How to Buy a Used Bike to Make Sure You Don’t Get Ripped Off

A woman rides a bicycle.
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If you get a major case of FOMO every time you see a brightly-colored cruiser-style bicycle rolling down your street, join the (bike) club.

As more Americans have remained closer to home, the two-wheeler has become not only a mode of transportation, it’s done double duty as exercise equipment.

That might explain why sales of adult leisure bikes shot up 121% in March — and why you can’t seem to find a new bike.

Plus, those shiny cruisers start at about $200. 

But shopping for a used bike? It feels like a minefield. Will you get a “great” deal on Craigslist, only to discover the bike needs hundreds of dollars of work to make it rideable? 

Or worse — how do you know a bike hasn’t been stolen by some shady dude trying to make a quick buck? More than 2 million bikes are stolen in North America every year. 

Don’t make the statistics worse by getting a great deal on someone else’s misfortune.

It’s time to get educated.

How to Buy a Used Bike 

Want to buy a used bike — either online or in person — without getting scammed? I asked the experts for their help to find a legit used bike and what to watch out for.

Looking for a Deal? How to Buy a Bike on Craigslist

There are two kinds of cruiser bikes on Craigslist:

  1. Listings for bikes in great condition, with a ton of photos and information about the make, model, and owner history. These bikes typically look pretty new, priced at $50 to $100 less than retail.

  2. Listings for bikes that may or may not mention the make, model or size of the bike. There are only one or two photos and maybe a short statement about the bike. These bikes are priced as low as $35.

Color me confused. And a little suspicious 

I called Bryan Hance, who founded StolenBicycleRegistry.com in 2004 after having five bikes stolen in nine years. He merged that site with Seth Herr’s Bike Index in July 2014 to help bike owners both register their bikes and help recover them if ever stolen.

Hance has seen it all. Bike Index even created an infographic to prevent Regular Janes like me avoid unwittingly purchasing a stolen bike.

A bicycle rests on the shoulder of a walking path as people play volleyball in the background.
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

It only takes a little bit of knowledge to know a bike has been tampered with and may be stolen. For example, if you see a comfortable, wide seat on a racing bike, Hance said, that’s a red flag. Most bicycle tires come in sets, so if the front and back tire don’t match, that’s another red flag. 

“The first two things someone does after they steal a bike is switch the seat and switch the tires,” Hance said, as those parts are often most recognizable. 

Next: hiding any distinctive colors on the bike, like covering colorful bar tape with plain black on the handlebars. “Beyond that, you kind of have to be a bike person” to know if a bike is stolen, Hance said. 

Your best bet is to check the bike’s serial number, usually located on the bottom of the frame, against Bike Index or call your local police department.

The first two things someone does after they steal a bike is switch the seat and switch the tires.

“There are tons of legitimate users on Craigslist, so it’s just a matter of common sense,” Hance said. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell if a deal is sketchy. “If he won’t give you the serial number, walk away. Sometimes when a bike with a U-lock gets stolen the top tube of the bike will have an obvious crowbar mark on it. Walk away. That bike is hotter than hell.” 

Hance noted that person-to-person sales sites like Letgo and OfferUp seem to have a higher rate of stolen bikes listed than Craigslist.

Where to Do the Deal

A word about safety: This is not the time to drive to some far-flung garage to maybe buy a used bike. Hance said a highly-trafficked area is essential for meeting someone to view a bike for sale. 

“Some cities have gotten wise and set up Craigslist trading areas,” well-lit places — sometimes at police stations — where folks can set up meetings, Hance explained. 

“In places that don’t do that, call your local bike shop and ask to do it there,” he said. “Then get the tuneup from them.”

But for all the internet’s risks, it’s full of trading gems. Some towns even organize community bike sales and swaps to provide a safe space doing business. 

FROM THE SAVE MONEY FORUM

Your Best Bet: The Bike Shop

If you’re not up for the challenge of scouting the perfect bike on your own, bike shops are the easiest option — especially if you’re not sure what type or size bike you need. 

A pro can help you determine the best bike style, whether you need a cruiser for casual rides and errands, a road bike for long-distance training or a mountain bike to conquer the trails. 

The fit is more important than you think. “Fitting a bike is pretty difficult,” Hance warned. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of physical pain you can cause by buying the wrong size bike.”

Bike shops are a consistently reliable source of used bikes. Depending on the city and state, bike shops that offer used steeds are often held to the high standards, meaning all incoming and outgoing used merchandise needs to be cataloged through a computer system that checks police or pawn shop databases. 

Even amid business closures due to COVID-19, federal guidelinesclassified bike shops as essential businesses that could remain open.

Fong said his shop runs all serial numbers to check for theft before buying a used bike from someone to resell in his shop. Once a used bike enters the shop’s inventory, it gets a thorough cleaning and inspection before getting a price tag. 

“We have a 90-day guarantee on our bikes,” Fong added. “So you have someone to blame if something goes wrong.”

That customer service can go a long way. Hance also noted that a used bike shop will usually offer deals on tuneups or other services when you buy a bike — new or used — from them. So there’s an incentive to get to know your local bike shop.

What to Watch Out for When Buying a Used Bike

Regardless of where you find your wheels, there are also a few mechanical issues you should look out for, Ken Fong of Northeast Cycles in St. Petersburg, Florida, said. 

“Test ride it, squeeze the brakes, switch the gears,” he said. “Make sure the wheels are straight, because wheels can be as much as one-third the price of the bike. Also, make sure the spokes aren’t broken or bent. If the spokes are normal, but the wheels are still bent, that’s definitely a telltale sign you’ll need new wheels.” 

Don’t be afraid to ask about a part that looks worn or unusual — if the brake pads look like they need to be replaced, you may be able to knock a few dollars off the price.

If you’re meeting someone you found online, the test ride is crucial. It’s not worth taking a risk buying a bike sight-unseen. 

“You can’t really see what you’re buying when you go online,” Fong said. “If you buy it online, you’ll probably end up coming into the store anyway to get it fitted properly and inspected.” 

How to Keep Your “New” Bike Safe

A couple take their children out to ride their bicycles.
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No matter how little you spend on your actual bike, save room in your budget to buy a U-lock. 

“Cable locks are pointless,” Hance said. “It’s like tying your bike up with floss.” He recommended spending $60 to $70 on a good lock.

Fong added that the best place to store your bike is out of sight of potential thieves. “If people see it outside consistently, they can plan to take it.” The most frequent thing he hears when people’s bikes are stolen is, “I only left it outside for a minute!”

Pro Tip

If you’re planning to make biking your permanent commuting solution, factor in the expenses of bike commuting into your budget.

“Well, if a good bike thief only needs one second, a bad thief only needs five,” he said.

Then, register your bike. Some police departments offer their own registry, while others will direct you to the National Bike Registry, which charges $10 to register your bike for 10 years. 

Hance’s Bike Index is free. “Whip out your phone, take some pictures, write the serial number down, register and forget it,” he said. 

Even photos of insignificant things can help. You might not care about the scratch on the body of the used bike you bought, but documenting can help increase the chances of finding it if it’s ever stolen.

Lisa Rowan is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Former SEO Analyst Jacquelyn Pica contributed to this article.