Every day, a steady stream of bikes sails past on Craigslist. How do you pick the one that is right for you from out of the pile? Use our five step bike-buying guide.
Begin any bike-buying exercise by asking yourself: what am I buying this for and how often do I plan to use it? The answer to that question will dictate how much you should be willing to spend on it. Here is my rough price guide:
- $80 – $150: If you are planning to ride casually, this price range will get you something that is basic but functional, probably department store but possibly vintage. Either way, it will probably be quite heavy.
- $200 – $400: If you plan to ride more often, this is the price point at which you can get good bang for your buck. Some very decent vintage road bikes, as well as modern hybrids or mountain bikes, can be had at this price.
- $500+: This price range will land you something that is new-ish, trendy, specialized, or fully accessorized, made from lighter, quality materials such as high-end steel, aluminium, titanium, or even carbon fibre.
Start your browsing with these price ranges in mind. Look farther out for deals that present higher opportunity costs (time, gas, etc.) for others to check out. Also, consider something that isn't "cool." Late 80s and early 90s mountain bikes are currently out of fashion, and under-appreciated, and make a good value buy—for now.
Arrange to see several bikes in your area over the course of a morning or afternoon. This is your chance to try different styles of bikes and see which you like the best. I have sold a dozen bikes on Craigslist this year, and found last-minute cancellations from buyers doing this somewhat frustrating, but hey—I'm not entitled to a sale. Whoever best meets a customer's needs generally wins.
Inspect the bike in daytime, or at least under bright lights. Given that a simple tune-up will run you about $50, you should expect the bike to be fully tuned up. Also expect the bike to be clean, so that you can run your hands all over it. ("Bring a set of hex keys. And bring a pump if you plan to ride it home," advises a fellow bike fiend who will cycle out 40 miles for a deal, sometimes riding back with a bike around his neck.)
Look for rust spots, dents, and crinkly-looking ripples in the paint, especially around points where the tubes join together, which could be indicative of crash damage. Are the sidewalls of the tires brittle and crumbly? Are the tires starting to crack?
Things that will cost you money to fix and discrepancies between the actual bike and its description in the ad can both serve as leverage points during bargaining. You should be able to knock $10 to $20 off the price for every unaddressed issue you can identify. (Check for the same things as you would on one of your rusty bikes.)
It goes without saying that you should take the bike for a spin around the neighbourhood before even considering buying. Ask the seller to adjust the seat and handlebars to your fit. This will also reveal deal-breakers such as stuck stems or seat posts, which hint at past neglect.
Try the brakes. Try all the gear combinations and ensure that they work. Listen for clangs and periodic rubbing sounds. Watch for wobbles in the wheel or bumps in the tires. Try to ride hands-free: the bike should track dead straight when your release the pressure off the handlebars; if it constantly veers to one side, either the fork or the frame itself could be bent. Don't buy bent things!
Figure out if the seller is a private individual, or a bike flipper. You can tell if it's the latter if they've got several posts that use similar wording. It's not necessarily worse to buy a bike from a flipper – some of them are driven by a passion for cycling and for restoring bikes – as you can ask for additional accessories such as carriers, baskets, and fenders, which they can install for less than it would cost you to do it.
A seller will generally be willing to knock off about 10% to 15% of the price. Leverage the fact that you are trying other bikes in your negotiation. Also, a more expensive or specialized item that has been listed for a while is likely to garner fewer bites from potential buyers, so you might be able to score a deeper discount.
Case in point: I recently drove out 100 miles with a friend to serve as French-to-English translator on a bike deal, because Quebec. His target: a downhill bike that had fetched $3,000 new, which was listed for $1,200. The bike checked out; the seller even threw in some replacement parts he had machined specifically for it. My friend offered him – rather brazenly, I thought – $990. The seller took it on the spot.
Finding the right bike is not very different from other things in life: know what you want, try different things, and attempt to be at least somewhat knowledgeable. You don't need to be a bike tubing nerd to know that bike frame labels like "cromoly" or aluminium generally denote higher quality, whereas stickers stating "1020 steel," "high-tensile steel," or "high-carbon steel" mean that the bike is lower-end. But if you only plan to ride casually and don't need to carry your bikie up and down stairs, that $100 high-tensile steed might be just what you need.
[Image by author]