2002 Harley Davidson Night Train

What to Look for When Buying a Used Harley Davidson: A Checklist

Buying a used Harley-Davidson can be both exciting and stressful. It’s important to know what to look for to ensure that you don’t end up getting stuck with a piece of junk that needs a bunch of repairs.

In this article, we’ll share a checklist of things to inspect on any used Harley you’re considering buying. These are all things you won’t want to be second-guessing as you’re screaming down the highway with your chin in the wind!

As you begin evaluating motorcycles, it’s important to examine the bike cold and request maintenance records from the seller. A cold engine can reveal potential starting and running issues that might be hidden when the engine is already warmed up. Additionally, maintenance records will give you a better idea of the bike’s history and help you avoid any unforeseen issues down the road.

Things To Check Before Buying A Used Harley Davidson

There’s no such thing as knowing too much about a bike you’re considering buying. So take your time and really examine it. Any owner or dealership should have no problem with you taking a very close look at their bike and if they do, that’s a major red flag for you – time to walk away because they’re hiding something.

Check VIN tags

Make sure the VIN stickers and title all match up

Take a good look at the title/ownership and make sure the name and address check out. Double-check that the VIN number is the same on it as well as the bike itself.

On Harley Davidsons, there are 2 locations where the VIN number is marked:

  1. The VIN tag stamped on the frame by the neck
  2. The decal on the front down tube of the frame

If one or both of these are missing, that indicates a very strong likelihood that this bike has some kind of story behind it (and could even be stolen!)

Check for signs the bike has been dropped

Dropping a bike is actually pretty common for newer riders and it isn’t necessarily the end of the world. As long as any damage was fixed properly, the bike can still be worth buying. This can be a great bargaining chip when it comes to negotiation though.

Check for obvious damage first like dents or large scratches. These will jump right out at you immediately. Here’s the thing though: a lack of obvious damage doesn’t mean the bike hasn’t been dropped. You need to investigate further to be sure, as they might have repaired the noticeable damage but skipped over things they thought nobody would see.

One of the best ways to do this is to check for scratches on smaller components. Take a look at the exhaust, mirrors, levers, turn signals, pegs, grips, and the bottom of the fork tubes.

A scratch or two on these might be caused by simply getting too close to a garage wall but if you find recurring scratches on most of them, that could be a sign that this bike has been dropped.

Check for rusty hardware

Check for rusty or corroded hardware

In keeping with our theme of figuring out what kind of life this bike has lived, you’ll want to take a look at the condition of its hardware. This can be a telltale sign that the bike has been left out in the elements, ridden in bad weather, or even potentially been a victim of a flood!

The best places to look for this on a Harley Davidson are the heads of the bolts on the engine, the spoke nipples on the wheels, and any other place where water could pool and sit for a long time.

Check fluids

Check fluid levels

This is an easy way to judge the overall health of the bike. Make sure the motor oil is clean and topped up. Inspect the brakes for any leaks or seeping at the lines. Take a look at the ground under the bike and make sure there aren’t any drops that might be from leaks. Grab a flashlight and go over the entire engine to look for any seeping or leaking seals or gaskets.

In most cases, minor leaks on Harley Davidsons aren’t really a big deal to fix. It can, however, give you an idea of how the bike was cared for and if the service is up to date.

Check brake lever pull

Check the brakes

This is something you should be taking note of on the test ride (you are going to ride it, right?!) but you can feel the brakes while the bike is parked as well to see if they are spongy or have too much travel in the lever/pedal.

They should feel relatively firm and a spongy lever could indicate that they need to be bled. That could be caused by improper bleeding the last time they were worked on or it could be a sign of a fluid leak somewhere.

Too much travel in the brake lever can indicate that the pads are really worn. If it seems like the lever pulls back too far toward the handlebar, I would jump right to looking at the amount of material left on the brake pads.

When you’re test riding the bike, make sure to take note of any pulsing in the brakes that could indicate warped brake rotors.

Check choke operation

Check the choke on carburated bikes

If the Harley you’re looking at is a 2005 or newer model, you likely won’t need to worry about this. For older bikes that don’t have fuel injection, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how the bike runs with and without the choke engaged.

The choke should only be needed for starting and running for the first minute or so unless you’re dealing with fairly cold weather. Check for any coughing when you crack the throttle to rev it – this can indicate that the carb needs to be tuned (or even rebuilt).

Check inside gas cap

Check inside the fuel cap

There are a few things you might find by popping the fuel cap off. Any signs of rust or grime might indicate that the bike has been sitting for a long time and if that’s the case, the tank might need to be cleaned out.

You also might notice tape lines in this area which would indicate that the gas tank has been repainted at some point in its life.

Check tire condition

Check the condition of the tires

A motorcycle’s tires are literally the only point of contact you have with the ground. So to say they’re important is an understatement! Take a good look at them for any wear or damage.

Look at the tread depth and take note of how they’re wearing. Is there a stripe up the center? That means the bike doesn’t get leaned over very much in the corners and is likely ridden pretty gently.

Make sure there aren’t any bubbles or cuts in the sidewalls and look for any weather cracking here and in between the tread.

You might also want to check the air pressure. Of course, this isn’t a problem to fix even if they’re low – but underinflated tires can give you an idea of how strictly the owner was maintaining other aspects of the bike.

Checking tire pressure is one of the easiest things to do – if they haven’t been staying on top of it, what else have they been neglecting?

Check fork seals

Check fork seals

The stanchions of the front fork should be relatively dry to the touch. If they feel greasy, that would indicate that the seals are leaking and might need to be replaced soon. A black ring around them is an even more obvious sign of worn-out seals.

While fork seals are considered a regular wear item, it’s worth noting that bikes that do a lot of wheelies tend to go through them a lot more often.

Check drive belt condition

Check the drive belt

The belt on Harleys is known to be pretty robust but it’s still worth a look. Replacing one requires a bit of labor so you probably don’t want to be on the hook for it in the event that your new bike needs one right away. Check for obvious signs of wear and cracking.

Check for bent handlebars

Check for bent handlebars

This can be one of the signs that a bike has been dropped but I chose to list this separately as there is another reason that could cause bent handlebars.

The handlebar risers are attached to the triple tree with a pair of bushings. These bushings can wear out over time so that can cause the bars to appear slightly bent. Good news! This doesn’t necessarily mean the bike has been dropped.

If the bushings are worn out, they’re really cheap and easy to replace. Upgrading to poly urethane ones can improve the steering feel as well.

Check battery area

Check the battery and wiring

If possible, pop the seat off and take a look at the condition of the battery and the wiring surrounding it. Make sure the battery isn’t covered in acid and there isn’t any exposed or shoddy wiring. This can be a common area that people tap into when adding accessories.

Other Things To Consider When Buying A Used Harley

There are a few other things to keep in mind aside from just the mechanical and cosmetic condition of a used Harley.

Study the Market for Used Harley Davidsons in Your Area

It’s important to study the local market to understand the average prices and resale values of similar bikes. This will help you make an informed decision and ensure that you’re getting the best deal possible.

To begin comparing prices, browse through various online platforms, like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, HD-related forums, and Autotrader.

Make sure to take note of the following factors when comparing prices:

  • Year and model of the motorcycle
  • Mileage
  • Condition (mechanical and cosmetic)
  • Any modifications or additional features

By collecting this information, you can get a good idea of the price range for the specific used Harley Davidson you’re interested in.

Mileage VS Maintenance: Why Both Are Important

Mileage plays a significant role in determining the condition and value of a used Harley. Remember, lower-mileage bikes generally have less wear and tear, but consistent maintenance and care are equally important in a motorcycle’s long-term performance.

A high-mileage bike that has been well-maintained might actually be a better buy than a low-mileage one that’s been neglected. Despite that, the lower mileage Harleys will almost always command a premium price in the used market. This can be a great opportunity if all you care about is whether a bike is in good condition, and less about the magical number on the odometer.

Of course, the combination of a low-mileage Harley that has been perfectly maintained is the best possible scenario. If that’s not in the cards though, I would argue that a bike with a great service history is a better buy than one that has been sitting collecting dust.

Harley Davidson Twin Cam 88 motor

Don’t hesitate to ask for maintenance records and pay close attention to the details.

Start by looking at the service records to ensure the motorcycle has been regularly serviced according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. This includes oil changes, brake fluid replacement, and other necessary maintenance tasks. Regular servicing not only extends the life of the motorcycle but also indicates that the previous owner took good care of it.

Additionally, pay attention to any recurring issues or repairs made to the motorcycle. This information can give you insights into potential problems you may encounter during your ownership.

Have they had to replace the battery more often than usual? That could indicate a draw somewhere in the wiring, or the owner is letting it sit for too long without using a battery tender. Do they go through tires a lot? That’s a sign that they’re riding it hard.

Do your best to paint a picture of how this bike has been ridden and maintained before you agree to purchase it.

Modifications Done To The Bike

Upgrades can improve a bike’s performance and appearance, but improper installation or mismatched components could lead to safety issues or unexpected costs. It is necessary to be aware of these details, as they may impact the price and usability of your Harley.

Everyone’s taste is different. The previous owner of my bike probably loved the “Skeleton finger” mirrors he put on it. For me, that was an extra expense that I would need to remedy right away.

In some cases, a popular modification like an exhaust or better tires might increase the value of the bike to most buyers. In contrast, there are a lot of people out there who prefer to start with a clean slate before making a bike their own.

Make sure you pay close attention to what components are original and aftermarket before deciding if the bike is for you and how much to pay for it.

Final Word:

Remember that when buying a used Harley Davidson, it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the bike’s condition, the way the owner has treated it, and the fair market value.

Take your time and consider your decision carefully. If anyone tries to rush you, that can be a sign that something fishy is going on. For many people, the price of even a used Harley Davidson is a big chunk of hard-earned money.

By inspecting the bike you purchase carefully, you’ll have much less of a chance of ending up with a money pit.

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