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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.

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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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Do modern dirt bikes not have the VIN stamped into the head tube? Mine has the Honda sticker on the head tube that includes make/model, and year made, and the VIN stamped into the head tube. Sounds like a pretty stupid thing if all they use is a sticker. 

Yes engines have numbers, but when you register a bike, you're registering the frame. You won't look at your title and see any other numbers aside from the VIN. That's why when you see frames on Ebay from registered bikes, they'll specify if they have the title with it.

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On 9/24/2018 at 2:08 PM, John Irvine said:

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! 

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Your engine doesn't have to seem complicated, I wrote the two and four stroke engine building handbooks to take the complication away. Please check them out here: https://www.diymotofix.com/books.html

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On 9/25/2018 at 9:09 AM, seer said:

You forgot the $ for a suspension rebuild. 

 

You can look at it that way, however, in this case, upon inspection of the suspension, there were no signs that immediate servicing is required. Since I've made that call, I view it as a maintenance cost that should be allocated to bike ownership whether pre-existing or newly acquired which would occur in the off-season. The cost estimates I've shared address issues that keep the bike from being operable. If you were inclined to do the suspension work right away it would add 100-200 dollars depending on who is doing the work and what, if any, issues are found.

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On 9/26/2018 at 12:51 AM, 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.

You bring up a good point, the $2400 has not been spent and is what has been budgeted. If I can acquire parts cheaper than what I've budgeted I'm in better shape, if I have to spend more, I'm worse off.

Based on my initial inspection my cost estimates include what I think needs to be serviced to make the bike operable. The additional items you've laid out would fall into maintenance costs, in my opinion, which every bike will have on an annual basis.

Thank you for the lead on a cheaper cylinder option!

For those looking at buying used bikes, we also put together a comprehensive buying guide: https://www.diymotofix.com/freebies.html

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On 9/24/2018 at 6:04 PM, Orange Crush 500 said:

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. 

I 2nd that 2 stroke bikes are built for high rpm's and those 'used' 4 stroke bikes the cost are 4 times. Take a 20+ year old 2 stroke can be revived, the 4 stroke bikes will be scraped a long time before that. I can order OEM parts and still come out ok, plus there is a LOT of quality 2 stroke parts available now to. I suspect that is due to people going back to 2 stroke bikes. Plus, KTM and Husky is where I will go as they are developing 2 stroke bikes (so I will support them).

Edited by ar2stroke

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Well written article and the arguments presented in it and in most of the comments are valid most of the time.  Now for the sake of debate define "worth it."  Easy to do if your only argument is economics; it becomes much more difficult if money is not a significant part of the decision.  For myself it is often not.  I build project bikes, street and dirt, and occasionally quads quite frequently and I do it for the pure enjoyment of the pursuit of building it better than the factory did or the engineers ever intended.  Then sometimes I might build one that I had many years ago and it is a nostalgia thing.  I do not concern myself with parts that are OEM obsolete or not aftermarket supported for that just adds to the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment when "problem solved."  I do have the ability to make some of those parts and am not a purest when it comes to using Maico parts only  in a Maico or Honda parts in a Honda I have used Yamaha pistons in KTMs and even Honda CR500 rods in a Yamaha XS650.  In the end I may have spent much more than the bike is worth on the open market but I do not careI enjoyed the project and enjoyed the ride even more.  I likewise do this with the occasional automobile too if anyone is interested in a 2000 Ford Focus ZX3 "RS" clone I have one that has over 7 grand invested in it (book value is less than 2K) and yes it was worth it, especially in the rain sleet and snow when we get that in Georgia. 

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On 9/26/2018 at 5:18 PM, juicedstang999 said:

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...

CA titles have the engine serial listed. If your title doesn't, it is probably a good idea to write it down.

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On 9/29/2018 at 8:55 AM, ar2stroke said:

 Plus, KTM and Husky is where I will go as they are developing 2 stroke bikes (so I will support them).

Right, because Beta GasGas Sherco TM and even GPX are not developing two stroke bikes.

On 9/25/2018 at 10:42 PM, M3t said:

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.  

Or buy a running, used bike that has been maintained with records to prove it. There's a few of them out there - shop hard.

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1 hour ago, shrubitup said:

Right, because Beta GasGas Sherco TM and even GPX are not developing two stroke bikes.

Or buy a running, used bike that has been maintained with records to prove it. There's a few of them out there - shop hard.

There is no Beta/GasGas/Sherco/TM dealers anywhere around me. If there was that would be a different story. On the GPX 2 Stroke bike (made in China) - from working in the motorcycle industry now for 20+years (parts availability) seen this before first hand. Place opens up, boss man buys them and they disappear and stuck with bunch of machines you piece meal together. Maybe the GPX will be a different story would prefer if they were built in Taiwan they have a better infrastructure and quality control record. I don't want a 4 stroke bike as packing up 'boxes' with busted cases/cranks/heads on a machine a few years old that cost $7000+ or more is ridiculous. The sport turned into Nascar from the way it was back in the day more FAMILY oriented now it is a few top riders (like who cares anymore). Hence the lack of interest in it (today) the 2 stroke bikes YES the others no (as they are light weight parts, turning high rpm's then kaboom'). Sir do you want to spend $3000+ on a 2 year old bike (no box it up).... They make more money in parts on 1 (4 stroke) than 4 2 strokes so they will keep on until they destroy the sport for good or push the electric bike garbage.

Edited by ar2stroke
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3 minutes ago, shrubitup said:

I don't use dealers.

Without a dealer no access to them as they are not used here and no way to buy them. 

I would 'try' a GPX bike if they have a LONG term plan to stick around and not disappear in a few years. Someone said that RockyMountain would sell parts but they ain't on their site. NOW if KTM would have bought that design out and sold them as a entry level bike (I would buy new) but they don't want that as it would be deemed old and dated. Adding, one can get 'box' 4 stroke bikes all day long (most are on ebay in pieces and PLENTY of parts for all of them just a few years old). 

Edited by ar2stroke

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3 minutes ago, ar2stroke said:

NOW if KTM would have bought that design out and sold them as a entry level bike (I would buy new) but they don't want that as it would be deemed old and dated.

inconsistent with "Ready to Race". Because we all need hard core race bikes to be the best weekend Joe Trail Rider we can be.

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1 minute ago, shrubitup said:

inconsistent with "Ready to Race". Because we all need hard core race bikes to be the best weekend Joe Trail Rider we can be.

In a way, yes but one has to start somewhere (I would not see a problem) with it. They do need some sort of entry level bike at a lower cost to keep the sport alive. Being a 'luxury' item it is hard to sell a bike approaching $10,000 for a weekend guy. 

Only reason I bought new race bikes in the past new was COST +10% (and nothing else). 

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 The question, "is it worth it?", is pretty funny to me considering the price of a new bike has nearly doubled over the last decade while performance hasn't come anywhere close to doubling.  I still ride my 08 Crf450r I have $2900 invested in and I still embarrass my buddies with their $12,000 setups. 

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This is a great thread! Budget is key but I think labor is really impossible to put a price on if it’s labor of love / the enjoyment of taking a running bike that’s beat looking and might need some Proformance/ Maintenance / little powder coating & plastics and for sure could profit alot.

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I have NEVER had good luck (making some extra cash, I am retired) with rebuilding old Japanese dirt bikes. I have rebuilt from the frame up a Honda TL125 a Kawasaki 250 KLR and now presently on the lift I have a Suzuki DR125. I have ALWAYS had luck rebuilding old British bikes. The parts for British bikes are available and at a RESONABLE cost and people will pay a good price (fair) for my machines. I will give you an example, I bought my little Suzuki with 2500 miles on it. The bike was lacking performance and bogged down when climbing a hill so I decided to look into the prob. Someone had replaced carburetor with a different type so I tried to find proper carb - 350.00 bucks for a carb - WHAT, I didn't pay that for the bike. I think someone took old carb off and sold it on ebay. But, the person that retrofitted the replacement carb did a good job and I decided to plug on. After much looking I found a carb that looked like the picture (matching specs from workshop manual) and with a little work I got carb to fit (30.00). Bike runs great now. My point being is that any Japanese dirt bikes over 10 years old is just a money pit. They are and always have been throw away bikes not ment for the long haul. Most British and Harleys and any quality machine were pushed into a corner if not working and left there until someone says "hey, look what I found" and those machines get rebuilt and on the road again. Now I will say that Japanese road bikes are a different story and I would prefer to ride on road - but parts will be hard to find after 10 years. Please this is not a I love British bikes kind of rant but one of parts are easy to find and reasonable not so with Japanese bikes. 

DSC_0504 copy.jpg

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MrVideo said; "I have NEVER had good luck (making some extra cash, I am retired) with rebuilding old Japanese dirt bikes. I have rebuilt from the frame up a Honda TL125 a Kawasaki250 KLR and now presently on the lift I have a Suzuki DR125" .

 

 

MrVideo your problem reselling your project bikes is  because no one wanted those bikes wen they were new let alone used and rebuilt. 

You need to rebuild what people want to buy. Which in my opinion rite now is high performance 2 stroke MX and Enduro bikes. Try one of those and see how much better your resale value is

 

PS.. your TL125 resto looks great, 

Edited by Orange Crush 500
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34 minutes ago, mrvideosawyer said:

I have NEVER had good luck (making some extra cash, I am retired) with rebuilding old Japanese dirt bikes. I have rebuilt from the frame up a Honda TL125 a Kawasaki 250 KLR and now presently on the lift I have a Suzuki DR125. I have ALWAYS had luck rebuilding old British bikes. The parts for British bikes are available and at a RESONABLE cost and people will pay a good price (fair) for my machines. I will give you an example, I bought my little Suzuki with 2500 miles on it. The bike was lacking performance and bogged down when climbing a hill so I decided to look into the prob. Someone had replaced carburetor with a different type so I tried to find proper carb - 350.00 bucks for a carb - WHAT, I didn't pay that for the bike. I think someone took old carb off and sold it on ebay. But, the person that retrofitted the replacement carb did a good job and I decided to plug on. After much looking I found a carb that looked like the picture (matching specs from workshop manual) and with a little work I got carb to fit (30.00). Bike runs great now. My point being is that any Japanese dirt bikes over 10 years old is just a money pit. They are and always have been throw away bikes not ment for the long haul. Most British and Harleys and any quality machine were pushed into a corner if not working and left there until someone says "hey, look what I found" and those machines get rebuilt and on the road again. Now I will say that Japanese road bikes are a different story and I would prefer to ride on road - but parts will be hard to find after 10 years. Please this is not a I love British bikes kind of rant but one of parts are easy to find and reasonable not so with Japanese bikes. 

DSC_0504 copy.jpg

One will never forget the Hay-Day of the Big 4 along with other Manufacturers when they had a complete line up bikes.  A far cry from today, if only the Big 4 would have 2 strokes in their line ups (but I know that is not going to happen).

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Excellent article, a "must read" for anyone taking on a project. 

Best bike advice given to me in the 80's when I was 14, was - get an old bike , fix er' up - MAKE MISTAKES and when ya get something newer/better you'll know what to do!

There always seems to be more wrong with a bike than first thought from my experience and will add that I have never made $$ from selling a used dirtbike. 

 

On ‎9‎/‎26‎/‎2018 at 7:09 PM, hawaiidirtrider said:

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. 

This - I can't sell a bike that ain't "right" ........... 2nd that!!!  

 

 2t's seem to hold their price far better than 4t's in this part of the world.

Over here, the used DB market is flooded with 5-15yr old 4t's (many are orange too) - people are finding out the cost of rebuilding them compared to the equivalent 2t - chassis parts aside.

 

 

 

 

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3 hours ago, RedmistNZ said:

Excellent article, a "must read" for anyone taking on a project. 

Best bike advice given to me in the 80's when I was 14, was - get an old bike , fix er' up - MAKE MISTAKES and when ya get something newer/better you'll know what to do!

There always seems to be more wrong with a bike than first thought from my experience and will add that I have never made $$ from selling a used dirtbike. 

 

This - I can't sell a bike that ain't "right" ........... 2nd that!!!  

 

 2t's seem to hold their price far better than 4t's in this part of the world.

Over here, the used DB market is flooded with 5-15yr old 4t's (many are orange too) - people are finding out the cost of rebuilding them compared to the equivalent 2t - chassis parts aside.

 

 

 

 

You can easily rebuild a 2 stroke bike using OEM parts way less than a 4 stroke. The 2 stroke bikes sell FAST where I am at as I guess people got burned on 'having a $7000 box bike' that will cost thousands to fix. 

They turned Motocross into NASCAR (where a handful of chosen elites) act like some sort of self-anointed people. It shows as the sport is in decline not very many people want to have a retirement fund in a 'fragile' Nascar engine. Just my 2 cents, but the sport changed hence the decline of the sport. High RPM's, light weight parts (lots of them) always cost more money. Plus, they are TOP heavy and just no fun.

Edited by ar2stroke
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The last project I bought was a $400 bike in a box, and I know I spent more putting it together than it would cost for a running equivalent, but its worth having a bike I know is fresh vs something I don't really know the condition of. This is the story of every project bike I've done, including bikes I've bought new and eventually rebuilt. Flipping is a loss once I get a bike fixed up. 

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I rarely see a rebuild or restoration project, whether it be a bike, car, house, etc... that ever equaled the value of the parts/materials, time and labor involved.  You have to take some enjoyment and satisfaction in completing a project like that to really see the value.  

 

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