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Are Project Bikes Even Worth It?

Paul Olesen

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Whenever purchasing a used dirt bike, no matter how well inspected, there is always an element of chance involved. The possibility of an engine failure is what worries everyone the most and is a costly disaster to deal with. For those mechanically inclined, seeking a blown up bike can be alluring because it allows the new owner a fresh start. While this may seem like an ideal situation how often does it financially make sense and how do you decide to make the purchase?

At DIY Moto Fix we just picked up a 2006 Honda CRF250R “Project” over the weekend, and I want to share the financial reasoning that went into the purchase as well as discuss the critical inspections we made which led me to pull the trigger. Over the next several months we’ll see if I made a good decision!

The criteria I intend on using to determine if my purchase was justified or not will depend on a couple things. First, if I sell the bike will I net more money than I have into it, or at the least, break even? Second, could I have spent an equivalent amount of money elsewhere and gotten a bike that has a freshly rebuilt engine, which to me, equates to a machine that will provide countless hours of trouble-free riding?

The bike will also be the subject of several blog posts and perhaps videos. However, these uses will not be factored into the valuation of the decision. No corners will be cut throughout the rebuild, and the end result will be a robust bike that I would be proud to keep, should I choose to. That said, let’s take a look at what I picked up!

The Bike

I found the bike listed on Craigslist for $1000. There wasn’t much detail behind the ad, and it consisted of a couple of sentences. In summary, the ad basically said everything was there, a new crankshaft and main bearings were included as well as a new top end. A half dozen pictures were presented and the engine was neatly laid out.

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I contacted the seller and inquired if any engine components were missing or needed replacement. I was reassured the only things missing were the valve keepers! While it would be great to think the engine could easily be reassembled, I had my doubts. I needed to investigate in person.

Preparation

If you’re ever in a situation where you need to collect an engine in pieces, don’t rush and forget to come prepared. Some engine components shouldn’t get mixed around or interchanged and it’s incredibly helpful to keep the hardware separated by subsystems. Here’s a list of the storage aids I brought with:

  • Sharpie marker
  • Ziplock bags
  • Boxes
  • Plastic part bins

The Real Story

When I arrived, I was greeted by an avid rider who was friendly and had four seemingly well-kept bikes in his garage plus a bunch of moto-related parts, not a bad start. He showed me the 250R he was selling and I began my inspections.

Inspections

In most cases the engine internals aren’t accessible when looking at used bikes for sale, so as funny as it may sound, it can be really easy to get caught up in the excitement of the potential sale and forget to look at a lot of critical parts. Each major engine component that gets overlooked can be a several hundred dollar mistake and make or break the profitability of the purchase. I want to cover the engine internals I carefully inspect to estimate the cost of the rebuild.

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VIN Number

I’m a practical person and highly recommend ensuring the VIN number is unmolested and the seller’s “sale story” remains consistent throughout the sale. Don’t bother inspecting anything else if the VIN number has been tampered with. On some bikes, such as this one, cable chafing wore through part of the VIN number. This type of wear is easily discernible from intentional tampering.

Crankcases

Crankcases are one of the most expensive parts on an engine to replace, so look carefully for cracks and other damage. Scrutinize bearing bores, seal bores, threaded holes, cam chain guide slots, gearbox features, and mating surfaces.

Rt_crankcase_stripped.thumb.jpg.f11adf4c3ea6d9b71b0a040ec27e4c95.jpgRight_crankcase_boss.thumb.jpg.62df6c417de2a70e132c06360834f250.jpgleft_crankcase_guide.thumb.jpg.8139a5c410612ee6094feac77372254e.jpg

In this particular case, both the left and right case halves were damaged. I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me to try and bring these back. We’ll discuss welding crankcases in an upcoming post!

Crankshaft

Check the crankshaft to ensure it is at the very least serviceable. Look for surface damage, worn or broken gear teeth, and pitting. I recommend always assuming the crankshaft will require a rebuild even if it feels okay. Fortunately for me, this bike came with a new Wiseco crank assembly.

Bearings

All the engine bearings should be checked for notchiness. Any bearings that are gritty or bind when rotated should be replaced. For this particular engine, I’m planning on replacing them all.

Conrod

I recommend installing a new rod in conjunction with servicing the crankshaft. However, if you’re considering using the crank assembly, inspect the rod small end and feel how the big end rotates. Look for pitting and signs of distress in the small end. Notchiness in the big end warrants further investigation.

Cylinder

Inspect the cylinder walls for damage. Any defects you can catch your fingernail in should be cause for concern. The cylinder that came with this engine will either be replated or replaced.

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Piston/Rings

The condition of the piston and rings can help determine what may have led the engine to be sold in pieces, however, reusing it isn’t something I’d recommend. Get in the habit of automatically budgeting for a new piston assembly anytime you come across a project bike.

Cylinder Head

The cylinder head is an expensive assembly to replace. While you always want it to be okay, I’ve found that by the time the bike reaches “project” status many of the internals, including the cylinder head, are in need of major TLC. Occasionally the valve seats can provide insight, however, I prefer to look at the valves themselves. Inspect the combustion chamber, head gasket sealing surface, and threaded holes in the cylinder head. Stripped fastener holes in the cylinder head can be very challenging to fix.

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On this engine, the valve seats will need to be recut or replaced, at a minimum.

Valves

Take a look at the valve faces for signs of recession and damage. Severely worn valves will be visible to the naked eye. This is the case with my new acquisition.

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Camshaft

Inspect the cam lobes and any associated bearings for damage. Any pitting present on the cam lobes will warrant replacement. I’ll be installing a new cam in this engine.

camshaft.thumb.jpg.f5594770cec21172ce80aab07ca3fe8e.jpg

Transmission

The gearbox shafts and gears should be inspected carefully for damage. On machines that don’t shift well and pop out of gear, damage to at least two mating gears will preside. Look at the gear dogs for excessive rounding as well as the mating slot. On this 250R the gearbox is in great shape.

Transmission.thumb.jpg.e164be139a86dfcb40a49336dae9b3c9.jpg

Clutch

The clutch is an easy component to inspect visually. Look for basket and hub grooving which signifies a worn out clutch. In my case, this was easy to spot.

clutch_basket.thumb.jpg.a40be474e84e495aa366cb112b02c894.jpg

Bike Inspections

I’m not going to deep dive into the bike inspections since we’ve discussed this in a previous post and put together a comprehensive guide on the subject, which you can find here. In this particular situation, based on the amount of distress the radiators displayed I have to assume they will need to be replaced. The rest of the bike was in okay shape and luckily for me, the seller had some spare plastics, spare seat, and new tank plastics, which helped sweeten the pot.

Rebuild Estimate

Replacement parts for different makes and models vary, but I tend to make rough estimates based on the table shown below.

1032995686_replacementcosttable.PNG.8935e8616847cf397d0e878014b00eeb.PNG

The table is presented in a la carte style so cost estimates can be determined depending on what components must be replaced. The next table details the components I’m expecting to replace on the Honda.

1691007987_HondaCRF250Rcosttable.PNG.5a41dc84a320caa367cc56505c93dfae.PNG

In this particular case, I’m estimating I’ll have $1630 into the resurrection of the bike and engine. I bought the bike for $800, so I’ll have a total of $2430 into the machine if my estimate is correct. Keep in mind this excludes monetary consideration for my labor. Since I’m going to use the bike for multiple projects, accurately tracking my labor will be challenging. If you’re looking to turn a profit fixing project bikes though, it’s essential to have a handle on the labor associated with each project.

Resale Value

I did a quick search on Craigslist to see what 2004-2007 Honda CRF250R’s were going for. I found a smattering of list prices and reasoned that I could sell this bike for at least $2000. Now, going by the numbers that put me out $430, again excluding labor.

Was it worth it?  

As you can see from a financial standpoint this project probably wasn’t worth taking on, or was it? Apart from picking up a broken low-value machine and then completely rebuilding it, is there any other way to pick up a used bike that undergoes transformation and starts its life in your hands with a completely rebuilt engine? I highly value understanding the condition of my machines before I entrust them to carry me at high speeds past trees or over jumps so assessing the heart of the machine whenever practical is valuable to me. I also get incredible satisfaction from working in my shop and resurrecting a machine that may have otherwise been slated for the parts section of eBay.

What about you? What is your take on project bikes?

If you’re looking to expand your arsenal of skills when it comes to wrenching so you can take on more challenging projects, take a look at our two and four-stroke dirt bike engine building handbooks! The dirt bike engine building handbooks are nearly 300 pages apiece and share a wealth of knowledge you won’t find in your service manual when it comes time to rebuild your engine. Check them out on our website or on Amazon .

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Thanks for reading and have a great week!

-Paul 

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Great Thread. I've made THOUSANDS flipping project bikes. I tend to stay away from bikes that require excessive motorwork as A) it's expensive and B ) Extremely time consuming.

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This is an awesome article and the fact that you know all this is really impressive! I know it's possible to gather all of this knowledge but since I know next to nothing now it really makes me appreciate how much really goes into these machines. I'm still learning how the stock carb on my DRZ400S works so the engine itself seems wicked complicated! Kudos for writing this and for actually knowing and doing all this yourself, I hope to one day be able to know/do half of what was talked you in this article! 

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Used 250F that’s seen average track time results in a money pit; every time. 

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This is my last experience with buying a blown 4t. I picked up one this year, looked it all over and thought I was laughing. Turns out the cylinder was cracked, head was totalled and I thought I would be fine until got to the bottom end. Both cases had a hole punched into the tranny from the broken rod. I then realized I way overpaid.

I enjoy rebuilding bikes but I kinda have a sour taste for 4 strokes. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that a rolling frame is worth much. Builds can be a lot of fun and rewarding. Great article Paul.

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My '11 kx450f was a project bike. For $600, I got a frame, suspension, and the engine (in three boxes).

Buying wheels, repairing a valve guide, and buttoning it all back up came to a grand total of $2200 (including the original $600).

4 seasons, and probably about 60-70 hours later, it's still running strong. Definitely worth it for me! 

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I like to stick with 2 strokes for simplicity and lower rebuild cost.. 

As i get older my time becomes much more valuable and selective.. And if i dont have a personal connection to the bike, I wont do project bikes or restorations. And wen i do,,  i like to do things rite, but always spend way more $$ than expected  weather the parts are needed or just wanted..  Even when  i make a budget, i rarely stick to it. 

Edited by Orange Crush 500
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Great write up! I took on my personal bike as a project. It being my first dirt bike, the $300 price for a complete bike seemed like a great deal. Then after having the engine rebuilt, front and rear suspension rebuilt, tires/tubes, air filter, all kinds of little things to get the bike into tip top shape, I'm into it almost $2000 altogether. I won't ever sell it for all I have into it, but if I get a number of years of riding on it, I'll feel like it was all worth it when or if I sell.

Yes I wish I had considered waiting til something in good running condition came up, but it's not as easy to come up with an extra $2000 all at once. 

Your article here gave me more things to look at before considering another project. Like you said, sometimes we can easily get caught up in the excitement of what might be an awesome deal and miss vital costly things during inspection. 

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When considering a project bike you need to be honest with your personal skill level, not everyone can reassemble a transmission or properly time a cam.  An even bigger mistake is that old bikes 15 or 20 plus years old are just as expensive to rebuild as a 3 to 5 year old bike, the difference is that the older bike will most likely need more parts - parts that in some cases are no longer available.

Also, I do recommend that everyone does at least one major rebuild on their own, it'll give you a greater understanding of motorcycles and mechanical things in general.  Also, small shops tend to give out better random discounts when they notice that they are dealing with someone that actually knows what they need and want.

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12 hours ago, shrubitup said:

Used 250F that’s seen average track time results in a money pit; every time. 

Yea. I’d never touch it but it’s good to see everything laid out to see more close to actual costs written down. Just because. I might buy for parts or if I was a part it out and sell parts for money guy. I’d buy a 2 stroke before a 4 stroke for lower cost rebuilds too. Still a 2 stroke you can be left spending more than it’s worth too. 

I was maybe thinking this thread was about making hybrid bikes... different motor in advanced frame like Honda 500 AF type of thing. Those type of builds are interesting and harder. I haven’t seen a thread on that yet. 

Edited by hawaiidirtrider

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That is a very good article.

Do bikes in that condition usually go for $800 in your area? That is a bit more than I am used to seeing. A 13 year old 250F "bike in a box" is quite the costly project. I didn't even see mention of suspension, bearings, tires / tubes, sprocket / chain, etc. If you think $2,430 for the complete bike after $1,600 on the engine, OH BOY!!

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Bike goes for 2 grand with questionable internals while the op has 2400 into a complete rebuild. Not bad.. 

If you are looking to flip the bike I guess you could say he lost 400 but if he actually plans to ride it he's gonna be set for a while..

It's always cheaper to rebuild than buy another question mark.

Edited by Dirt Mcgurt
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14 hours ago, seer said:

You forgot the $ for a suspension rebuild. 

 

+1 

Most if not all tend to focus only on the engine but often a 5+ year old bike will more often than not have had it's chassis and suspension neglected.

If the previous owner(s) didn't take care of the engine, you can be sure they never serviced the suspension.

 

New bushings, seals, oil, bladder, nitrogen recharge aren't a luxury but a necessity to keep the suspension functioning as designed,

what good is a fresh engine if the chassis handles like a pogo stick...

 

You can bet most 10+ year old bikes will also have some rusty chassis / linkage bearings and

at at least a few hundred dollars in expected consumables (tires, cables, plastics, chain, sprockets, brake pads, air filter) and some other

less anticipated repairs like stripped spokes, notched clutch basket, full FCR carb. refurb etc. needing attention to make it decently rideable/reliable.

 

Making such a project viable is also very location dependent, say here in Canada where

the dirt bike market is rather small (local used parts availability, resale potential etc.)

combined with the high price of new OEM parts, lousy currency exchange rate / custom fees for online purchases from the USA

and relatively higher cost of shipping items even within Canada etc. 

 

You really have add up everything before spending a dime and, IMO more than likely in the end it won't be worth all the trouble.

Edited by mlatour
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Here’s my 2 cents from a guy who bought and rebuilt a 2000 YZ 125, everything ran pretty well when I got it. At the end of the day when I made it all decent, I realized I could have bought a good condition 2012 for similar price with a lot less labor.  In my case, I wanted to learn to work on a bike with smaller financial consequences if I made a mistake and have a green sticker bike, but I paid a fairly large price.  I did replace most wear parts with OEM or equivalent (Koyo bearings for example). 

I’ll never get my money back.  I knew that.  But I got what I wanted out of it.  So unless you plan to ride the bike till the point of where it’s at now...and even then it’s debatable.  

Going forward, if you can afford it, which you can since you’re gonna rebuild a bike which is expensive, you should just get a new bike.  

Edited by M3t
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1 hour ago, Dirt Mcgurt said:

while the op has 2400 into a complete rebuild.

The bike is not finished. He has not spent $2,400 yet. After he does spend $2,400, THEN he can address the bearings, forks, shock, tires, tubes, chain, sprockets, etc., etc.

 

Paul Olesen, https://www.partzilla.com/product/honda/12100-KRN-730?ref=e68a30619103f803efd604b7346d6f16b41b51b2

 

$213.21 shipped for a new cylinder, so unless you have the industry insider hook up, skip replating.

 

If someone is new to buying used dirt bikes, keep checking in on this article. You can learn a lot from an experienced person on some mechanical flaws in parts to be aware of when shopping. This is good information to learn.

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10 minutes ago, KDXGarage said:

The bike is not finished. He has not spent $2,400 yet. After he does spend $2,400, THEN he can address the bearings, forks, shock, tires, tubes, chain, sprockets, etc., etc.

 

Paul Olesen, https://www.partzilla.com/product/honda/12100-KRN-730?ref=e68a30619103f803efd604b7346d6f16b41b51b2

 

$213.21 shipped for a new cylinder, so unless you have the industry insider hook up, skip replating.

 

If someone is new to buying used dirt bikes, keep checking in on this article. You can learn a lot from an experienced person on some mechanical flaws in parts to be aware of when shopping. This is good information to learn.

Yea, but it can be tough to tell when certain things are bad.  For example, when I spun my wheels, they felt pretty good, spun for a while, were fairly quiet.  All spokes were tight and straight.  

When I delaced my hub it was then I realized the bearings weren’t that smooth.  Also, I then noticed couple of my spokes were a bit off.  Under tension you can’t tell. Can’t start loosening spokes when looking at used dirt bikes either, it’s kinda weird lol.   I’m sure someone experienced wouldn’t make my mistake but from visual and sound inspection, they all seemed pretty good.  

Then onto the topic of crank and transmission bearings.  That’s kinda hard to tell if they’re bad with all of the other drag in the engine that you feel with the kickstart.  You may find a stripped screw.  Maybe the subframe isn’t as straight as you thought.  Oh, that bend isn’t from Yamaha?  lol

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29 minutes ago, KDXGarage said:

The bike is not finished. He has not spent $2,400 yet. After he does spend $2,400, THEN he can address the bearings, forks, shock, tires, tubes, chain, sprockets, etc., etc.

 

Paul Olesen, https://www.partzilla.com/product/honda/12100-KRN-730?ref=e68a30619103f803efd604b7346d6f16b41b51b2

 

$213.21 shipped for a new cylinder, so unless you have the industry insider hook up, skip replating.

 

If someone is new to buying used dirt bikes, keep checking in on this article. You can learn a lot from an experienced person on some mechanical flaws in parts to be aware of when shopping. This is good information to learn.

I got caught with a used bike... turned project bike.,.. I thought I’d just fix a few things and not spend much then sell it after riding it a little... nope.. I just couldn’t sell it with it not being in good shape.. I can’t sell a bike that’s not “right”. I ended up being in the hole the more I went on. It’s a great bike and I’m still not finished completely.. almost though. In the end I should have just bought new or maybe a one or 2 year old bike all modded up. Now I’m keeping the bike forever maybe because I got too much into it...and who ever buys from me  eventually will score a great bike.I will be the one losing. That’s ok. That’s how it rolls sometimes. 

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OK so you mention that this bike had VIN damage. "On some bikes, such as this one, cable chafing wore through part of the VIN number. "

That was your clue to run away... 90% of CRF's 250 or 450 with a few years of seat time eventually cables rub through the vin and that can land you up in SERIOUS legal issues. I sold a project CRF450R to my bud and when his mechanic was giving her first shake down run after the rebuild, got pulled over by police on his own street. The last 2-3 numbers were illegible and they confiscated it on the premise that he or I "tampered" with the VIN... To this day he never got his bike back from impound and is out several thousands of dollars. Lesson here boys and girls, If the VIN is worn in the least, buy another frame or WALK AWAY...

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3 hours ago, juicedstang999 said:

OK so you mention that this bike had VIN damage. "On some bikes, such as this one, cable chafing wore through part of the VIN number. "

That was your clue to run away... 90% of CRF's 250 or 450 with a few years of seat time eventually cables rub through the vin and that can land you up in SERIOUS legal issues. I sold a project CRF450R to my bud and when his mechanic was giving her first shake down run after the rebuild, got pulled over by police on his own street. The last 2-3 numbers were illegible and they confiscated it on the premise that he or I "tampered" with the VIN... To this day he never got his bike back from impound and is out several thousands of dollars. Lesson here boys and girls, If the VIN is worn in the least, buy another frame or WALK AWAY...

There's also an Engine Vin number. 

Edited by BoxcarWilly

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If the op is servicing suspension and bearings himself it's not going to cost a lot maybe a hundred bucks or so, it looks pretty clean really

Edited by Dirt Mcgurt

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9 hours ago, juicedstang999 said:

OK so you mention that this bike had VIN damage. "On some bikes, such as this one, cable chafing wore through part of the VIN number. "

That was your clue to run away... 90% of CRF's 250 or 450 with a few years of seat time eventually cables rub through the vin and that can land you up in SERIOUS legal issues. I sold a project CRF450R to my bud and when his mechanic was giving her first shake down run after the rebuild, got pulled over by police on his own street. The last 2-3 numbers were illegible and they confiscated it on the premise that he or I "tampered" with the VIN... To this day he never got his bike back from impound and is out several thousands of dollars. Lesson here boys and girls, If the VIN is worn in the least, buy another frame or WALK AWAY...

This wouldnt happen in most free states.

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3 hours ago, seer said:

This wouldnt happen in most free states.

LOL..... You don't live in the wonderful state of CT... 

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9 hours ago, BoxcarWilly said:

There's also an Engine Vin number. 

And you have a record of yours on hand?????? I know I don't have the engine numbers to ALL the bikes I have. They are not the same...

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