Bargain Hunting: Rummage Sale Dos and Don’ts

It’s that wonderful time of year when everyone throws their dusty old doodads out in the yard and sets up the card table, trading their old castoffs for cash.  If you’ve got a few dollars to burn there are some great bicycle deals to be had, and although one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, sometimes one persons trash is just…trash.

If you’re going to buy a bike at a rummage sale, we won’t fault you.  We love cheap DIY projects and all of the mechanics at the shop have cobbled-together bikes built from castaway frames and parts.  But, when you’re shopping, be careful, and remember a few basic tenets:

1.  A fixer-upper is never a bargain.  Ever.
2.  If you can’t ride it, it’s a gamble.
3.  A good rummage sale bike should never cost more than a nice dinner.

Fixing bikes can be fun, especially if you do the labor yourself.  If you’re planning on bringing your great find into the shop, be prepared to spend a premium price for a used bike, though.  Rummage sale bikes, if they aren’t immediately rideable, often need a few little things, but those things pretty quickly add up.  For example, let’s say you find a great old Schwinn Varsity just like the one your dad or mom rode in college.  It’s been hanging in a garage for years and still has the original tires.  The price tag is a mere $30 dollars and it’s 90% there except for a little dry-rot in the sidewalls and some stiff shifters.  A bargain.

Maybe.

Tires alone will set you back a minimum of $30.  If it also needs new tubes tack $10 on to that, and if the rim strips (a cloth or rubber barrier between the rough spoke-holes in the rim and your tubes) are worn out (and old bikes’ rim strips often are stiff, rotted, and falling apart) add another $10 to that.  If the shifting just needs a little elbow grease, you can get it working for free, but if it needs new cables and housing, add another $20, maybe more.  Throw in shop labor if you’re not the do-it-yourself type and your bill for the bike easily crests $100 dollars, plus the original $30 you paid.  And that’s for a bike that was 90% there.

We see this fairly often at the shop.  Someone gets a good deal on a bike that isn’t really so good.  The initial price of the bike is almost never the biggest cost of getting it working.  Also, there is really nothing that can be done to make a bike any better than it was the day it was built.  “Upgrading” bikes is largely a myth, and never economical.  If you spend a lot of money on a crappy bike, you end up with a very expensive, crappy bike.  You save yourself a lot of time, hassle, and money if the bike is rideable from the start.  If you can hop on, take it for a spin, and it all works, it’s worth tossing out $30 dollars or so for a bike.  If it’s not functional, do yourself a favor and don’t spend any more on it than you’d be willing to throw down into a deep, dark hole.

If you do choose to go the DIY route with a fixer-upper, really, never pay more than $10 for a bike.  We’re more than happy to help with planning projects and finding parts, and advice is always free (but you usually get what you pay for!).  Keep in mind, this can be a very frustrating way to learn how to work on bikes.  You probably won’t ruin anything expensive, but even a bike-shop quality bike, new out of the box, can be quirky and difficult every once in a while.  An old beater often takes hours of time and a lot of skill to get to the point where it’s rideable, let alone functioning flawlessly (which might never happen).  The DIY fixer-upper is a better project for someone with some decent mechanical skills to start with (did I mention we’ll be offering classes soon?  Stay tuned.)

A note on single-speed conversions
It can sometimes be economical to take a bike, throw away the non-functional shifters, and slap on a single speed in the back.  How economical depends on a variety of things, but expect to pay at least $20-25 for a single speed freewheel and a chain.  It’s possible you’ll also need a chain-tensioner or other doohickeys depending on your particular frame.  Another, cheaper option, is blocking the derailleurs into a single gear.  If you know how to adjust the limit screws, it won’t cost you a penny.

Converting an old bike to a fixed-gear, chopped-bar hipster-mobile is fun, but generally a more expensive project than you’d expect.  It will not save you money.

A few things to look for when shopping for a “project”:

  • Wheels and Tires-  Check tires for dry-rot, gashes, and damage to the bead.  Check to see that the tubes hold air.  Wheels should run straight and true with very little or no visible wobble.  They should turn smoothly and should have no gritty feeling in the hubs.  Spokes and rims should be clean and not rusted, spoke nipples (where the spokes meet the rim) should be square, not rounded or chewed up from someone truing their wheels with a set of vice-grips.  Tires cost a good $10-20 each, tubes $5 each, rim strips $3-6 each, and wheels start at around $35 and go up.  If your bike does need a new rear wheel, you’ll also need specialty tools to move the old gear cluster (around $9).  Every gearing system has a different standard, so if you work on a variety of bikes you’ll quickly accumulate quite a pricey collection.  If it just needs a true, you need a spoke wrench that fits your particular spoke nipples (around $8-10)
  • Brakes –  Check that the brakes move freely by pulling the levers.  If they are bound up, it’s worth moving the calipers individually to see if it is the levers, the cables, or the calipers.  Also, check the brake pads for wear.  If they are hard, cracked, unevenly worn, or quite thin, it’s time to replace them (generally around $3-4 per pad for an older bike).Cables and housing can sometimes be made to work by being liberally flushed out with WD-40 or our shop favorite, JB-80 (it’s really twice as good).  As bikes age and are exposed to muck and moisture, cables tend to corrode and gum up inside the housing.  Often you’ll see brakes that can be pinched closed with the lever, but then need to be opened by hand at the caliper.  Nine times out of ten, they have gummed up or corroded brake cables and housings.  Expect to pay $5 a cable, plus a dollar a foot for housing.
  • Shifting- Do the shift levers move?  If they are indexed, can you feel each click?  Old Shimano pod-style shifters will often move properly but not click for each gear or stay tensioned.  The factory grease they come lubed with has hardened and gotten thick with dust and the tiny parts don’t slide into place like they should.  Try to take off the cover and flush them with a decent light lubricant (we generally use Tri-Flow).  Run through the range a few times and see if shifting improves.  Replacing shifters is a crap-shoot.  Some are cheap, some really aren’t.  If it’s a newer road bike with integrated shift/brake levers, expect to spend a lot.  If it’s some crusty old grip-shift with three speeds in front and 5-8 in the back, it’ll be around $25 for new shifters (and they usually come with cables installed).If the derailleurs are frozen or the cages broken, expect to pay around $15-20 each for a cheap replacement.  If you can move them by hand, but the shifters don’t seem to be doing anything, or shifting is inexplicably sluggish, you probably have corroded or gummed up cables.  See the section on brake cables above, and note that derailleur cable housing is around $2 a foot.
  • Gears and chain- Check for chipped teeth, teeth that look like shark fins, pointed teeth, or flattened valleys between teeth.  All of these indicate wear and will require replacement for proper shifting.  Check the chain for stiff links by running the pedals backward, slowly.  If the rear derailleur “jumps” every so often, you have a stiff link.  Maybe this can be freed with a little lube and elbow grease, maybe you need a new chain ($6-$50, depending on the bike and the number of gears in the rear cluster).
  • Bottom Bracket/Crankset – The bottom bracket is the set of bearings that go inside the little round shell where the cranks and pedals attach to the bike.  Pull on one of the crank arms laterally, away from the bike, and check for play.  If it’s there, it can possibly be adjusted out (with specialty tools) but there’s no saying what’s going on inside that shell until you get it open.  Cranks will probably need to be tightened, and so will pedals.  Cracked or bent crankarms are to be avoided.  If the pedals are broken it will cost around $10-20 for a new set.  If they’re gone, check for threads inside the crankarm where they would mount.  If it’s stripped out, walk away.
  • The frame – Is it dented? Rusted out?  Bent?  This is the most important part of any bike.  If it’s in rough shape, you are going to be out of luck.  Look for clearance between the front wheel and the downtube as well.  If that wheel has only a couple of finger-widths of space, the bike was likely crashed into a wall.  Steel forks can be bent back into shape, but it’ll never ride very well.  A small dent in an aluminum frame should set off the alarm bells.  Once aluminum dents, it likes to fail catastrophically rather than just dent more.  Ever flex a pop can back and forth a few times?  It eventually rips in half.  Your frame will be flexing, and probably a lot.  Maybe you’ll ride it for years and never have a problem, maybe it’ll fold up on you in the middle of speeding traffic.  However, if the frame in great shape but the rest of the bike is falling apart, pay no more than what the frame itself is worth to you.  If it’s a department-store mountain bike, just walk away.  An old road frame can be worth a few bucks if you’ve got plans for a bigger project.

Rummage sale bikes can be a good bargain, or a big headache.  Just remember, when you find that really cool Schwinn/Raleigh/whatever that is begging to be restored – they made a lot of these things.  You can certainly find another, and probably in good shape.