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I'm moving to a city where I can ride a bicycle to the grocery store, coffee shop etc. I want to purchase a decent used bicycle. I'm leaning towards a bike that's in between a "10-speed" or road-bike and a mountain bike. What should I look for when choosing a particular bike?

I've never purchased a used bicycle. Other than classifieds (e.g., Craigslist), what types of places can I look? What other issues should I consider, such as size, visual appearance, leaking tires, etc.? How can I make sure it's not stolen?

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There really isn't any way to be sure a bike isn't stolen; there is a good article on bike theft and a long discussion of it on HackerNews that people here will likely find interesting. –  William B Swift Aug 29 '12 at 1:55
    
See this link for more info on how to recognize used bike quality/condition. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 30 '12 at 11:50
    
See also: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/7089/… –  amcnabb Sep 9 '12 at 19:12
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What are you going to use the bike for? Without knowing that no one can even begin to answer your question. –  Carey Gregory Jun 9 '13 at 4:39
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Is it stolen? :P –  alex Jun 9 '13 at 8:43
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6 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In my area, there is a shop called Recycled Cycles, where they buy old bikes, fix them up and resell them at a discount. When my wife and I last visited, they had quite a few vintage bikes for sale.

You can also take a look at pawn shops, and if you live near a college/university, the campus police may hold a bike auction near the beginning of the school year. Our department collects abandoned bikes at the end of the spring semester and sell them the next calendar year (giving the owners time to come back and claim them). We usually have 60 or more bikes up for auction, ranging from rust buckets to almost brand new Treks.

As for what to look for in a bike, take a look at the answers in Purchasing a Bike.

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One thing not mentioned about used bikes is to make sure that the serial number is intact. Ask for it before you go purchase and call the local police departments to see if it's stolen. Walk away if you get a funny fealing. –  curtismchale Sep 7 '10 at 15:35
    
I'd be careful about pawn shops. A friend of mine once bought his stolen bike back from a pawn shop. He talked to the cops, pawn shop owner, no traction; so, he just bought it back. –  Jay Sep 17 '10 at 20:47
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As far as avoiding stolen bikes: I would use definitely use Craigslist, but just make sure the seller purports to be the owner (not "I'm selling it for a friend"--what, your friend doesn't have a phone to answer questions? Out of town working for the CIA? Mmm-hmmm...), and has knowledge of the bike. Like, be able to tell you what the frame size is without looking at the bike. Also, they should have an understandable reason for selling. You have to use some judgment there of course. Maybe ask them how they used it in the past. If you get "I don't know anything about it 'cuz..." walk away.

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I own 3 bikes and can't tell you the frame size of any of them without looking at the bike. But I bet if I were selling a stolen bike I could tell you the frame size, component group, and make up a rich history about the bike and why I am selling it. "Oh, I used this bike for commuting when I lived in the city, now that we live in the suburbs and we have a baby on the way, it's time to let someone else enjoy it...see that scratch on the frame? My father in law went out for a ride and rode right into a tree." –  Johnny Jun 14 '13 at 19:44
    
A competent thief definitely could spin a rich history, but many incompetent thieves simply don't. If the seller can't tell you anything, or have any clue about their Cinelli or why it has sewup tires, or why they can't fill their presta-valved tires with a schneider valve pump...I would be suspicious. –  Jay Jul 1 '13 at 22:53
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Issues of where to find a bike have been answered pretty thoroughly here, including the standard disclaimers of making sure a bike isn't stolen before purchasing.

On advice for how to see how ride-worthy a bike is:

Definitely take a look at the bike before buying. Give it a quick once-over for general wear or use. If the bike looks like it hasn't been maintained well, it will probably show. This doesn't mean it isn't a good bike, but you want the best you can get.

If you don't see any obvious signs of mis-use, check each system more thoroughly.

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and that you will find problems with any bike if you look closely enough. It doesn't automatically mean you should look for a different bike either. What's important is whether the problems you find are evidence of deeper issues, or if they will cause problems in the future. Many issues can be fixed at home with a little effort, but it's still better to be aware of anything before you buy a bike. These small fixes can also add up if you're looking for something cheap. I'll try to point out bigger problems that you want to avoid.

History: Simply ask if there have been any problems with the bike. Has it been in an accident? was it rebuild? does it pull the left? How long has the seller owned it, how much have they used it, etc.

General: Does anything squeak or make unusual sounds? Can you stand comfortably over the frame with your feet flat on the ground? Does the bike still have reflectors in the front and back, the wheels, and pedals? Has the bike been registered previously, and can the owner produce the paperwork to transfer the registration? Do the parts have a well-greased and smooth feel to them?

Wheels: Look for wear on the tire tread. Is there any damage to the side walls of either tire? What kind of conditions are the inner tubes in? As how many flat repairs each wheel has had, and if either tire leaks air significantly.

Make sure the wheels attach firmly to the frame, and that the wheels remain secure when you torque them relative to the axle. (You don't want any 'play' in the wheels, as this may be a sign of one of those deeper problems with a loose cassette or worn ball bearings.) How are the spokes? Do they have relatively even tension on them and look like they're in good shape?

Spin the wheel on the bike, and look down the thread for any wobbling or mis-alignment. If they do, the wheels could probably use a re-alignment.

Brakes: Check the brake pads for wear. Will then need to be replaced soon? Are they aligned for proper contact with the braking surface? Do they engage quickly when the brakes are applied?

Cables: Check for any frayed ends or rusted sections. Are the cable guides still in place and preventing unnecessary wear across surfaces? Do the cables have end-caps on them to prevent future fraying?

Pedals: Do the pedals appear to have struck the ground before or they otherwise in good shape. Torque the pedal arms against the axle to see if there is any looseness. Spin the pedals by hand to ensure they rotate smoothly, but aren't too loose or tight. Also spin the pedal crankshaft to look for the same types of things. As with the wheels, being overly tight or loose at the axle may be signs of bigger problems.

Gears and Chain: Visually inspect the gears for any wear (each tooth should be symmetrically shaped, not wave-shaped). Is each gear parallel to each other on the cassette? How does the chain look? Has it been well maintained and lubricated. This is probably the only part where you would need any equipment to check your bike, but a chain-wear tool would be useful to check for a stretched chain. If you don't have such a tool handy, the aforementioned wave-shaped gear teeth are evidence of a stretched chain in need of replacement. Wave-shaped gear teeth mean the gears should be replaced also (not usually a good sign). Does the gear switching mechanism allow you to reach the highest and lowest gear, and does it move well?

Handlebars: How are the handlebars positioned relative to the seat. Are they within comfortable reach? Can you reach the brakes quickly. Are the handlebars in line with the wheel? Is the tape worn and cracked, or does it look like you will still get some mileage out of it. Do the handlebars turn smoothly in the frame with the wheel, or is there any tightness or looseness?

Seat and Post: How does the seat feel? can it be adjusted to a comfortable height and does it stay in place well. Quick-release adjustments can be a huge plus here.

Frame: How does the frame look. Is it still in line with itself or has it been torqued or bent. Are there any signs of cracks or dents? Problems with the frame tend to increase in severity with use and affect biking efficiency as the frame degrades. Some light damage might be okay here, but be aware that a damaged frame can quickly become unusable.

Ride the bike: Ride the bike for a short distance, switch through the full range of gears. Pedal hard, brake hard with both brakes (but don't let yourself fly over the handlebars), and turn a few times. How does the bike feel? This includes how the bike actually performs, and how well it feels for you specifically. Is the bike comfortable for you. If not, can it be adjusted so that it is?

Take someone with you when looking a the bike. You never know who you might come across through Craigslist, and two sets of eyes may notice more than just one.

Best of luck

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Here are some tips to avoid getting a stolen bike:

  1. Google the phone number. If they are selling a number of bikes be alert. If the number is listed with a number of different names, you can almost guarantee the bike is stolen.
  2. The price might be suspiciously low.
  3. Thieves often know little about bikes and often have very poor grammar and spelling. If it's a very nice bike, a legitimate seller will be very aware of what it is and what it's worth. They won't list is as "AWESOME BIKE. gos very fast. black weels"
  4. Things listed as "must go today", "selling for a friend" etc. should raise alarm bells.
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In addition to picking the right type of bike and avoiding stolen bikes, which have been addressed in existing answers, it's important to consider whether a particular bike is well made and in good condition. Depending on the price, a few minor maintenance needs may be expected, but a single serious problem or a large number of minor problems can easily make it more expensive to get a used bike in good condition than it is worth.

Avoid department store bikes. Note that many bike shops refuse to service such bikes because they are low quality, hard to repair, and impossible to properly tune.

A quick inspection can reveal mechanical problems. The following list of common problems to look for is loosely ordered from more serious to less serious.

  1. Frame. A cracked, bent, or dented frame affects both safety and performance. Not only would it be expensive to get a new/used frame, but removing and installing the parts from the other bike would be a lot of work. Note that creaking can be caused by a damaged frame.

  2. Drivetrain. In addition to the cost of replacing rusted parts, a rusty chain, cog, or derailleur is a sign that a bike has been left outside and poorly maintained. Unsmooth shifting may only require derailleur adjustment or new cables (which are easy and inexpensive to replace), but a damaged derailleur is a more serious problem.

  3. Wheels. Try spinning each wheel off the ground: it should spin smoothly for a while, and it shouldn't appear wobbly. A hub that doesn't spin smoothly may require new bearings or may even need to be replaced. A slightly warped rim can be a minor problem if there's just a broken spoke, but a severely warped or tacoed rim may be unfixable.

  4. Brakes. Unsmooth braking usually only requires adjustment or new cables but can be a sign of a bigger problem.

  5. Chain, tires, and brake pads. Replacing "consumable" parts is relatively easy, but a $20 chain, two $30 tires, and two $10 pairs of brake pads adds up to $100. New parts can increase the effective price of an otherwise cheap bike.

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See also this question about getting a used bike into good condition: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/2580/… –  amcnabb Aug 30 '12 at 17:02
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It is hard to avoid a stolen bike, however here are some tips

  • Ask them for the frame number before you go to view the bike, and then check with the police if it has been reported stolen. (Check the frame number when you view the bike)
  • Tell them you will wish to take a photo of them and check IDs before parting with cash.
  • Arrange to meet them in their house and note their address, if this is hard you could view the bike the first time elsewere, but you must view it in their house before buying it (Not just outside their claimed home).
  • Take a photo of the person selling you the bike
    • One that is a close up of their face
    • Another that shows them with the bike.
  • Check their ID (passport or driver's license in the UK) and take a copy of the ID. If it’s a passport of a county other than your own, be very carefully, as do you know what the password should look like?
  • Ask to see a bill or bank statement that shows their name and the above address, take a copy if possible. (The copy only has to show the top of the statement and does not have to include any transactions.)
  • If you are have still have doubts about their ID, you could ask them to show you a cash card that has their name on it, then ask them to take to you a ATM and (without you looking at them typing in the PIN) prove that they know the PIN for the card.

By this point, anyone selling a stolen bike; will decide you are not the best customer for them! If you think the bike is stolen, tell the police.

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This seems highly excessive. Frame number and a copy of the ID should be more than enough. If someone buying anything second hand from me would want me to take out cash from an ATM in front of them, I'd consider them crazy and find another buyer. –  Bartek Tatkowski Sep 7 '10 at 11:02
    
@bartek, I said "If you are have still have droughts about their ID" then ATM. Remember some people don't have a passport etc. Just a copy of the ID is not enough, you also need an address that the police can find them at. –  Ian Sep 7 '10 at 11:28
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yea, i wouldn't give anyone all that info if I was selling a non-stolen bike. –  dotjoe Sep 7 '10 at 15:33
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I have to agree, this is excessive. I wouldn't give a random stranger a copy of my ID or any other documents. Running the serial number should be sufficient. –  Neil Fein Sep 7 '10 at 17:05
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Agreed, this is ridiculous. If I was selling one of my bikes and someone demanded multiple forms of ID, a mugshot and a copy of my bank statement, I'd tell him to pound sand up his ass. –  Mike Baranczak May 2 '11 at 19:47
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