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Buy or Build? - What is cheapest?

Do you want a “New to you” bike?  Then I'm sure you're asking yourself the age old question: “Do I build a bike from the frame up or do I buy a complete bike”  This is not as cut and dry as it might seem … The answer is: It depends

I've built frame ups 5 or 6 times over the last 2 years and I always lose my ass financially. Don't get me wrong, there is some value in building a bike from the frame up, but the value does not swing to the financial responsibility section of the pendulum.  Even when you get a Smoking good deal on a frame, it is very hard to put together a bike piece by piece and save money.

Why is it so hard to frame up for savings?  Here are a few things that seem to play out when I build piece by piece.

Saving sometimes means spending more?  Bargain hunting has turned into a nightmare for me several times over the last few years.  If you are looking for a good deal, chances are you are going to come across a deal or two that are in-fact too good to be true and the result means investing money to fix the issue.  One of my most prominent failures was trying to save money on a Carbon wheelset for my Son’s bike. Using I found a set of Carbon hoops, chinese Carbon rims for $200 shipped from a seller with a decent history.  I did the math and figured at the time (Covid Era) that I would be spending $900-$1,100 on a USED set of carbon for the bike.  Here was my math

Carbon Rims = $225 Shipped

Spanks Hex Hubs = $250 shipped (Superboost)

Spokes and Built by a Professional - $200

Total - $675 - Total Theoretical Savings = $225 - $425!

That savings is enough for a good used drivetrain groupset or used fork for my build.

In theory this works.  But theory failed when I got a call from my wheel guy and he suggested that I not run the rear hoop.  “You can see through the carbon Layup” he tells me … So what is the solution?  We buy one of his house brand carbon hoops for $250 and he laces that up in a mix matched set.  Which is an entirely different level of wrong. At this point, I could have bought a nice used set.  To make matters worse, the new wheel gets cracked on a 25 foot step up 2 weeks later.  Total loss.

This can and has plaid out in a lot of other ways for me

  1. Brake set had a caliper leak and needed a full rebuild, the leak contaminated my pads (Hour of time, 1 week delay in getting on the trail, $60 in parts and some cussing at my bike) 
  2. Shock on bike Frame completely failing - cavitation. $175 rebuild.  ($200 shock + $175 Rebuild = RETAIL PRICE FOR A NEW SHOCK)
  3. Frameset came in the mail and is Cracked … What?  Fortunately in this one instance the owner helped me get a warranty replacement, but not everyone will be so lucky! 

I have probably another half dozen examples of this I can think of on the spot and I’m sure there are many more I'm forgetting.  But ive also bought hundreds of perfectly good used parts.  My intention here is not to say “Don't buy used parts”, it’s to help identify risk when buying used parts with the intention of saving money.

The Sum of all is greater then the cost of a complete bike?:

Math does not lie and people often overvalue the parts on their bike and undervalue the whole package.  Or maybe it's overvaluing the parts and just slightly overvaluing the whole bike?  You get the point … On more than one occasion when selling a bike I got to the point where it made more financial sense for me to pull the entire thing apart and sell it piece by piece.  

To Illustrate this I spent a little time searching for a Transition Sentinel.  I’ve been interested in trying one for some time.  There is a pristine frame for sale on right now for $1,850 with  Float X2.  But when I search for the rest of the parts … and I mean try to find the BEST of the best deals, my build cost comes out to Around $3,650.  This does include a few compromises. A new build with that spec costs $6,000 so to some this seems like an amazing deal, and it is if you only compare retail new bike prices.  But look when I look in the used classifieds there are several bikes with similar spec to my desired build for $500 to $1000 CHEAPER.  

Frame builds cost more and full builds cost less?  That has been the general consensus when I take the time to find a bike.  But this leaves a bike owner in a bad financial spot.  You're forced to either sell a bike as a full build for less than the absolute max your bike COULD be worth if you pull each part off and sell it.  That model however is very tiresome. Pulling a bike apart, listing each part, coordinating and sending parts in the mail … Wow, it's alot of work.  Which is probably one reason my basement looks like a half baked bike shop … lots of parts I never got around to listing or are just too niche and don't have a buyer.  Is there a better way?

Frame swap - This is the way

Did you pour all of your money into Blinging out your last bike?  But want to try something new?  Buy a new frame and swap over your parts.  If your bike has the same standards … Boost Spacing, similar travel, 29er …. You can make it work.  Remember a frame is important, they all have different qualities and purposes … But it's just one of the many parts that matter.  Many people would argue that having a custom tuned fork would matter MORE than what frame you are riding.  Added benefit is you don't need to feel guilty spending a little extra on the parts when you are investing initially. If your plan is to carry them from one frame to another … Go nuts!

Parts Bike?

One last strategy I have had success with in the past is finding a donor bike to strip parts from.  You find a bike that's a generation old, has great parts and buy it.  Once you find your frame you take the donor bike parts, swap them and sell the donor frame.  I did this last year with a 2020 Rocky Mountain altitude with great success.  XT spec, Fox 36 with Grip 2 and a good set of wheels.  The outdated frame those parts are hanging on really undervalues the total bike build while oftentimes UNDERVALUING the parts spec build.  

I know there are other considerations that matter when making a bike purchase.  The goal of this post was not to debate the value of buying new and getting a warranty or to poo poo on local dealers.  The goal was to explore which ways are the best ways to navigate the used market while still keeping some money in the bank to pay for your next bike trip.

Agree or disagree?  Post it in the comments!

Michael Neef

Co-Founder & Editor

Dad, Mountain Biker, chauffeur and N+1 enthusiast.

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