How to: Buy a second-hand bike

Do your research, keep your wits about you and a second-hand bike can be a bargain. Photo: Cycling UK
Victoria Hazael's picture

How to: Buy a second-hand bike

Are you looking for a new bike, but your budget is slim? Here Cycling UK’s Victoria Hazael and Robin Eveleigh of Drover Cycles share their tips for buying a second-hand bike and avoiding a stolen one

If you’re in the market for a new bike, but your budget is slim, second hand could be the way to go. You might need to compromise on looks – the paintwork will probably have lost its showroom sheen and the spec will be somewhere between last season and yesteryear – but the smart shopper can pick up an amazing ride for a fraction of the price of a box-fresh purchase.

Finding a second-hand bike

With no shortage of places to advertise second-hand bikes, in theory it’s never been easier to bag a two-wheeled bargain. But the sheer volume of choice can be daunting, and separating the wheat from the chaff to find your dream buy is inevitably going to take a little time.

Besides auction sites like eBay, it’s worth scouring dedicated second-hand websites like Preloved or Facebook Marketplace. For an old-school approach keep an eye on the local paper classifieds.

Don’t be afraid to quiz sellers and ask for extra photos if need be. Avoid ads which use a generic catalogue image of the bike as new – you want to see pictures of what is actually for sale.

Forums

Streamline your search by giving some thought to the type of bike you want and buy a bike from a cyclist as they should have taken better care of it.

Sites like Singletrackworld and Pinkbike have classified forums full of high-end used mountain bikes. The road.cc forum specialises in second-hand road bikes. Bikeradar and Cycling UK’s own forum cover the whole shebang.

Sourcing a bike through these forums has other advantages over catch-all second-hand sites. They have a genuine sense of community which looks after its own, quickly weeding out scammers and leaping on suspicious activity.

Bike shops

That’s not to say would-be buyers don’t get stung when dealing with relative unknowns. One way to eliminate the risk factor altogether is to speak to your local bike shop or hire service.

They’ll have second-hand bike stock from trade-ins, as well as ex-demo or ex-hire bikes. They’ll be well-maintained and serviced and – as the shop is trading on its reputation – they’d be daft to knowingly sell you a duff. If something does go wrong, you’ve at least got some comeback.

The smart shopper can pick up an amazing ride for a fraction of the price of a box-fresh purchase

Robin Eveleigh, Drover Cycles

Bike recycling schemes

It’s worth finding out if there are any bike recycling centres in your area. These give new life to old cycles destined for the skip, and provide valuable job and skills training to boot. Bristol’s Bike Back is one such successful project.

If you already have a bike that needs fixing and you live in England, you could take it to a Big Bike Revival event

The map below shows sources of used cycles across the UK, whether they are cycle shops or recycling charities. Big Bike Revival centres are also indicated. If you don't see anywhere local to you yet, don't worry, we are adding more locations to the map all the time, so keep checking.

Websites

eBay, Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace are all popular places to sell bikes. But be aware these sites require no proof of purchase and are used by cycle thieves to offload stolen goods.

How not to buy a stolen bike

A word of warning: Inevitably, stolen bikes crop up on the second-hand market. When you find a bike you like, check the market value. Think about what it would retail for. If the price is too good to be true, there’s probably an angry ex-owner somewhere filling out an insurance claim.

Ask the seller questions about the bike: do they have the original documents, proof of ownership or a receipt? Find out as much information as you can about the bike you are buying.

It’s a good idea to ask for the frame number and check this against an online database such as BikeRegister, the only police-approved cycle database, to see if it’s been reported stolen. It also has a Top 10 tips when buying a second-hand bike.

If the seller doesn’t know much about the bike, is reluctant to give you information about it, or won’t provide an address for collection, then chances are it’s stolen, and it’s best to walk away. If it turns out you have bought a stolen bike and the original owner can be traced, you will have to give the bike back and it will be a long and complicated process to try and get your money back from the thief.

If you buy a bicycle that you suspect is stolen – you see a bike you know is reasonably worth £1000 selling for £50 and you jump at the deal, for example – you could technically be handling stolen property for which you could be prosecuted.

Even if you bought a bike worth £1000 for £1000 in what you thought was a genuine sale and it turns out to be stolen, there’s probably little come back for you legally, but you’ll be out of pocket when the bike goes back to the original owner, which is quite likely to happen if the bike is recovered or if the original owner’s insurer pays out.

In the future, the British Transport Police is looking to partner with second-hand sales websites to enable potential customers to carry out checks using databases like BikeRegister to see if a bike has been reported lost or stolen.

The police often get asked: “What should I do if I see what looks like my bicycle on a selling site?” Superintendent Mark Cleland from the British Transport Police advises: “If you see what looks like your bicycle on Gumtree, eBay or Facebook Marketplace, I’d advise against approaching the seller.

“Call the police and report it. There are things we can do in these instances, and we don’t want the public to put themselves at risk.

“What we would need to know is: Why do you think it’s your bike? Has it been identified as stolen property?”

It’s a good idea to have your proof of purchase and frame number to hand in these instances.

Found a bargain bike and you know it’s not stolen?

Don’t hand over your hand-earned cash until you’ve seen the goods and given them the once over (unless you’re certain you can trust the seller – maybe they’re a good friend or reputed second-hand bike dealer).

If you’re a mechanical ignoramus, it’s a good idea to take someone along to the purchase who knows what to look for, or pay your local bike shop to give it the once over. Generally, you should check the bike is in the condition described in the sale advert.

Most importantly: examine the frame. If the worst comes to the worst, components can be replaced, but a cracked or seriously dented frame is a no-no. OK, some defects can be remedied by a skilled welder – but do you really want to go down that route? Look at the welds and stress points and examine them for cracks. Pay attention to chainstays for signs of chain-suck damage.

Bear in mind that damage to carbon frames can be difficult or impossible to detect without having the bike x-rayed. Ask if the bike has suffered any crashes and if the seller ’fesses up – avoid!

Look for play in areas where bearings are used: the bottom bracket, headset and and wheel hubs. On full-suspension bikes also check the pivot points and bearings for wear, and examine suspension forks and shocks carefully, too. They can cost a fortune to replace, quickly turning your bargain buy into a money-pit.

Try to find out a little history of the bike: has it had one careful owner who bought from new? Do they have original sales documents or manuals? Have they kept on top of service intervals?

Has the bike been modified from new? Is the frame designed to take those super long-travel forks. Has the seller been busy with his tool kit, drilling holes for dropper seatposts? It happens!

Modifications which take the frame away from its original design can cause stresses and weaknesses which you’ll only discover when you’re pushing it hard – and your bike drops to pieces.

Doing the deal

Ideally, you want to meet in person, especially if you’re buying from a classified ad, second-hand site or forum. Sites like Singletrack set out clear guidelines for sellers and provide advice for buyers to help them avoid pitfalls – but bear in mind they are not responsible if your sale goes wrong.

You can consider meeting in a well-lit public place – but weigh this up against meeting the seller at their home address or workplace, where you’re more likely to get a sniff of something fishy. You’ll also have a physical bricks and mortar address to return to if there’s need for comeback.

Get a receipt, along with the seller’s name and contact info. Chances are, once the deal is done, it’s done. Second-hand items are usually sold ‘as seen’ – if you don’t spot something is wrong at the point of sale, you may be stuck with your dud.

It’s a different story with an auction site like eBay.

Beyond the peer-reviewing process – designed to weed out unscrupulous traders – eBay provides buyer protection and a thorough mediation process if you feel you’ve been cheated.

Paypal also offers some protection against scammers – as long as you don’t ‘gift’ your payment to the seller. If a seller asks you to send payment as gift so they can avoid PayPal fees, be warned that you’ll have no come-back if you’re stung.

Above all: look before you leap. Buying second hand can turn up some amazing bargains, but it isn’t for everyone. If you’re not willing to put the time and effort into the research, or if you want the back-up and warranties that come with a new purchase, you’re best off digging deep and stumping up the cash.

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