How to buy a used or second-hand bike online

Advice to help you buy a bike with confidence

Whether you're looking to grab a bargain bike from an online auction site such as eBay or a classifieds site such as Gumtree or Craigslist then make sure you read our advice first. It could save you a wad of cash in the long run, or keep you from falling into the pitfalls that surround making such a purchase.

There's no doubt that you can find a lot of good deals online and potentially in an auction. Generally speaking, we wouldn't recommend buying your first bike online unless you're an experienced mechanic or you're able to get someone who really knows bikes to look over your potential purchase.

Don't be afraid to ask for more

If the seller's description doesn't answer your questions then make sure you ask for all the information you need:
If the seller's description doesn't answer your questions then make sure you ask for all the information you need:

If the seller's description doesn't give you all you need to know about the bike you intend to buy then be sure to ask any questions you want the answers to. As you probably know, bicycles can bring a lot of emotion out of people and these listings often contain people's pride and joy, and so it is common to see lengthy and detailed descriptions – these are good and should inform you well as a buyer.

Before you commit to buy, be sure you know the general condition of the bike including any parts that are broken or may need work. Many owners will retain receipts from maintenance work or parts, just like they would do with a car's service history.

Good pictures make a big difference

Decent quality images are what you should be looking for – 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.

Photographs are also a good opportunity for you to get an idea of how the owner treats the bike. Plenty of owners will, for example, photograph a dirty bike – this lazy approach can often be a reflection of an owner's maintenance schedule. On the flipside, bikes that look immaculate in photos are usually the best cared for – but this isn't always the case.

Keep some money aside

Try not to blow your entire budget on the bike itself. Think of setting aside around 10% of the bike's value towards potential maintenance costs. After all, you won't be able to send your bike back to the buyer.

Look out for signs of neglect

This is not what you want to see:
This is not what you want to see:

Here's a big one, and where people begin to get really scared – and rightly so in some cases. 

Allow your thought process to start out with the most expensive components and work your way down to cheaper parts. Take the frame for example: are there any cracks or dents? Run away if that's the case. We'd leave any frames showing significant damage – 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.

If a bike has suspension then find out when it was last serviced, and if there's rear suspension then it's wise to ask when the bushings and bearings were last overhauled. Some bikes have obviously had a hard life – a rusty chain and bald tyres are obvious signs of neglect, and these sort of bikes should be avoided.

There's no harm in asking how many miles the owner has clocked on the bike, as remember that no matter how well a bike is maintained many items are consumables and will wear out. On the other hand, if a bike looks or is described to be in 'as new condition' then check its specification against how it was sold – it may even be wearing its original tyres and brakes.

Make sure it's the right size

Another obvious thing to bear in mind is to make sure you're getting the size that's right for you. If possible, check out the size of the same (or a similar) model of bike at your local bike shop so as to be able to check that you're choosing the correct frame size. Don't be tempted to buy a bike that's too big or too small just because it's up for a good price.

Could it be a stolen bike?

Frame identification numbers can often be found stamped into the bottom bracket area: frame identification numbers can often be found stamped into the bottom bracket area
Frame identification numbers can often be found stamped into the bottom bracket area: frame identification numbers can often be found stamped into the bottom bracket area

It is prudent to check that a bike has not been stolen before buying it. If a bike is being sold way below market value, ask yourself why. Does the owner not know the bike's full history? Is the bike listed incorrectly? These are all warning signs. An original purchase receipt is a great thing to ask for. Each frame holds a unique identification number (ask for a picture of it; it's usually under the bottom bracket of the frame). These can be checked against numbers on the national database or checkthatbike! to find out whether a bike is stolen. If you have doubts, don't purchase.

Is the seller reliable?

On eBay it's relatively easy to view a seller's feedback to see their selling history. Lots of satisfied previous customers is ideal, while you can scrutinise any negative feedback before making your purchase decision. On classified websites you may not have this luxury so take extra care.

Check the postage

Try and collect your bike in person rather than get it delivered:
Try and collect your bike in person rather than get it delivered:

First of all 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 then be careful, the bike needs to be well packed and travel with a reputable firm to prevent damage in transit.

Trust your instincts

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 in the near future.

Beware of fakes and scams

A couple of years back, italian bike brand pinarello closed down 16,000 online auctions for counterfeit versions of its products :
A couple of years back, italian bike brand pinarello closed down 16,000 online auctions for counterfeit versions of its products :

The sad truth is that there's plenty of counterfeit product out there, and that includes bikes. Classified sites are actually 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 get on the owners' forums or manufacturers' websites, which should hold the information you need to determine whether a bike is real or genuine. Similarly, the web is full of scams so try and ensure your payment methods are protected.

Related: Fake bike kit costing industry millions a year

Save that search

Nobody has enough time to be constantly scanning the likes of eBay for bikes, no matter how much we try! Thankfully, eBay's saved searches can do that for you. Simply set up a saved search (here's how) and let the website alert you when new products that you are interested in have been listed.

Don't drink and buy

eBay and alcohol do not mix, you have been warned:
eBay and alcohol do not mix, you have been warned:

Finally, don't purchase anything when affected by alcohol. Seriously. We know of plenty of people who have bid more than they really wanted to after a couple of drinks. Set your maximum bid limit and stick to it.

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

Oli Woodman

Senior Writer, UK
With more than 10 years of experience riding mountain bikes, Oli knows the good from the bad when it comes to gear. He's a total bike nerd and loves few things more than fettling with spangly riding bits. Also, he seems to have a talent for crashing hard but emerging unscathed.
  • Discipline: Mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Loamy singletrack
  • Beer of Choice: Corona
  • Location: Bristol, UK

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