Join Date: Apr 2010
Location: Warwick, UK
Bikes: 2000-something 3 speed commuter, 1990-something Raleigh Scorpion
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The bike I commute on every day started out as a run-down bike someone had taken to the dump, so overhauling run-down bikes is certainly possible. Plan on a total disassembly, inspection and rebuild. New shift/brake cables, brake pads and bearings are the most likely parts. If the bike has simply been left and isn't really broken, parts like derailleurs and the brakes themselves should be salvageable.
I had a stash of old parts handy when I took on my project, but if you aren't willing or capable of doing the work yourself, or want high-end components, it's really not worth doing unless you want the mechanical experience of doing so.
I'll leave the legal matters to you, but at the very least you should make sure the bike really is abandoned.