How to Shop For a Used Piano

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You have probably already started your search online and found a huge range of pianos for sale. Some are tens of thousands of dollars. Some are only a few hundred. And then there are those free pianos on Craigslist… How are you supposed to choose one?

Of course there are many factors to consider, including the skill level and goals of the person who will be playing the instrument, but usually this question is asked of me by the parents of beginner students in my studio. These parents recognize the limitations of a keyboard and want to give their child the best start possible, but may not have the means or inclination to invest several thousand dollars in a top of the line piano that no one in their household knows how to play yet!

I am not a piano technician and am by no means an expert on the mechanical and structural intricacies of the instrument, but I’ve had the opportunity to help a number of families make their first piano purchases and this is the advice I share.

Budget

I think $1,000-1,500 is a perfectly adequate budget for a first piano. Would a beginning student benefit from a more expensive instrument? Probably, and if you are in a position to spend more you may invest in an instrument that will last longer, but I also understand the reality that most people do not have unlimited resources. A dedicated student may outgrow this piano in a few years and need an upgrade, but this is a good start.

If $1,000 is a stretch for your budget, you may consider renting a piano or postponing starting lessons for 6-12 months and save the money you would be spending on tuition in a piano fund.

Other Expenses to Consider

In addition to the cost of the piano itself, there are some additional expenses you should have on your radar.

  • Moving – Pianos are heavy! It’s certainly possible to move a piano yourself (and by “yourself” I mean “you and three or more very strong friends who are all willing to risk throwing out their backs for you!”), but I have decided paying movers is money well spent. The cost of moving depends on the size of the instrument, the distance between locations, how many stairs must be climbed, etc. Before looking at a piano from a private seller, you may want to call your local piano mover to get a quote.
  • Tuning – A piano will need to be tuned after it has been moved to its new home and, if its previous owners did not maintain it, it will likely need two tunings within the first couple of months to get it back in shape. You can expect to spend $100-150 for each tuning. For ongoing maintenance, be prepared to have the piano tuned annually and more often if the piano is exposed to significant fluctuations in humidity. Sometimes new piano owners try to save a few bucks by not having the piano tuned, but this is not good for the piano or for the student. There are plenty of pedagogical reasons for keeping a piano tuned, but at the end of the day, out of tune pianos just sound bad! Who wants to play (or listen to!) and instrument like that? 😉
  • Repairs – Broken strings and hammers or worn out felt are not necessarily deal breakers when piano shopping, but the cost of repairs on a poorly-maintained instrument can quickly add up. If you are considering a piano that obviously needs repairs, you may want to consult a piano technician first.

Note: Piano dealers often include free delivery, free hauling away of your old piano (if you have one), and a complimentary tuning with the purchase of a piano, so keep this in mind as you compare prices of pianos in a showroom to those being sold by private sellers.

How to Shop for a Piano

Once you’ve set your budget, I suggest your first piano shopping trip be to a used piano dealer. Even if you plan to buy your piano from a private seller, visiting a showroom will give you the opportunity to try a lot of different pianos at different price points and by different manufacturers. If you haven’t played many pianos before, you will be able to hear, feel, and compare a bunch of instruments back to back. It is much easier to distinguish the merits of two pianos when you can go back and forth from one to the other as many times as you need to to determine what you like or don’t like about each. This knowledge and familiarity will give you a frame of reference and better equip you to test pianos being sold by private sellers when you can’t do a direct comparison between different instruments.

How to Test a Piano

When you arrive at the showroom, ask to be shown the entry level pianos. Testing pianos is a lot like shopping for a new mattress. Don’t be timid. Play as many pianos as you can. If you don’t know how to play piano, you may want to invite a pianist friend along for this part. Try one piano, then try the next, then go back to the first again. It might be helpful to take notes on the differences and write down what you liked or didn’t like. Pick your favorite of the two pianos and then try another piano and compare it to the leading piano. Repeat the process for all the pianos in a given price range. Even if you have no intentions of buying one of those pianos, challenge yourself to choose a favorite and be able to articulate why you chose that instrument over the others.

While I would never suggest you purchase a piano that is beyond your financial means, I would encourage you to try the pianos at difference price points so you get a sense of the qualities that determine a piano’s value.

Types of Pianos

In this price range, the pianos you will be looking at will most likely be spinets or consoles. The primary differences between these shorter pianos and full uprights are that they have a different action and their strings are shorter. In theory, the longer the strings the better the tone of the instrument, but of course you’ll have to play the piano to know if this is actually the case.

Qualities of a “Good” Piano

Tone and touch are the primary qualities I consider when evaluating a piano. These are some of the questions I consider for each factor:

  • Tone – How would you describe the sound? Rich? Warm? Bright? Mellow? Dull? Does the sound fill the room? Is the tone consistent from the low notes to the high notes? Tone can be a matter of preference, but you’ll probably want to avoid a piano that sounds tinny or weak. (Keep in mind that the surroundings impact a piano’s sound. A piano in a room with hardwood or tile floors will sound much brighter than the same piano in a room with plush furniture, carpet, and drapes.)
  • Touch – How easy or hard is it to press the keys? (I, personally, prefer a piano with keys that are a little more resistant because I seem to have better control over the intensity of the note I’m playing. On an instrument with a lighter touch, a little slip of the finger can give you a jarringly loud sound.) Are the keys responsive to fast and slow playing? Can you play an acceptable range of dynamics on both the low and high keys?

Visual & Mechanical Inspection

If you are purchasing the piano from a reputable dealer, they have probably already cleaned up the piano, repaired broken strings, hammers, etc. and the piano will be fully functional when you get it home. If you are buying from a private seller, all bets are off. There are a number of visual factors you can look for to see if the piano has any potential issues. Piano technicians have written extensively on this subject, but these links will get your started:

If you want an expert’s assessment on an instrument you are considering, you can find a piano technician in your area through the Piano Technicians Guild. An evaluation will probably cost $100-200, but they will be able to advise you on whether or not the instrument is a worthwhile investment. The evaluation is certainly informative, but for someone on a limited budget looking for an entry-level instrument, an additional $200 in your piano fund is probably more valuable than a technician’s report.

A Word About Brands

I am often asked to recommend good piano brands and, while this is a sensible question, it is harder to answer for the entry-level, used piano market. In general, Yamaha, Baldwin, Kawai, Steinway, Boston, Essex, Young Chang, and Mason & Hamlin, are a few of the many respected piano brands. At a lower price point, however, you may not have the luxury of being so selective. My advice is to search the internet for the brand name (and model number, if you have it) of the piano you are considering and read reviews and opinions on piano technician forums.

And that, my friends, is my advice.

I wish you all the best on your piano search. Have and fun and feel free to reach out with questions!

 

Do you have any tips to share from your piano shopping experiences?

 
 
Featured image by Visitor7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons