For many, owning a piano is a dream that’s far out of reach. With piano costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, it can seem an insurmountable endeavor. However, there is a booming second hand market for pianos. Buying a used piano can be a smart choice, but it also comes with its challenges. And this is where many people, cleverly, turn to in their search for an instrument. Here though you will encounter an equally daunting obstacle. How can you be sure you are making a good investment? We will discuss some of the red flags and pitfalls of shopping for a used piano in this post.
Where To Begin Buying a Used Piano?
So you’d like to buy a used piano. Where to begin? Used pianos abound on Facebook Marketplaces, in store showrooms and in people’s homes. Which route should you take? It is hard to say that any of these paths will lead you to a quality purchase. Don’t despair, because it is possible to find a gem at an amazing price, but they are rare and look hard you must.
The best possible scenario would be to find a person, who (due to their personal circumstances) needs to move and cannot take their perfectly good instrument with them. This person will be pressed for time and will have to let go of the piano at a great discount. But beware, for every seller with a superb instrument, you will encounter 10 with garbage pianos. It is important to evaluate the offering before agreeing to the purchase.
The least likely way to find a good piano is on Facebook Marketplace (or Craig’s List or similar). These online marketplaces are full of scams and unverified products. The sellers will try to manipulate you into making a decision without physically seeing the instrument – never agree to that.
That leaves us with brick and mortar showrooms. While in no way a guarantee of quality, at a minimum you can come in and play the piano in question. Ideally though, we recommend getting your instrument evaluated by a third party technician (not affiliated with the store) before purchasing. Remember that stores make money on the mark up, so you are intrinsically paying more than it is worth. They may have “restored” the piano, but it is unlikely they did the best they could. Always, always, always check the instrument before buying and enlist the help of a professional.
Check Key Information
There are 4 pieces of information that will tell you a lot about an instrument right off the bat. They are:
- Serial Number
- and Age (although you can and should double-check the age using the above 3 data points)
Knowing the brand of a piano will communicate the original quality of the parts and mechanism. Certain brands, such as Steinway & Sons, Bosendorfer, etc speak of high quality. There are mid-tier brands and lower range brands. Knowing the brand will help you set expectations for a price range as well as performance.
Model and Serial Number can be used to look up an exact piano age as well as other specifications. Certain models are known for their performance or special sound, while others have an unreliable reputation.
Piano age is a number that is simple to understand for all and will be most informative immediately. Except for the best constructed instruments, you do not want to acquire a piano that is much older than 50 years old. For run of the mill instruments, you would do best to stay below 40, allowing you at least 10-15 years of good performance. There are exceptions to this, and some amazing family relics can continue to perform beyond 100 years with proper maintenance and care. Do not assume you have found this rare creature unless vouched for by a professional.
Inquire About the History
Having obtained hard data (the 4 pieces above), it’s a good idea to learn the piano’s story. Note that you are not guaranteed to get truthful answers to these questions, nor may the seller know the answer (if they are a store selling somebody’s piano). But it’s worth asking the following:
- How was the piano primarily used and how often?
- Where was it housed?
- What were the climate conditions in this location (especially humidity and temperature fluctuations)?
- How (and how often) was it maintained (including tuning, repairs, etc)?
- Did the instrument spend any amount of time in a storage facility?
- When was the last time it was evaluated by a technician?
- Has it been rebuilt or restored, and if yes how long ago?
- Has it been refinished?
- Why is it being sold?
These questions may shed some light on the instrument’s previous life and fill in some of the blanks in your expectations of its conditions. Knowing who used it and how often will give you an idea of how carefully or roughly its owners may have treated the instrument. Think of a music enthusiast vs a family with young children. The housing conditions will tell you how exposed the piano has been to the elements. String instruments react badly to humidity fluctuations. Learning that a piano spent time in a storage facility is a big red flag. Not only were climate conditions likely adverse, but it’s possible the instrument acquired an infestation of critters to boot. Information about piano restorations and past rebuilds is two-sided. On one hand, you know the instrument has already been in need of major repairs, which does not bode well for the future. On the other hand, it may have gotten a fresh start if the job was done well.
Get a Professional Opinion
By now you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed, and trust me we haven’t even begun to scratch the top of the iceberg. It’s no wonder that making a piano purchase decision can be involved. These are complex instruments with over 12,000 moving parts and rich histories. Just like you wouldn’t make an important health decision without consulting a medical expert, we recommend enlisting the help of an independent best piano technician for this important decision.
A piano technician will not only tell you if the instrument is in good working condition, but can advise you on the value you are getting. They can propose necessary repairs and help you decide whether you’d like to purchase an instrument in slightly worse condition and invest in repairs or restoration, or if the endeavor is not worth your time and money. Most importantly they will help you get peace of mind and stop second-guessing your purchase decision.
Whichever path you end up taking, wherever you believe you may have found a gem of an instrument, invite an outside piano professional to evaluate the purchase before you commit. While it may cost you a couple hundred bucks to get a professional evaluation, it will cost you a lot more money and stress to get stuck with a useless piano. Just the cost of moving an instrument (in or out of your house) is well above $500. But once it’s in your hands, repairing an ancient pile of wood chips may cost many thousands and still never reach the desired condition.
Pianos are magnificent works of art and can bring much joy and beauty to your life. Finding the right instrument can serve you for years and even generations. The amazing technicians at Art & Technology piano tuning can help you make the best choice for your situation. Happy playing!