Buying a used ATV can be an excellent way to save money over buying a brand-new bike. However, before you sign the deal, you should always perform a thorough pre-purchase inspection to understand what you are buying.
Why Is a Pre-Purchase Inspection Important?
It is easy to get carried away when you finally find the make and model ATV you’re looking for at a price that fits your budget.
However, before you get too excited, ensure the vehicle is as good as the seller says and meets your expectations.
Failing to perform a thorough inspection can leave you stranded with a vehicle that might need costly repairs after a short time.
Depending on your local laws, you might get nowhere asking for a refund if you bought a bad vehicle without doing your due diligence.
How to Perform a Pre-purchase ATV Inspection
It is recommended to inspect all the things in the list below as a minimum. If you don’t have the required skills, I recommend asking a friend with more experience to go with you to look at the bike.
Things You Will Need
- A flashlight
- Essential tools like a screwdriver and a wrench to remove plastic covers.
- A jack and a flat-level surface, preferably a garage floor
- Air filter: Remove the seat cover to access the air filter box. Ensure the air filter is not missing, is clean, and is properly seated. A dirty filter leads to poor engine performance and needs replacing. A missing filter can indicate increased engine wear from dirty air entering the engine.
- Air filter box and air tubes: Inspect the entire assembly from the air filter box down to the carburetor. Ensure no parts are missing or damaged parts.
Fuel Delivery System
- Old or bad gas: Unscrew the gas cap and take a smell. If the gas smells like turpentine, it indicates old gas. If the ATV was used with old or bad gas, you might need to clean the entire fuel system, including the carbs or fuel injection on EFI models.
- Fuel lines and connections: Look for fuel leaks and the overall condition of the fuel line hoses and connections.
- Manual choke: If the ATV has a manual choke, ensure the lever is not damaged or missing and works as it should.
- Thumb Throttle: Ensure proper thumb throttle operation with no signs of drag.
- Oil service history: When was the last documented engine oil and filter change? When were the transmission and differential oils changed last?
- Oil levels:
- Engine oil: Remove the dipstick to ensure the oil level is between the minimum and maximum mark.
- Differentials: The front and rear axle differentials typically have an oil level plug/filler hole to determine the proper oil level. Remove the plug and use a screwdriver to ensure the oil is close to the filler hole level. Some differentials have a see-through oil level gauge.
- Gearbox: Some ATVs have a gearbox with a dipstick, while others have an oil-level plug similar to the differentials.
- Oil condition:
- Engine oil: With the dipstick removed, visually inspect the oil on the dipstick. New oil has a clear brown appearance that quickly turns dark as it is used. What you don’t want to see is a milky brown color, which is a sure sign there’s an internal coolant leak.
- Differentials and gearbox: Gear oils typically don’t turn black like engine oil but should remain mostly clear, like when the oil is new. Foggy, milky brown oil indicates a damaged seal. Low oil levels could indicate increased wear.
- Oil leaks: Inspect the engine, differentials, and gearbox for signs of oil leaks. Pay attention to the areas around the engine valve cover and head gasket. Some oil sweating can be tolerated, but when there are drops of oil, it might need a new seal. Ask the seller to show you where the ATV is usually parked, as it can indicate the severity of any oil leaks.
- Coolant level: Inspect the coolant reservoir/pressure tank with a cold engine to ensure the coolant level is between min and max.
- Coolant condition: Healthy coolants have a clear, bright-colored appearance. Bad coolant has a brown color. White foamy coolant indicates an internal engine coolant leak.
- Radiator: Look for signs of damage or leaks. Some bent cooling fins are normal and usually not something to worry about. Ensure the radiator is clean and not gummed up by dirt or oil.
- Radiator hoses: Check the radiator hoses by inspecting and squeezing them to ensure there are no leaks and that the hoses are in good condition and not showing signs of wear or damage.
- Exhaust overall condition: Ensure the exhaust system is complete and properly secured. Ensure heat shields are not missing or damaged.
- Exhaust leaks: Look for signs of black zoot along the exhaust system, indicating a leak or damage from corrosion.
- Original or aftermarket: An aftermarket exhaust isn’t necessarily harmful, but it could void the warranty, cause noise levels above legal limits, and affect engine performance. Ask if the seller still has the stock system.
- Spark Arrestor: Ensure the spark arrestor is in place or available.
- Suspension springs and shocks: Look for damages, excessive corrosion, or leaks.
- A-arms: Ensure the A-arms are not bent or out of alignment from hitting an object.
- Bushings and ball joints: Inspect A-arms arm and stabilizer bar bushings for wear, play, and required lubrication. Examine the ball joints for any signs of wear or looseness, and make sure the protective rubber caps are intact and free from damage.
- Steering: Grab the handlebars and ensure no signs of play in the steering.
- Drive belt: Remove the drive belt cover and ensure the drive belt is clean and in good condition. Look for cracks indicating an old belt or signs of glazing on the belt sidewalls from belt slippage.
- Clutches: Look for cracks in the clutch discs or signs of corrosion. Residue on parts of the clutch plates indicates they do not move freely, possibly caused by corrosion, dirt, or poor lubrication.
- Transmission: Ensure proper gear shifter operation and that all gears work. Listen for signs of gear damage or worn bearings in any of the gears. Identifying these types of damages is not always easy due to all the different sounds an ATV typically emits.
- Driveshaft: Check the CV joints to ensure they don’t have any looseness (play) and verify that their rubber boots are not damaged or torn.
- Chain drive: On-chain drive ATVs, inspect the drive chain and sprockets for wear. When the sprocket teeth become thin, the gear and chain need replacing.
- Wheel bearings: Use a jack to lift the ATV, grab the wheels at 12 and 6 o’clock, and rock back and forth to feel for excessive wheel bearing wear. Some play is normal, even in newer ATVs. Turn the wheels to ensure they turn smoothly with no drag.
Wheels & Tires
- Tire wear: Inspect the thread pattern to ensure the wheels are not worn down and need replacing.
- Tire age and condition: As tires age and get exposed to UV radiation, the rubber begins to harden, and the tire eventually forms small cracks. Tires with cracks are getting close to the end of their service life. Most tires have the manufacturing date stamped on the tire sidewall.
- Tire damage: Look for missing tire lugs, sidewall tears, or signs of old repairs. Whether the leak is successfully repaired, tires with sidewall damage should be replaced.
- Wheel damage: Inspect the wheel’s overall condition and look for signs of damage like cracks, dents, or severe corrosion.
- Wheel fasteners: Ensure all wheel bolts are in place and no wheel studs are missing or have stripped threads.
- Brake levers: Inspect all hand and foot brake levers to ensure they operate smoothly and have the correct engagement point. Make sure the hand brake functions correctly. Check for any signs of damage or loose fasteners.
- Brake lines: Check the brake lines and connections for any signs of damage or leaks.
- Brake fluid level: Ensure proper brake fluid level. Look for a brake fluid reservoir with a max/min mark or a handlebar brake fluid reservoir with a fluid-level inspection gauge.
- Brake pads and brake disks: Inspect brake pads and disks for wearing and corrosion.
- Wiring harness: Inspect the wiring harness and look for damages. If the ATV was stored in a barn, chances are something has been chewing on the wiring insulation.
- Battery: Test the battery’s state of charge using a voltmeter. If the battery has been left discharged for an extended period, it may have sustained permanent internal damage due to sulfation.
- Lights: Ensure all the lights are working, including high and low beam and brake lights.
- Fault codes and warning lights: Turn on the ATV and check for any warnings in the instrument panel. If there is a fault code, it is advised to have it checked out so you know what is causing the warning.
- Frame straightness: Inspect the frame and look for signs of damage. Chipped-off paint indicates that the frame is bent from an impact. Cross-measure the diagonal distance between the wheels to ensure the frame is not too far off. A little tweak is usually not a big problem, but when the frame is severely bent, the ATV becomes dangerous to ride, and the frame needs replacing.
- Frame welds: Inspect the frame welds and look for signs of cracks indicating a damaged weld.
- Plastic fenders: Look for cracked, damaged, or scuffed-up plastics. While beat-up plastics usually have no structural importance, they can indicate how the ATV was treated and maintained. Faded plastics indicate that the ATV has been sitting outside in the sun for extended periods.
- Cargo racks and brush guards: Worn-down and beat-up cargo racks indicate the ATV has been hauling its fair share of cargo, and bent brush guards can indicate rough use.
- Warning labels: Ensure the warning labels are not removed, as these are required by law in some places. If missing, most ATV manufacturers will send you free ones for cheap or free of charge.
Registration & VIN
Always check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Program) number to ensure you’re not buying a stolen ATV!
Also, look for the registration plate if you live somewhere it is required.
- Winch: Ensure proper condition. Spool out, spool in, and operate the free spool to ensure it works.
- Winch rope and hook: Ensure the winch rope is not corroded or worn.
- Extra lights: If the ATV has additional lights, like a light bar, ensure it is wired correctly and works as it should.