying a second-hand bike

Second-hand bike buying can be a minefield - here are our top tips to help you bag a bargain

The old cycling adage applies: you can never have too many bikes. So often it seems that as soon as we’ve bought our latest bike, we’re already looking at the latest machines on the market in preparation for our next purchase. The n+1 rule is king.

Perhaps you want to upgrade your current bike, or you want a machine designed for a specific job in hand. Perhaps a winter, gravel or touring bike. But your next purchase needn’t have to be a new bike – there’s also a booming market for second hand bikes looking for a good home.

Buying a second-hand bike can be a minefield – follow our tips to give yourself the best chance (Pic: Julian House Bike Workshop)

However, buying second-hand can be a minefield, because you not only need to take into account the same considerations you would as when buying a new steed, but also make sure it’s fit for the job.

We’ve had a chat with second-hand bike dealers, west-country experts Julian House Bike Workshop, to help point you in the right direction.

Make sure it suits your needs

It sounds obvious, but no bike buyer’s tip list would be complete without ensuring you’re buying the bike that’s right for you. So forgive us if we seem to be repeating ourselves. However, Laura Thorne, head mechanic at Julian House Bike Workshop in Bath, is keen to stress this key point, too.

A bargain second-hand bike is only a bargain if it does what you need it to do. Consider things like the geometry (do you want a slammed, aggressive race bike, or a more relaxed endurance bike?), whether you want mudguard and rack mounts, tyre clearance – in fact, anything that would cross your mind when paying a new bike at full price.

“You need to know what the bike will be used for,” Thorne says. “Are you going to be using it to potter around, going to the shops, or intend to do club riding on it? Eyelets for panniers may or may not be a factor for you, for example, and with the wide range of bikes you’ll find in second-hand shops knowing, what you actually will make use of is important.”

Use a trusted source

Stands to reason – no-one wants to buy a bike from a shady character, second-hand or otherwise. If possible, getting hands-on with a second-hand bike is going to go along way to helping you alleviate doubts. Buying from a friend, or through word of mouth, likely means you’ll have seen the bike in action, or have a genuine chance to ride it properly before exchanging cash.

Generally, one of the most reliable sources for a second-hand bike is a bike shop, because it’s very likely that the bike will have been serviced and cleaned before being offered up for sale. They’ll also be familiar with the bike, and the work done to it, so you can get a feel for any underlying or potential issues by speaking to them. Other potential sources include your local club, classifieds and online forums.

However, things get tricky if you’re buying from a source that you don’t know personally, for example eBay or other online sources. In this case, says Thorne, it’s good to follow eBay house advice and to be thorough in your research. “Check the feedback rating, location of the bike, and how thoroughly it’s been described and pictured by the seller,” she says. “It’s always worth making the effort to see the bike, even if it seems unlikely that you’ll be able to take it for a ride.” After all, you wouldn’t buy a car without seeing it first, would you?

Choose the right size

It’s fair to say that most bike buyers have been in this situation at some point: you spot a bike you love on the shop floor, with all the accessories you wanted already attached. It’s the right type of bike, it looks great, and is even the right colour. It’s a dream, but there’s a problem: it’s the wrong size.

This is a common issue, especially with second-hand bikes, when there’s usually only one version of a particular bike model available. Unless you’re buying the bike as a collector’s item, rather than for riding, you should always ensure it’s the correct size. It’s one of the most important considerations when buying a bike.

Don’t be swayed by the dream bike or a potential ‘bargain’ if the size isn’t right

At best, a bike which is not the right size for you will be uncomfortable, but it can also cause injury, as we discussed with leading bike fit experts earlier this year and ca n mean you won’t get the most out of your cycling, whatever your focus.

If you don’t know your size, do your research beforehand to give yourself the best chance of finding the right size, and at the very least have a quick test ride of the bike in question to make sure you’re comfortable on it. If you’re buying through a second-hand bike dealer, discuss any alterations that can be made (for example, stem length, saddle position etc) that will give you the best chance of a comfortable fit.

Try to get the bike’s history

Linked to being able to get hands-on with a potential purchase is understanding the previous use and ownership history of a bike. This can be a great indicator of the quality of the machinery, and how well it’s been looked after.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking ‘barely-used’ is automatically a good thing, as Thorne explains.

“In our experience, if a bike has had lots of use, this is usually better than none or little use,” she says. “That’s because even storing a bike away in a shed without a regular ride-out can cause parts to seize or become unusable if damp gets to them over a prolonged period of time.

“The chances are, unless the visual signs are clearly obvious, the bike will have been well-looked after if it’s been regularly used for its designed purpose.”

Look for signs of rust

Even if you know the history of the bike, it’s possibly even more important to carry out a thorough check of the frameset – the core of the bike.

“Checking the frame for any rust, serious abrasions, dents or uneven bends in the tubing can be an indicator of a previous impact,” says Thorne. “Another area that needs checking – often missed – is the seatpost and seattube. Where metal is involved, it can become fused, and be impossible to remove without machining; a process which may damage the frame irreparably anyway.”

Thorne also recommends checking bolts for excessive rust, including at the headset and around the steerer tube. If rust has set in, this is a clear sign that the bike has been left outside or in damp conditions on a regular basis. It may also indicate the bike has not been cleaned regularly as the ravages of dirt, salt and water exposure set in.

Assess the quality of the groupset

Next, move onto the groupset and the cables, plus any extras that are relevant to you (such as already-fitted panniers). The groupset is where you’re likely to see the biggest signs of wear, especially if it’s the original one fitted to the bike when new.

The groupset is where you’re most likely to see visible signs of wear and tear

“Look for gnarling of the chainset teeth, visible wear and tear in the cables, rust on the derailleurs, a stretched chain and so on,” says Thorne. “Even have a quick ride to see how easily it shifts, if at all possible.”

Of course, if the groupset has been recently replaced, whether in full or in part, this means there will be less components that will need replacing in the short term. Remember, costs can quickly add up if you need to replace parts, and that bargain may not be such a bargain anymore.

Does the dealer throw in any added extras?

As you might when buying a new bike, check with the retailer (if you are shopping with a second-hand dealer, that is) if they do free servicing for a period of time after the point of purchase.

This is something often thrown in with a new bike, but can be especially useful when purchasing a second-hand bike, which may either have hidden issues the mechanic initially failed to spot when cleaning the bike up for sale, or which may present themselves once you’ve given the bike a run out.

Offering an aftercare service like this can often be a sign of the bike shop’s confidence in the second-hand bike they’re selling. Also pay attention to accessories like mudguards, pannier racks and lights if they’re on offer with the purchase of a second-hand bike.

Set yourself up for haggling

All this advice sets you up to get the best price for your bike. After all, value is in the eye of the beholder, depending on what you’re after.

“It might be in the frame, like with some steel frames from historic manufacturers, or even in the groupset if it’s relatively new and could stand being moved from bike to bike,” says Thorne. “Likewise, you could also spot a particular hard-to-source component that you’re after to complete your current bike.

“At the end of the day, you need to do your research first and have a total budget in mind – how much are these types of bikes, in the age range and condition you’re looking at, selling for on online outlets like eBay? Then, take into account the extra work you’re going to need to do to the bike – if any at all, giving you the total build cost after you’ve bought the bike.”


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