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How To Buy A Motorcycle: Title Search & More

Chaparral Motorsports
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November 2, 2018
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Last Updated: July 31, 2020

Buying a used motorcycle can either be a great deal or a headache. It's not just the condition of the bike, but the title and ownership papers. You could get scammed. On the other hand, you could also get the deal of a lifetime. Let's look at some ways to avoid title problems and how to buy a motorcycle

How To Buy a Motorcycle

The first thing you need to do when you want to buy a motorcycle is create a budget and now how much you want to spend in the initial purchase and if any repairs or modifications need to be made. Next, you need to determine what kind of motorcycle you want to buy, a street bike, dirt bike, cruiser, adventure bike, dual sport bike, or maybe a custom motorcycle. Once you have those two things established you can start your search. Searching for the right motorcycle can be quite a challenge as there are many avenues you can purse such as craigslist, you local motorcycle dealer, a print or online publications such as Cycle Trader, or maybe asking your network of friends and family. All have their benefits and and downfalls and as you continue your search you'll learn the ins and outs and how to avoid pitfalls of each.

Once you've got a bike or two lined up that you want to check out make arrangements with the seller to meet. If the seller isn't a motorcycle dealership or your local shop and is someone you've talked with online or over the phone then make sure to meet in a public place with plenty of people around.

If you don't know anything about motorcycles or what to look for when buying a used motorcycle bring someone along that is experienced in the situation. You'll want to give the bike a very good inspection from tire to tire to make sure everything is in order and you are aware of any mechanical or cosmetic issues that may need to be addressed. Most sellers won't let you take the motorcycle for a test ride, so be prepared to hear no if you ask. If they do say no, there shouldn't be any reason as to why they won't start the bike and let it idle and rev the throttle few a minute or two. While the bike is running pay close attention. Look and listen carefully. Look for any parts that may be rattling that shouldn't be or fluids leaking, also listen for any unusual sounds the bike may be making.

If you are interested in the bike and satisfied with its condition then before you begin to work on the purchase price with the seller ask them about the title/paperwork on the motorcycle. You need to pay attention to the paperwork on the bike as it could have an impact on whether you actually want to go through with the purchase or whether you want to try and negotiate a better price.

What You Need to Know

The important questions you should consider:

  • Is the motorcycle stolen?
  • Does the motorcycle have a lien on it?
  • Has the bike been rebuilt after a crash?
  • Does the seller have a legitimate title?

Motorcycle Title Search

There are many places to check a motorcycle title. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System has file information on most vehicles. There's a small fee, ranging from $3 to $7, but you'll know right away if you have a legitimate title.

What Is a Salvage Title on a Motorcycle?

There may be times where you come across a motorcycle that has a salvaged title, while not necessarily a bad thing, there are some things you should know. A salvage title means at one point the motorcycle was in an accident or damaged to the point that the insurance company deemed that it was going to cost more to repair the bike than it was actually worth, or whats referred to as "a total loss". While it might have been considered a loss by the insurance company they are often looking to recoup some money and will sell the vehicle back to the owner or a shop to fix up or repair it. If this occurs, the motorcycle will now have a salvaged title associated to it. Total loss varies from scenario to scenario and could mean the bike was in a major accident, there was fire damage, or there was water damage.

Without extremely detailed incident and repair reports or paperwork, it's difficult if not impossible to associate a proper value to a vehicle with a salvaged title, therefore you won't find those prices or values in common reference materials like Kelly Blue Book. And that's why a salvaged title may be enticing to some people, because it means they should be able to get a pretty good deal on the motorcycle.

You really need to pay attention to any motorcycle with a salvaged title and if you are serious about purchasing it should have a highly experienced mechanic or shop inspect to to make sure the frame is straight, there are no weak sport or broken welds, and everything is in order and the motorcycle is rideable and safe to operate.

Some things to take note of when purchasing a motorcycle with a salvaged title is that when it comes to financing and insurance you may come across some problems. Lenders don't often like to provide financing for salvage title vehicles and if they do it may be at a higher rate. Same with insurance companies, they don't like to insure salvaged titles because there's an element of uncertainty, if they do insure it may come at a higher rate with a lower payout of something goes wrong. Your insurance company or finance lender may also require an inspection of the motorcycle before they'll take on the bike. The other thing you should keep in mind is that when it comes to reselling a motorcycle with a salvage title, just like there was most likely no real reference to go off for its value when you purchased the bike you're still in the same boat, so you may have trouble getting the price you want.

If the bike doesn't have a legitimate title, you can still research it and determine how to proceed. You will have to be cautious and do your homework. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is a scam. Here are a few scenarios you might come across and how to handle them.

You're Given an Open Motorcycle Title

An open title is when the seller's name and information does not match the name and information on the title. It's common when the seller is flipping the motorcycle. For example, you are buying the motorcycle from Joe Smith, but the name on the title is Mary Doe. Joe bought the bike from Mary and never obtained a title in his name. Now, he's selling the bike to you. Legit? Probably. Joe is most likely avoiding paying tag, tax and title. He's acting like a dealer, rather than a seller.

While it's illegal for Joe to act as a dealer and avoid giving the state the revenue owed to them, for your purposes, we're more interested in whether it's a good title. You should still do your due diligence and verify the title until it got to Joe's hands. If the seller has a good title except for the name matching, it's most likely he didn't steal the bike.

Buying a Motorcycle Without a Title

A seller without a title might be a scammer, but he (or she) could have legitimately lost it. If the bike has a busted ignition lock or the seller seems nervous, it could be stolen. You should probably decline. But if the bike looks good and you know the seller, you may have a legitimate sale. Some bikes over a certain age may not have a title.

You should be able to obtain a legal title by going through a titling service or doing the legwork yourself. For a rare or valuable bike, it might be worth your time. You may have to use your best judgment. If you proceed without a title, get a notarized bill of sale. It's always best to get the title before you make the sale. Don't agree to get the title at a later date. Never accept a photocopy of a title. You need the original.

You should also take these precautions:

  • Check the VIN on the title against the motorcycle.
  • Check the license plate to make sure it's the same on the registration.
  • Your insurance company can give you a rate quote with the VIN. If there's a problem, they might tell you.
  • Call the police and check if the motorcycle has been reported stolen.
  • Call the original manufacturer. Ask about original equipment on the motorcycle.
  • Check the title for liens to make sure you have a lien release.

Incorrect Numbers on the Title or the Motorcycle

A motorcycle will have the VIN stamped in a couple of spots, such as the frame and the engine. These numbers should match and be the same on the title. If the bike has an aftermarket frame or engine, they may not have numbers, depending on the age of the item. It's possible that the frame or engine was swapped without being registered correctly. You will have to do your research to determine if the bike is legal or not.

Title Errors

Errors on titles occur. Many are simple transpositions or just mistakes on the title. You may be able to get the title corrected at the DMV just by asking. It's better to get it corrected, because if you are stopped by law enforcement it could appear as if you have a stolen bike. Before buying a bike with an error on the title, you should find out how much hassle you're going to have to go through to get the corrected title.

Go Through a Dealer If Possible

Typically, when you buy a motorcycle from a dealer, even a used one, you will get help with the paperwork. It's when you're buying a motorcycle from a private party that you really have to be cautious. The other benefit to purchasing a used motorcycle form a dealer is that if you need financing for the bike it's often times easier to work with the lenders the dealer already has relationships with. You may even be able to get the dealer to chip in some new parts like a set of grips or a maybe even a free service like an oil change.

How to Transfer a Title

When it comes to transferring the title you'll need the title, a bill of sale, and any other paperwork that may be required by your state's motor vehicle department such as a smog certificate. Make sure to see the seller's photo ID if purchasing from the private party and write down all their information and check it against the title. There is information on the title that you and the owner/seller need to each fill out. Make sure the odometer reading is properly marked down if required in your state. The seller will fill out the bill of sale with info like the vin number, make/model/ and sale price. You need to put in your information and sign it. Inspect all the paper work to make sure everything is in order all the information matches up and both you and the seller have signed everything where necessary.

Once all the paperwork is complete between you and the seller you will then need to visit you local state motor vehicle department and submit the paperwork and pay the associated fees to register the vehicle in your name.

If you need parts or accessories for your used motorcycle, Chaparral Motorsports has a large selection of pre-owned motorcycles and as well as high-quality motorcycle parts and accessories. And if your new used bike is in need of some new tires, Chaparral has a massive tire inventory that covers just about any motorcycle. Contact us today for more information.

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