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Buying a Used MTB: How to not get ripped off, and what to look for

At the time of writing this article, the mountain bike market is crazy. New bikes are tough to come by and have long wait times. Used bikes are popping up with huge markups. It’s a seller’s market, and many people are turning to the used bike market and shopping on places like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and Pinkbike to find a good MTB. Used MTB marketplaces can be a great place to find a bike, but they can also be a dangerous proposition; damaged, stolen, and overpriced bikes are more common than ever. Here are some things you should look out for if you’re in the used bike market.

1. Know Who You’re Dealing With

Maybe it sounds obvious, but never hand over cash until you know exactly who you’re dealing with. There are too many dishonest sellers who are either knowingly selling broken or stolen bikes, misleading you about the value of the bike, or are simply uninformed about the value of their bike and looking to make a quick buck.

Sadly, you can’t always take the seller’s word for it. If the seller isn’t somebody you know personally and trust, do yourself a favor and do a little research. Check out their marketplace profile and social media. Do they have positive reviews? Do you have common acquaintances? Are they selling a lot of other shady looking items or seem like somebody who actually knows what they’re selling?

If you don’t find a good reason to inherently trust them, move ahead with extra caution.

Request a phone call so you can discuss the purchase, ask questions about the bike, and see what your gut tells you.

2. Know What You’re Buying

It’s important to educate yourself about what you’re buying. If you’re new to mountain bikes, and don’t know the difference between Acera and XTR, seek out a knowledgeable friend to help with your purchase. If you don’t have any MTB guru buddies, stop by 207MTB on Facebook and the community will be happy to help.

You can learn a lot by doing some of your own research online. To start, identify the make, model, and year of the bike – just like you would with any vehicle. Don’t take the seller’s word for it. Look on Google and see if the photos and specifications of that bike and year of manufacturing match up with what’s being sold. Look at individual components like the drivetrain, brakes, crankset, suspension, and wheels. All these components are extremely valuable on a mid to higher-end mountain bike, and will sometimes be “stripped” off a bike or swapped out with cheap and sometimes dangerous aftermarket parts.

Look for other, older listings or sales of the same bike from that year and see how the prices compare. Sites like Bicycle Blue Book can give you a ballpark number, but aren’t always that accurate. It’s better if you can find other sales of the same bike or bikes in that range to gauge whether the price is fair, overpriced, or suspiciously low.

3. See the Bike in Person

If you’ve done your homework, and think you’re willing to do business with the seller and the bike looks legitimate, do everything you can to see the bike in person and perform a full inspection.

Don’t let the seller rush you or push you into a sale. Any decent seller who is selling an expensive mountain bike will let you take your time and look it over. If they’re pressuring you, avoiding your questions, or making excuses about why you can’t look at or test the bike, it’s a huge red flag.

Check the frame over thoroughly for any damage. Small scratches and wear are common on used mountain bikes, but any cracks, dents, or bent areas on the frame are a major issue and render the bike unrideable.

Check over everything else for obvious damage – bent wheels/rims, bent or cracked crankset and drivetrain components could end up costing you a lot down the road. Look at the shock and fork for any scratches or damage to the stanchions (the skinny part of the tubes). Push the suspension through its cycle several times and look for any leaking oil or grime seeping out. This could signify an expensive suspension service is needed, or even worse that the suspension components need to be replaced.

Take the bike for a test ride and shift through all the gears. Do this at normal pedaling pace and under load – either uphill or just pedaling hard. Does everything shift smoothly? If not, it could mean a simple tuneup is due, or it could mean the derailleur or derailleur hanger need replacing. Look closely at the derailleur, cage, and hanger to see if they appear obviously bent.

Stuff like handlebar grips, tires, and even saddles and pedals are “wear” items that aren’t terribly expensive to replace. Most riders like to set these components up to fit their preference anyway, so they are less important than critical parts like the frame and suspension.

4. Look For Red Flags

If everything about the bike, the seller, and the price seem good, ask yourself the following questions before you commit to a sale.

  1. Does the bike have a questionable history? Purchase records are king. If the history of the bike is murky, it could be a a sign of a stolen bike. The more valuable a bike is, the more likely the seller will know a lot about it. If you’re buying a very expensive bike and the seller “got it from a buddy” and doesn’t know anything about it – be very skeptical.
  2. Has the bike been modified significantly from stock? If so, seek an explanation from the seller. Stolen bikes often have components “stripped” and replaced; often with cheaper, aftermarket parts that can even be dangerous.
  3. Has the frame been painted? This is one of the biggest red flags for a stolen bike. What easier way to cover up a theft than paint it? There are certainly legitimate reasons for painting a bike, but it’s a reason to be extra cautious. A painted bike – especially if it isn’t a very professional job – is also going to reduce the resale value of the bike permanently.
  4. Is the seller rushing or pressuring you? Scammers will often try to take advantage of any weakness they can – pressuring you or trying to distract you from taking your time looking at the bike. Be strong, and stand your ground. If you feel pressured – walk away.

While you can never be 100% certain a bike is stolen, pay attention to the red flags. If something seems really suspicious – report it to the authorities.

5. Pay Safely in Person

Never, evah, EVAH give somebody your money until you have seen the bike and followed all of the steps above. Unless they are a highly trusted friend, or you’re willing to take the risk when purchasing online through a legitimate, verified marketplace, this is a surefire way to lose your money.

Common scams on Craigslist involve a seller trying to have money sent to them before the bike is “delivered”. Fake photos are easy to procure, and in some cases there was never even a bike to begin with. Be really cautious about paying with electronic funds in general.

If you’re using an electronic payment, use a service with seller protection. Review the terms provided by the payment processor you use (such as PayPal) and the marketplace you’re using (eBay will offer very different seller protection services than an unregulated marketplace like Craigslist where there is no additional protection).

Good Luck!

If all of the above doesn’t have you too nervous – buying secondhand can be a great way to score a bike. There are plenty of great folks out there selling used bikes, you just need to be cautious and know what you’re doing.

I hope this guide helps you with your used bike shopping. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

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