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Ask Flecc: How to buy and sell second-hand electric bikes?

Buying a second-hand electric bike

Buying an e-bike means a test ride is essential before committing to buy, since many faults on the electrical side can only be detected that way. If a seller will not permit a test ride against holding a security, it’s best to walk away and look elsewhere.  If an offered electric bike has no charger or keys, it’s almost certainly stolen, so again walk away. It’s always a good idea to ask to see a seller’s original documentation if they bought the e-bike new, since that can confirm the age of both bike and battery and also ensure they have title to ownership of the bike. There are two parts to any inspection of a second-hand electric bike, the bicycle and the electrical side, which are dealt with here in that order. Experienced and knowledgeable cyclists will often be able to skip straight past the bicycle parts section and onto the e-bike electrical side.

Bicycle parts: Start with visual appearance to get an impression of how well cared for the bike has been, checking for any obvious damage.  Then with chain drive, inspect the sprockets for hooking of the teeth, the faces between the teeth should have symmetrical sides.  Visible wear here can mean early replacement of the chain and all sprockets will be necessary.  With toothed belt drive look for any edge fraying indicating misalignment. On mid-motor e-bikes the transmission suffers much more wear than normal due to handling both rider and motor outputs, so take special care with the chain and sprockets inspection. Move onto the wheels, spin each in the forward direction to check for free running and rim trueness, visually check the spokes for any broken. Rock the wheels from side to side to check for bearing wear.

If with rim brakes, check the rim walls for wear. The walls should have a central thin groove looking like a black line, which is the wear indicator. If that line is missing in part or completely, the rims need immediate renewal meaning a complete wheel rebuild with new spokes as well.  If disc brakes, visually check the discs for trueness, damage or braking surface scoring.  Roller brakes need no check apart from the test ride.  Brake block and pad wear is not too important since replacement is a routine low-cost matter.  The same can be true for tyre tread wear, these consumables are only an important consideration if combined with other problems totalling large impending costs.

Hold the front brake on and rock the bike forwards and backwards to check for headstock slack.  Sometimes this can be adjusted out, but often not and can even indicate deeper frame damage.  Rock a crank arm in and out to check for bottom bracket slack, then spin the pedals checking for free running and no grittiness.  Check  brake and any other cables for condition, and the free operation of Bowden cables.

When satisfied all is well, test ride the bike, trying all of the gears, brakes and controls to ascertain all work smoothly as they should.  If equipped with lighting, check for the correct operation for its type, some include a rear standing light when at a halt.  Also see the test ride requirements of the e-bike electricals section.

E-bike electricals:  The sealed mid-drive motor units with sealed handlebar control units from several makers need no static checks, only the test rides checks.  Other motors such as wheel hub or other mountings do need much more checking.

On hub motors with spindle-centre cable entries, check at that point for fraying or damage of any kind since this is a frequent problem.  On all other cable entries or detachable connectors also check for good condition.  Check all the electrical cable runs and any inline connectors for condition and security, including at all entry points.  These can include controller boxes, throttles, pedelec switches, brake cutout switches, torque sensors, battery meters.

Then visually check the battery for damage or obvious signs of it being opened up.  If the type that mounts onto a platform, check the contacts on the platform and battery for burning and pitting. Although alternative batteries can be used, most owners prefer the correct fitting replacement batteries, so check for their availability if that is important to you. Don’t take a seller’s assurance, check it for yourself since e-bikes are frequently discontinued with no guarantees of ongoing battery availability.

Then move onto the test ride. As well as checking all the bicycle function details listed at the end of the bicycle parts section, it’s important to thoroughly check all of the e-bike functions.  On pedelec and torque sensing e-bikes, check for the smooth operation of power application when pedalling away from a standstill.  Check every switched power mode, ensuring there is a detectable change in power between each.  If with switched regenerating modes, check each of those too for increasing pedal force resistance as generation is increased.  If equipped with throttle control, check its operation when riding, and on e-bikes with switched pedelec or throttle control, check the changeover to ensure both modes work. If fitted with brake cutouts, check that these cut the motor power when applying a brake lever.

If at all possible, try the e-bike up a steep hill, using the highest power mode available and helping with as little pedalling as possible.  This is to put the highest possible loading on the battery.  If the power cuts out on the climb, it most likely indicates the battery is at or close to the end of its life, though it can occasionally be due to connection problems.  The very high cost of most e-bike batteries will greatly reduce the value of a second-hand e-bike needing a new one.  If no steep hill test is available, just try the e-bike in its highest power mode as hard as is possible for its type of power control.  These power tests can also expose a chain jumping problem on some Panasonic mid-drive units which use a small motor chain sprocket.

Don’t assume a fault on an e-bike can be economically repaired.  Some motors are sealed units costing circa £500 to replace, and even with other faults, few bike shops have any appropriate repair knowledge.  As a general rule, it’s best not to buy any e-bike with a fault on its e-bike components side, there are plenty of fully working, sound second-hand electric bikes on the market at any one time.  The very high price of most replacement batteries and their life being much shorter than the bicycle means it’s best to assess bike and battery values separately to judge if a price is fair.  Therefore if at all possible, try to ascertain the age of the battery and the use it’s had.  Lower cost lithium batteries can be assumed to have around two years of life, but some of the much higher price batteries from the best known makers can have three or four year’s life, depending on frequency of use and charging.  Using what you can find out about the battery’s remaining life, assess the true value of the e-bike.

To do this, take the price of a new battery from the price of the new electric bike and use that remaining price to assess a fair price for the age of the bike. Then add back  your assessment of the value of the remaining usefulness of the battery to find the real value of the e-bike in total.  There’s an online guide link at the end of this article.

Buying in the winter and poor weather when prices are depressed can result in some surprising bargains, and this is particularly true in small markets like the UK where buyers are fewer in number.

Selling second-hand electric bikes

A number of things are necessary to achieve the best selling price for a second-hand electric bike, some very obvious, others not so. As a start point the e-bikes should be thoroughly cleaned, lubricated and any minor low-cost faults repaired and adjustments completed. If any original documentation is available from when the bike was bought, have it to hand since it reassures buyers about the original price, bike age and that you have ownership.

The buyer will almost certainly demand a test ride which is reasonable, but here you must be very careful. The security of holding their credit card or new iPhone is no security at all if they were stolen, so use your judgment to carefully assess the buyer.  Using another bike to accompany the buyer on the test ride can be sufficient, but it has been known for a big, fit buyer to attack a seller in a quiet spot and make off with a bike.  Having an accomplice nearby with a van is also not unusual.  Using your car to follow a test rider will also be useless if they make off down a path or alley. If at all uncertain, refuse the test ride and let the buyer walk away. Better to lose a buyer than lose the e-bike. Also bear in mind that a buyer coming to you can see where the electric bike is stored and often your security arrangements as well. Therefore if feeling uneasy about someone, change your security precautions for a while afterwards, even to the extent of bringing the bike indoors for a week or two.

As discussed in the Buying section (electric bike buyers’ guides), lithium batteries’ high cost and their shorter life than the bike means it’s best to assess each separately to achieve a fair combined price that a knowledgeable buyer might accept.  To assist with that, this online guide for assessing second hand e-bike values is at:

Our thanks to Flecc for this article. Flecc is a long-time contributor to Pedelecs. If you have a question you’d like Flecc to answer please contact us here.