Should I Buy a Craigslist Bike?

Craigslist is ubiquitous. Tons and tons of people use it in every major, or even tiny, metro area. Their bicycle section is huge, with well-priced bikes of all sizes and types. But is it worth it to get a bike from a random stranger?

If you don’t know much about us, we got our start on Craigslist. Mike finally felt comfortable enough with servicing bicycles to sell off a few extra bikes, and pretty soon it grew into a full-time job. People were happy with our service, and even recommended their friends to us – pretty good for a random Craigslist transaction, right? When we realized Gloucester really needed a bike shop again, we transitioned into mobile local service out of the Cape Ann Farmer’s Market, and then finally into a storefront.

We have also purchased dozens of bikes on Craigslist over the years. Bikes that needed work and were being sold cheaply were right up our alley. So we’ve been there, especially in Boston.

The first thing to realize is that mostly, people pretty honest and straightforward. We’ve never had a deal go bad. The worst that’s ever happened is that we’ve gone to meet someone, and they didn’t show. Not a big deal. However, you can’t always assume that the other person is operating with good intent. If you see a bicycle you like on Craigslist, there are a few things you should check out – even if you’re no bike mechanic, it’s pretty easy to spot mechanical problems.

1. Spin the wheels. Pick up the back of the bike and spin the rear wheel. Does the rear rim wobble from side to side? Use the brake pads as a guide. If it wobbles a lot, the wheel needs to be trued. If it’s very minor, this usually isn’t an issue. But with a big variation, problems can arise that may not be easily fixed by a mechanic, and it could need a new wheel. Try again on the front wheel – same deal. Make sure all the spokes are there (you’d be surprised how easy it is to overlook a missing or broken spoke!) Also, check the rims quickly to make sure there aren’t large dings or dents. Again, those may mean a new wheel.

2. Do the brakes work well? Are they hitting the rim correctly? If there is brake pad material hitting the tire or not evenly hitting the rim, they need adjustment. Brake pads are relatively cheap and easy to replace, so it’s not a no-go if it’s got unevenly worn pads.

3. Do the shifters work? In old friction-shift bicycles, there is no “click” between shifts, it’s just a matter of feel. With index shifting, which is in most bicycles nowadays, there is a solid “click” between each gear. In grip shifts. You should be able to go from small gear to big gear with no issues on both sides – the left side controls the front derailleur (where you pedal), the right controls the cogs on the back wheel.

4. Is the frame damaged? Some frame damage can be really hard to spot, but by doing a once-over, you can make sure there aren’t any glaring problems. If the bike is steel, check for bad rust spots. Surface rust usually isn’t a very big deal. If the bike is aluminum, check for any wear/rubbing on the frame.

5. Test ride it! Find a parking lot, or side street, and really check it out. Shift through each gear slowly. Check the brakes. Listen for any noises that might not seem normal.

Lastly, if you really love the bike but are apprehensive about buying on Craigslist, see if the buyer will agree to bring it with you to a bike shop for a safety check/once-over. It shouldn’t be very expensive, and it’s worth the money to avoid a bad bike.

Oh – and stolen bikes can be a problem on Craigslist. Stay away from bikes that have no photos, are listed at a “too good to be true” price, or otherwise seem unsavory. Ask the seller the story about the bike. If anything seems weird, walk away!

And if the bike is a good deal, go for it! I’d highly suggest getting a tune-up to make sure everything is in proper working order. This can avoid more expensive problems down the road.

Happy riding.

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