Piano buying tips
Piano buying info and advice for new, Used and digital pianos
See Piano selling tips below
If you are shopping for a player who will always have and play a piano: BUY THE BEST PIANO YOU CAN AFFORD. Good quality pianos hold their value very well and give pleasure for a lifetime…or more. If you are buying a piano for a new student, you need the basics…piano keys that play efficiently, a well functioning damper pedal (right pedal), even tone, and no extraneous noises. Good tone costs money…usually thousands of dollars. Even many new pianos don’t have very good tone. So for a first time piano student, you may want to concentrate on the basics and postpone the purchase of a sweet sounding instrument until later.
So, to get started…
1: Try as many pianos as you can. If you have an experienced pianist to test them, all the better. Ask to be left alone so you can get a good feel for the instrument without distraction.
2: Cruise the piano stores to get a feel for many different pianos. And check the classifieds. Google “Madison Craigslist” and go to the musical instruments category. This is a fast growing resource.
3: If you find a piano you like for sale by a private owner, you need to arrange a piano inspection by an experienced tuner/technician. This will avoid the worst piano disasters… i.e. a piano that won’t hold a tuning, that has major structural problems, that has a badly cracked soundboard or bridge, or has old disintegrating plastic parts…just to name a few. At the same time, the technician can estimate the cost of any needed repairs as well as the piano’s value. Private sellers themselves are often ill-informed regarding their piano’s condition or worth, and appreciate being educated. My cost for this service is normally the same as a tuning (see Rates). It is common for a buyer to offer a small deposit to the seller (contingent on a clean inspection) to hold the piano for a short time.
Piano dealers are of course your source for new pianos and used pianos
as well. You can expect to pay more for
used pianos from a store, but you will often get much in return: usually free moving (a cost that could
normally run from $200 to $400 for a local move), usually in-home tuning, and
often some warranty. You can expect
honest information from
Beware of: Pianos stored in damp basements (or garages!!!), pianos stored in front of heaters or registers, pianos that are outrageously out of tune(might not hold a tuning), and pianos with obviously missing parts (piano parts are still readily available for pianos, even 100 year old pianos, but replacing parts is more expensive than simply adjusting them). Also spinet pianos (normally 36-39” high) often present more challenges and costs for simple repairs. Many piano movers refuse to, or charge a lot to, move bigger instruments out of basements or up/down stairways with tight turns. You can call a piano mover to get a quote in advance (piano stores usually do outside moves and have the experience to do efficient work).
Can I move a piano myself? Grands…no, teardown and setup is too complicated. Vertical pianos…maybe, but keep in mind those old uprights can weigh 500-600 pounds. This can be dangerous work!...especially on stairs and up loading ramps. People who do it have the best success with trailers that are low to the ground. Pickup truck beds are very high off the ground. Do not roll the piano on its own casters. Use a piano dolly. A simple 4-wheeled frame and more elaborate piano dollies are available at truck rental companies.
Should I buy new or used?
You can save money buying a used piano from a private source, but you are going to have to do a little more work. You will have to spend more time locating a good prospect. You will have to arrange a piano inspection by an experienced technician (see above). And you will have to arrange to move the piano and have it tuned after the move. You will not get a warranty, but pianos do not wear like automobiles (that’s why they last 100 years!) Having had a thorough inspection done, major surprises are not likely. Having the inspection should insure that you are paying a fair price. If you have paid a fair price for a used privately owned piano today, you can generally expect to resell it close to that price in the near future. Buying a new or used piano from a store, on the other hand, will usually result in initial depreciation. In either case, better quality pianos hold their value better than poorer quality ones do.
My opinion: I would rather own a good quality used piano than a so-so new one. For this reason and the ones already stated, I advise my customers to avoid buying low end pianos new. What is a low end piano? Simply put: If it’s cheap, it’s low end…even with a high gloss mirror finish.
Shopping for new or used pianos in a store is easier and more fun. You can move from bench to bench and compare pianos quickly. Again, after the initial sales pitch, ask your sales person to give you plenty of time on your own to get a good sense of an instrument without distraction. Instantly eliminate pianos that are “out of your league”. You will develop ear fatigue trying to compare so many pianos. Narrow it down to 2 or 3. Take a break and compare again.
I confess, one advantage of buying a new piano, even a cheap one, is that it will often end up in a nicer part of the home…not relegated to a back bedroom or basement. A bright, cheerful location does add to motivation for most musicians. An old “antiqued” olive green upright may never see daylight.
What type of piano should I buy…grand, upright, console, spinet?
Grand Pianos: Grands range in length from 4’6” to 9’. The general public tends to describe grands under 6’ as baby grands…but this is not a technical term. Grands used in a concert venue tend to be in the 9” range. Grand pianos have a natural design advantage over verticals. Their sound is projected more directly in the room giving a bigger sound with more presence. The grand action offers the potential for superior touch as well.
But grands found in most homes are often in the smaller size range and this is where shortcomings appear.
Grands in the 5’ range actually have shorter bass strings than many upright pianos…some approximately the size of a console. This creates a substantial loss in the deep bass sound range. Extremely small grands sacrifice touch as well due to their shortened key length. You will notice that the better quality piano companies do not even manufacture grands in these smallest sizes.
Spinet Pianos: The demand for more compact pianos since World War II boosted the popularity of all small vertical pianos. The spinets are the smallest of this type, usually 36-39” high. Spinets tend to be disliked by piano technicians for three reasons: First: The piano action is lowered below key height to achieve this 36” size making access for normal repairs very difficult. A two minute repair on any other vertical can be an hour long ordeal on a spinet. Second: The super short bass strings have a poor muddy tone…some of the lowest strings barely have a recognizable pitch. (Note: In spite of this, I still find old Acrosonic, Wurlitzer, and other old spinets that do have a nice bell-like tone in the middle and upper registers.) Third: Some old spinet models have parts called “elbows” which were sometimes made of plastic…plastic that today breaks with the least key blow. The result is endless frustration and expense for the owner. This is another excellent reason to have a professional piano inspection done.
You can find an old spinet for sale for under $600 and it may serve well as a student instrument. Just be prepared for the possibility of steeper repair costs.
Consoles, Studies and Uprights: These pianos are listed from shortest to tallest. Note that there is very little difference in the actual floor space occupied by any of these vertical pianos (spinets included). Any 88 key piano will measure 48” from the lowest A to the highest C, so the amount of cabinetry surrounding the keyboard will be the main variable in floor space consumed. As grands tend to improve in tone and touch with length, verticals tend to improve with height. Therefore, all other quality issues being equal, the taller the piano the better.
Old Uprights: In the early 1900’s, the piano industry rivaled the auto industry. The “big old upright” ruled. Even the lesser priced of these old beauties with their fancy wood cabinetry were manufactured to higher standards than many of those made since World War II. That is why they are still found in abundance a century later. Unfortunately, today they are getting long in the tooth. Higher maintenance costs are to be expected…higher moving costs too. Even so, many musicians who do not have the space for a grand, still prefer the deep tone and improved touch of an upright and are willing to put up with the added maintenance issues.
When buying a piano that is 100 years old, so much depends on where it has been stored and how it has been treated. I see one-owner uprights that are in really fine condition. They can be very satisfying to work on and to play. Others may be beyond all reasonable hope. Once again, the professional inspection before purchase is the key! Expect an asking price between “free-you haul” to $500 for privately sold old uprights that have not had major improvements made.
Can I buy a digital piano for my new student?
Observations from a guy who makes no money servicing digital pianos:
Digital pianos and keyboards have advantages…portability, the ability to use headphones, sometimes playback, rhythm and recording features…and you do not have to pay for piano tuning.
The problem is: Only the best most expensive digitals with decent key weighting and touch sensitivity can come close to remotely duplicating the “feel” of an acoustic piano. So what you have is an expensive electronic appliance that will depreciate like an electronic appliance. In 2, 5, 10 or 25 years, will you be able to replace a broken “X34rZ7 module”? Will there be a technician to fix it? What will it be worth in just 5 years? Will this actually be saving money?
Also, you will find all those exotic sounds coming from that showroom keyboard…the banjo, the sitar, the jet whoosh, the barking dog…all make for instant fun. But when it comes to actual music making, they become very tiresome in short order. Your student will tend to gravitate to the actual piano sounds.
My recommendation: If your student is interested, take advantage of the best features of a digital piano/keyboard. Buy an inexpensive keyboard as a second fun instrument, not as an acoustic piano replacement.
Piano selling tips
Piano selling info, piano pricing, writing piano ads, piano inspection
You have various options in selling a piano. You can advertise and sell it yourself, you may find a store to sell the piano for you on consignment or you can trade it in on the purchase of another piano. Trading the piano in is quick and easy but you can expect to realize only a wholesale price. Stores that accept consignments will take a percentage of your sale price. However, being a respectable establishment, they may be able to achieve a higher price than you could selling it yourself. Stores will probably not be interested in consigning old uprights or pianos with major problems.
An important commercial announcement… Before reviewing the selling steps
below, keep this in mind: Having a
tuning /inspection done prior to sale, by myself or by any other
experienced technicians, offers many advantages: 1.
Puts your piano in a much more sellable condition 2.
Helps you determine your piano’s age, model and condition 3.
Gives you an accurate valuation of your piano 4.
Gives you ideas as to the important selling points of your piano 5.
Adds confidence to buyers knowing a professional has serviced and
inspected your piano 6.
Educates you and potentially the buyer regarding any expected costs
of tuning, repairs, moving etc. Remember,
there is no charge for an inspection if a tuning is done.
An important commercial announcement…
Before reviewing the selling steps below, keep this in mind: Having a tuning /inspection done prior to sale, by myself or by any other experienced technicians, offers many advantages:
1. Puts your piano in a much more sellable condition
2. Helps you determine your piano’s age, model and condition
3. Gives you an accurate valuation of your piano
4. Gives you ideas as to the important selling points of your piano
5. Adds confidence to buyers knowing a professional has serviced and inspected your piano
6. Educates you and potentially the buyer regarding any expected costs of tuning, repairs, moving etc.
Remember, there is no charge for an inspection if a tuning is done.
Steps to selling your own piano:
1. Gather the facts. If you bought it new, collect the paper work and any warranty information. If you do not know much about the piano’s vintage, features or history, start with the serial number…usually 5-7 digits found under the lid of most pianos stamped or printed in a “window” in the gold metal plate. Piano technicians can determine the piano’s age with this serial number or you can do a search on the internet yourself. Collect any receipts for servicing that has been done on the piano. Get the brand from the fallboard or from under the lid and measure the length (grand) or height (vertical). What is the cabinet style? What is the finish…ebony, walnut, mahogany…gloss, satin? Can you describe any positive characteristics? Beautiful tone, responsive touch, etc.
2. Establish a price. This is difficult without professional advice. For newer instruments, the piano stores that sell your brand may be helpful. The internet may have some good general information about depreciation ratios. Unfortunately, there is no “blue book” for pianos as there is for cars. Since there are so many hundreds of piano brands and such a long history of manufacture, it is not surprising that such a book would be impossible to create. You can try to go to an online source like “Craigslist” to find the selling prices of pianos comparable to yours.
3. Tune and repair. An uneducated buyer may not be able to differentiate between an out of tune piano and a “broken” piano. Likewise, he or she may think a sticky key is a great concern. If your piano has not been tuned recently or has obvious defects, a tuning/inspection could prevent a lost sale.
4. Create an informative ad heavy with adjectives. Here is an example: “Yamaha Baby Grand –model G2, 5’ 7” with Bench. Satin walnut finish, like new condition. Excellent tone and touch. A wonderful musician’s instrument! $0000.” Avoid negatives like “needs to be tuned” or “you haul”. It is customary for the buyer to be responsible for tuning and moving anyway.
5. Advertise. Local classifieds are great. “Craigslist” is wonderful for internet users. You can run tons of descriptive copy, several photos and run the ad forever…all for free. Local school and church bulletin boards are also a good source.
6. Be patient. Big ticket items can take time to sell. And interested buyers may want to come back for a second or third showing to have others inspect the piano. (A request that all interested players attend the second showing will normally head off the need for a third showing.)
Other quick tips: Know ahead of time what a piano move might cost. Do not accept a verbal hold on your piano sale…require a cash deposit. Show the piano to only one buyer at a time. Even if you have a piano that you are willing to give away, it may be perceived as junk if you do not ask something for it. You can always give the price back later to help defer moving expenses.
For answers to other questions, please see the contact page of brownpianotuning.com