For the sake of this article you can consider buying a used motorcycle from a dealership the same as buying a new motorcycle from a dealership. This is because every dealership i have known personally checks over and certifies every used motorcycle they sell, but don't be afraid to ask them what they have done to ensure the motorcycles reliability.
There is something amazing about going to a motorcycle dealership and seeing a brand new motorcycle just begging to be ridden. All the lights are hitting it perfectly, the paint is shining, when they start it up it purrs wonderfully. The fact that no one else has used or abused the motorcycle makes it that much more valuable. You don't have to worry about the previous bone-head owner pulling wheelies on the freeway or revving it past the red line while riding racing his friends.
If you are going to be buying a new motorcycle you should definitely research it as much as possible that way you are armed with all the information that will keep lots of money in your pocket. Researching what people think about various dealerships will also save a lot of headaches by avoiding the dealerships that have poor customer service. If you are lucky enough to have some friends that have bought motorcycles from various places then that's great, otherwise researching them on Internet forums or search engines will work well.
Once you have chosen a dealership you should then choose the right motorcycle. You should realize that if you choose a motorcycle in high demand the salesman will be much less likely to negotiate on price, and you may even end up paying quite a bit more than Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). You will save money by choosing a motorcycle that is last years model, and maybe even a less popular color. Another way to save money is by knowing exactly how much the dealer paid for the motorcycle, that way you will know how much room you have to work with when pounding out a dealer. A great site to get the dealer invoice is www.cyclebuy.com. Once you know the invoice price, add on 10-15% and you will have the dealers "ready to sell" price. Once you know the price they are willing to sell at you should tack on an additional 5-15% for all the other dealer fees that they will add on to the final sale price, they include things such as: Set up fees, taxes, assembly fees etc...
When it comes to the actual payment cash is king. You will find that dealers will be able to work out quite a deal if you bring a blank cashiers check. If you need to finance though I would recommend going through your own bank or a separate credit union instead of using the dealer financing. That way you will know what you have to work with before you even step foot in the showroom.
I have personally purchased every motorcycle I have owned used. In my opinion the thousands of dollars that you will spend by buying a new motorcycle are not worth it, even though you do get the peace of mind of knowing that no one has mistreated the motorcycle.
The first place to start now adays is on the internet. Assuming you have already done the research on picking what motorcycle you want, the next part should be fairly simple. I highly recommend www.craigslist.com especially if you live in the California Bay Area, or some other large city. You can find great deals especially from motivated sellers that just need to get rid of the motorcycle as fast as possible. This usually leads them to lower the price hundreds, if not thousands of dollars! The key to getting a great deal though is being patient and buying during the winter.
Here are a list of things that you should look out for when buying a motorcycle used:
Salvage title: Normally motorcycles have these when the cost to repair them is more than the bike is worth. I've bought a salvage title bike once and it wasok, but it wasn't great. In my experience you should stay away from these.
Stunted / Great wheelie machine!: Stunting is a no no, it trashes your engine, transmission, and your suspension. If a motorcycle has been stunted STAY AWAY, unless you plan on doing some stunting of your own.
Bent frame: Don't buy a motorcycle with a bent or dented frame! It's just plain old unsafe!
Some things you want in a motorcycles:
Clean title with pink slip in hand!: That means the title is not a salvage title, and it is in their name. Some people try to sell with just a bill of sale which is legal, but can be sketchy some times. You always want to buy a motorcycle with a clean title.
Low Miles: Motorcycles are not like cars, 50k miles on a car may be nothing, but for a motorcycle that's A LOT!. I try and buy bikes that are below 20k, ideally they would have around 7,000 miles or less.
"I need to sell by Sunday because I'm moving!": A story like that indicates a motivated seller, so if they are selling your dream bike, you can probably get it for a lot cheaper than you thought.
Once you e-mail a seller and negotiate price either over the phone or through the internet, the next step is meeting them to finalize the sale. I prefer to meet in a public place because there have been some robberies and muggings done by people claiming to sell things on the internet . You should try and bring a friend and a truck with you that way you can get used to your new motorcycle at your own pace and not be forced to ride on unfamiliar roads and freeways. If you don't own a truck then try and ask someone else from the motorcycle community like www.bayarearidersforum.com or maybe even rent a u-haul. It is definitely a lot less stressful learning how to operate a motorcycle in an empty parking lot then in 3 lanes of traffic at 65mph!
Once you arrive at the meeting point look over the bike. Make sure it starts up without any problems since the engine should already be warm from the seller riding it to the mutual public place. Hopefully your 'friend with a truck' is also somewhat knowledgeable about motorcycle mechanics, even the basics would be helpful. That way they can look over the motorcycle with you and make sure that the seller is telling the truth about any damage the bike may have. Once you are both satisfied, pull out the paperwork and start filling it out! You should be filling out 2 bills of sale (one for you, one for the seller), and the title. Double check that the seller has signed all the places that he needs to sign, it sucks going to the DMV only to realize the seller missed one signature so you can't register your bike for a few more days or weeks.
That's basically the nuts and bolts of buying a motorcycle. I hope it has been helpful!