Get a mate to hold the handlebars straight and then get down on your knees and look along the length of the bike to make sure the wheels are in line. If not, it could just be the forks twisted in their clamps or it could be a twisted frame.
Make sure the engine is cold when you start it to see if there are any problems. Give it a few minutes to warm up and make sure the cooling fan comes on when it gets hot. Check the oil for signs of a milky emulsion (which means the head gasket has gone) and listen carefully for rattles or knocks when warm. If someone uses “the carbs just need setting up” as an excuse for rough running, walk away. If that’s the reason, then why hasn’t he done it? Smoke from the exhaust when the engine’s warm means trouble.
Hold the front brake on and push down on the forks. Do they move smoothly? Are there any oil leaks from under the seals? Lift the rubber dust covers and check for old rags or tissue disguising an oil leak.
Scour the old MOTs for advisory notes – the things that’ll cost you in the future. An HPI check is always worth doing, but don’t be surprised to see some history on an older bike. It might have been written off five years ago for cosmetic damage, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t properly rebuilt and loved since then. Use it to knock a few quid off.
Replacing worn tyres, a chain, battery, brake discs, brake pads, hoses and a clutch will cost as much again as you paid for the bike. Go for a machine that’s had all this work done (with receipts) recently.
Unlikely to still be the original, especially on a sports bike. And the original will probably be long gone too. This is a haggling point unless the system fitted has the British standard BS 193 stamp because a road legal replacement will cost you money.
Private sale is best here because old bikes carry too much potential headache for dealers. Many dealers like to carry a few older bikes though because having stock at a range of prices brings people into the showroom. You’re unlikely to find a truly mint 10-year-old bike, but there are some good, well maintained machines around for not much money.
The best cheap bike is the best one you find for the money. Which means that going looking for a specific model will blinker you to some of the real bargains out there. Be open minded and go for the best bike you find. The trick here is patience – you’ll be kissing a lot of frogs before you find your princess. But better that than end up with a nightmare.
If you are lucky, it’ll still have both keys and a full service history (which means proper detailed receipts for every service, not just stamps in a book). If you’re unlucky it will have a 10-year-old alarm, with one remaining, taped-together blipper, that constantly drains the battery through a bad earth and goes off every 10 minutes.
The cosmetics are only part of it though – don’t be taken in just because something looks immaculate. But be realistic as well. The suspension might have lost some of its damping, but with a bit of adjustment you might be able to get acceptable handling and while the engine might not be as crisp as it once was, unless it’s about to go pop, is that really a problem?