Buying a used bike seems like a great, affordable option to many people. However, this is often not the case. I’ve seen many people purchase a used bike for $5 and be very disappointed when they learned that the cost to make the bike safe and rideable was over $100.
If you are considering buying a used bike that needs work, you should be informed on what to look for. Recognize what repairs will be needed and what brands to avoid. Many used bikes are simply not worth fixing up.
All bikes will eventually require maintenance. Most used bikes will need the following repairs:
Chain: Replacing the chain is unavoidable for any bike that has enough miles on it. If during a test ride the chain seems to slip or lurch forward while pedaling, the chain and freewheel need to be replaced.
Brake and Shift Adjustments: These systems fall out of adjustment with use and require occasional tuning. Rusted or corroded cables and worn brake pads are another common problem. The cable should slide smoothly and the brake arms and derailleurs should move freely. Cable replacements require a readjustment of the system.
Wheel truing: Wheels with uneven spoke tension require a ‘true’. Untrue wheels will spin asymmetrically and can interfere with braking.
Bearing adjustments: On many bikes it is common for the bearings of the headset, the hubs, and the bottom bracket to become loose. If you can rock the wheels or crankarms side to side, or the headset inside the frame, the bearings are loose and need adjustment. Very loose bearings on cheap wheels often don’t hold adjustments, and require a wheel replacement.
Some used bikes will have additional problems you should be on the lookout for.
Missing or Bent Wheels: Severely bent wheels cannot be repaired and require replacement. If the wheel is damaged, the tire, tube, and freewheel can be moved to a new wheel. If the wheel is missing completely, all those items will have to be purchased in addition to the wheel.
Missing or Loose Crankarms: Crankarms must be tightened onto the bottom bracket with the appropriate torque. If they are installed too loosely, they can begin to rock, spin, or fall off. This movement often damages the crankarm and a new one must be installed.
Bent Forks and Frames: While bent frames and forks can be difficult to spot, you should be aware of the possibility of this damage on used bikes. Depending on the severity, a bent frame or fork can make the bike unsafe to ride.
Choosing A Bike
The above repairs are very common and ones I see on almost all recently purchased used bikes. If you are considering buying a used bike, budget between $100 and $130 for necessary repairs and maintenance to make your bike safe and rideable.
When it comes to department store bikes (Huffy, Pacific, Magna), it’s often cheaper to buy the same model new than it is to repair a used one. This isn’t necessarily a better option however, because cheap department store bikes will eventually require these repairs anyway. (Sometimes immediately, as these bikes are not assembled by trained mechanics and often require tune-ups when brand new.) Even after a full tune up, a department store bike is still made of cheap materials that break and come out of adjustment easily. My advice is to avoid purchasing department store bikes, new or used.
Bike shop brand bikes (Fuji, Trek, Specialized, Giant, ect.) can be worth fixing up, depending on the amount of repairs needed. Remember to look the bike over thoroughly and estimate what all will need to be done. These brands hold adjustments longer and do not break as easily.
It can be overwhelming to diagnose what repairs a bike needs. A simpler option is to purchase an already tuned used bike. While this may seem more expensive up front, all the additional repairs have been done for you. You can ride assured that the bike is safe and should last many years.