Buy a Used ATV: Your Buying Guide

Updated: Jan. 15, 2024

Buying a used ATV can save you thousands over the price of a new model. But a low price is a good price only if the entire rig checks out. Here's how to conduct the inspection.

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We asked our expert, Josh Fischer, owner of Unlimited Motorsports, New Prague, MN, to walk us through all the ATV pre-purchase inspection steps he performs for his customers. Skip the inspection and you could be in for some pricey repair bills before logging your first 100 miles.

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Start with the tires

Look for cracks

Shine your flashlight around each tread block and around both sidewalls, to look for cracks and missing chunks of rubber.

ATV tires age and crack just like car tires. Once they develop cracks, they’re dangerous to ride on. If one tire is cracked and has the same wear as the others, plan on replacing the complete set. That can easily cost upward of $480 with mounting labor.

Check the bearings and ball joints

Rock the tire in and out

Jack up one side and grab the tire at the 12:00 and 5:00 positions. Then rock the tire in and out. If you feel any play, you’re looking at a bad wheel bearing, a bad ball joint or both. Before you move ahead, get to know wheel bearing replacement cost.

Severely worn ATV bearings and ball joints can separate in use, causing serious personal injury. Before they let go, you’ll notice sloppy steering and instability in turns. If one side is worn, chances are the other side is right behind. Ball joints cost $140 per side (installed), and wheel bearings run about the same. Check out common ATV repairs you might have to make later.

Inspect the shocks

Look for leakage

Look for moist areas around the top of the shock. If you see wet spots, run your finger over the area. If it’s oily, the shock is on its way out.

Worn shocks don’t dampen spring oscillations, so your tires spend more time in the air after each bounce. That dramatically reduces the machine’s stability. Leakage is a sure sign of wear. Shocks cost $150 each installed.

Check the constant velocity (CV) boots

Look for sand, dirt, and grease

CV boots keep the grease inside the rotating joint. When a boot wears, it tears open between the pleats or at the band clamps. Then it flings the grease out of the joint and lets in water and sand that can destroy the joint. New boots cost $150 each installed. If you find sand or dirt in the joint, it’s most likely damaged and must be replaced. New CV joints cost $250 each installed.

Check out all eight joints. Remove the splash guards (if equipped) and look for signs of grease on the inner and outer CV boot on each axle. Next, separate the pleats and check for small cracks or tears. Check the surrounding area for signs of grease that may have leaked from the clamps.

Check for engine leaks

Use a clean rag

Oil leaks from the valve cover and head gaskets can cost plenty ($150 and $300). So check those areas before you buy. Wipe a clean rag around the head and valve cover gaskets. If the rag shows fresh oil, the gaskets need replacing.

Pull the air cleaner cover

A sign of poor maintenance

Replacing an air filter doesn’t cost much. So if you remove the cover and see large accumulations of dirt, take it as a sign of poor maintenance. Also, if there are signs of mice or other rodents taking up residence, walk away from the purchase.

Check the brakes

Look at thickness

Check the pad condition and thickness. Inspect the rotor for deep gouges. And look for caliper leaks.

You can check the thickness of ATV brake pads with an inspection mirror and a flashlight, but ATV brake pads are so thin when new that it’s sometimes hard to see when they’re worn. We disassembled the brakes on this machine so you could see what we’re talking about. The new brake pad on the right is about 1/4 in. thick. The used pad below it still has more than the minimum 1/16 in. However, since ATV rotors are so expensive (almost $120 each), it’s never good to let them wear down that far and risk metal-to-metal contact.

Even if the pads look thick enough, the friction material may be cracked or delaminating from the backing plate. So it’s best to jack up each side and remove the wheel, caliper and pads to inspect the entire brake system.

A complete brake job costs about $175.

Check the fluids

Metallic particles in the oil?

Pull the engine and transmission dipsticks and check for the proper level and appearance. Look for metallic particles in the oil. If you see any, don’t buy the machine.

Chain and sprocket

Check for wear

If the ATV uses a chain, check for sprocket wear. Replace the chain and sprocket as a set (about $300 parts and labor).

Learn how to change a motorcycle chain and sprockets.