Buying a Piano from craigslist

Note: Implicit in this discussion is that the purchase is made from a private party, although there are some companies that sell through craigslist.

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Bottom line (right at the start!): I urge caution in buying a piano from craigslist.

Classified ads in a "regular" newspaper tend to be a little "safer" because the seller had to buy space, but don't bet the farm on it! Classified ads in Pennysaver-type tabloids are somewhere in between.

When you buy a piano from a private party, you might find a gem, but the likelihood is that you will encounter a rattletrap piano ("an old klunker"), probably priced way over what it actually is worth (if anything at all!). Proceed with great caution.

Please remember if you want to play a piano, a cheap one is rarely a good buy - - even if it looks "decent" on the outside.

If you would like to read more about piano brands (and my opinions on which are great, good, poor, and horrible), please see this file. The file also includes a wealth of other information: "store" brands and stencil pianos, piano sizes, "entry level" pianos, what serial numbers can tell you, and much more. There is also discussion there about buying a harpsichord, including a review of the Roland digital harpsichord.

You will note that many of the piano brands I evaluate in that file are American. I do not list American brands out of patriotic preference but because in the hundred-year period between 1820-1920, there was an explosion of piano building in America: about 12,500 (thousand!) different piano brands. Therefore, many pianos in that file will be American.

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A Bit of Piano-Manufacturing History

Pianos began to be manufactured in America a decade or so after the Revolutionary War, although Philadelphian John Behrent might own the distinction of building the first piano in 1775. At any rate, the industry grew quickly, particularly after the War of 1812.

The explosion in piano-building was scarcely interrupted by the Civil War. The economy of the North had been strong throughout the conflict and continued to grow after it. Starting in the Northeast (Boston, upstate New York, and especially New York City), piano manufacturing moved westward through Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio toward Chicago.

About the time it reached the mid-West (ca. 1900), the explosion sparkled to a close, moving westward no farther because the population dropped off sharply beyond Chicago and transportation of materials further west would drive up the price beyond what the economy of the area could bear. For those living in far-flung areas of the U.S., however, help was coming, wearing a white hat. To the traditional shopping expeditions to Chicago or "back East" was added the mail-order catalog.

The first documented mail-order operation was in 1499 in Italy (books), followed by catalogs for seed (England, 1667); saplings were made available, too (U.S., 1771). In what was just another in his string of "firsts," the ever-enterprising Benjamin Franklin offered a catalog in 1744, listing almost 600 books, which he offered "satisfaction guaranteed."

After the Civil War, the population began to move west once more, swelled greatly by the refugee families from the South and unemployed soldiers from both sides of the conflict. For these people, traveling salesmen satisfied - - though barely - - shopping needs.

One of these salesmen was Montgomery Ward. He decided that to reach more people than he could visit single-handedly, he would print some fliers listing some of his most popular items. It was a success. The next flyer emerged as an eight-page pamphlet, and soon the enterprise blossomed into a catalog of several hundred pages, complete with woodcut illustrations. Makers of mail-order piano include: Beckwith, Beethoven, Schmoller & Mueller, and D.F. Beatty.

These companies also sold reed organs (also known as pump organs, melodeons, and, incorrectly in most cases, harmoniums). Picture Great Aunt Bessie pumping away furiously with her feet while the congregation of 20 (raw-boned farmers and cowboys, beside by their stalwart women-folk and fairly-bedraggled children) bellowed praise as best they could.

The fleuressence of American piano firms abated about 1920. The stock market crash of 1929 shook the foundations of the industry, and the Great Recession that followed nearly buried it. After the Second World War, when soldiers came home and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to further their educations, family incomes began to rise. Parents wanted things for their children that they had never had – such as piano lessons. Venerable piano brands reappeared, but nearly always made in a much poorer fashion in order to put them within reach of the average family. The recovery of the Asian economy, Japan in particular, helped fuel the return of piano manufacturing, again at attractive price points. Meanwhile, in Europe, some of the most revered companies staunchly held on through World Wars I and II, while others were forced to close, either because of the lagging European economy or the loss of facilities to wartime devastation.

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The following is excised from the aforementioned file on piano brands but expanded. I recommend that you read it, too.

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Sellers and Pricing

Almost always, sellers on craigslist are private parties and the pianos they look to sell are "elderly." Almost-uniformly, pianos on craigslist are "warhorses" in need of significant repairs to make them playable. Figure these expenses into the price.

These private parties usually have no idea what the piano is worth. Many of these instruments have sentimental value, so the seller prices it "appropriately." To them, the piano is worth a great deal. For example, a seller might price a "family treasure" at $1000-$2000 (2015), when, in fact, it is worth less than $100-$150 (not counting the repairs that will be necessary).

If it's not a "family treasure," it might be someone's "childhood piano". It could have been a bequest that had to be accepted. Perhaps it was a "rescue" from a school or church. It could be a piano the seller was "guilted" in to taking in order to keep it from the junk yard. Maybe it was left by a previous tenant. Or, it might have sat in someone's basement and been forgotten until space was needed for something else. It could be a piano the seller bought and then decided to buy something better after discovering the instrument was not what he hoped it would be.

The seller probably isn't trying to trick or fleece you, but you won't be getting a very good instrument. In fact, it might be a pretty darned poor instrument!

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What Does an Old Piano Look Like?

Some indications of a very old piano (1880-1930) include crazed varnish, tarnished gold leaf/gold paint, cracks in the wood of the legs and in other areas, dents and scratches, no bench (for some, you were meant to "pull up a chair" from the dining table), lots of dust in crevices of the piano's exterior, and so on. Pianos of this age tend to be very "tall" (think rinky-tink pianos in saloons in John Wayne movies).

Some very, very old pianos are square! I am virtually certain you will not run across one of these!

The piano-making business was in dire straits during the Depression and WW II, and you are unlikely to run across many instruments made during the '30s and '40s, so let's move along to the 1950s.

What Does a Semi-Old Piano Look Like?

"More recent old pianos" (1950-1980) have their own red flags.

These post-WW II instruments have a "smooth" exterior, as opposed to the time-crazed finish you will find on pianos made before the Great Depression. Such pianos' tells include scuff marks, dents, gouges, and scratches. If you find damage like this, it might indicate that the piano under consideration was not well-cared for. If the outside looks bad, what might the insides be? (The insides of the piano, called the action, are what determine tone and playability.) These pianos are nearly always uprights, but not as tall as pre-Depression instruments. Some of them waist-high; these are called spinets.

In my opinion: almost always, pianos such as these are not good buys.

After the Great Depression, there were many changes in the piano industry. Companies collapsed, changed hands, were bought forcibly, were absorbed by other companies, etc.

Also note that Asian pianos (starting with Japan in 1960) began to enter the American market. This also was a game-changer. Is it any wonder buying a piano is so difficult?

Please read my file regarding piano brands for more information.

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How to Check for Problems

The best way is to take along a pianist! Ask this person to be prepared to play a little bit. The best selections would be the kind that would be played on the piano. Would that be blues? Beethoven? Beer-barrel polkas?

How to Check for Problems if You're a Non-Pianist

If you are not a pianist, do not mention this to the seller! It might weaken your bargaining position.

Here's how you can check for problems - - and look as if you know what you're doing.

With your index finger and taking your time, play each note in sequence (white and black) from one end of the keyboard to the other. Start at the high end of the keyboard. Listen to what you play. Pay special attention to the keys in the "middle" of the keyboard, as those are used most often. Repeat your descending exploration as many times as you need to in order to evaluate the potential problems.

Here is what you are looking for:

There is an excellent video on YouTube by "howardpianoind", and I direct you there. It's titled, "Buying A Used Piano on Craigslist - What to Look For." The gentleman goes into detail about potential problems the soundboard reveals, as well as other structural problems the piano may have. For some of this, you must take off the "kick area" panel from the piano. ("Kick area" is a term I made up; this is the front part of the piano below the keyboard that a child might touch with his toes if he is swinging his legs while sitting on the bench.) If you are uncomfortable taking the piano apart (and the seller might be horrified if you try!), now's the time to call in a tech for a professional evaluation.

Before you call, however, make sure you feel 90% ready to buy the piano without an opinion from a tech. If you are buying a piano on craigslist, the instrument might not be worth paying a tech to inspect.

Of course, you already know that a craigslist seller sells the piano without any warranty. Usually, you will be entirely without recourse if the instrument is other than you thought it to be represented.

Additional Costs

I have mentioned this several times already. Now let's talk specifics.

You will need to have the piano tuned. If the tuning is way off, your tuner will perform what is called a "pitch raise." This is a partial tuning and is necessary because if the strings are pulled completely tight in order to obtain the correct pitch, they could pop under the strain. Popped strings you do not want because there are several things besides the strings that need to be replaced. In a pitch raise, the tuner pulls the strings just a little tighter. Then the piano "rests," and the tuner returns to do a proper tuning. A pitch raise is a separate fee from the tuning fee.

Depending on the condition of the piano, you might need to get the pedals working correctly, replace strings, make repairs to the moveable interior parts of the piano (called the action), hire a woodworker to reinforce weak structural places in the case or fabricate a leg or two, or buy a bench or stool (try a thrift shop, antique store, or (!) craigslist; if there's no joy, try a piano store; or even Amazon).

When you purchase from a private party, it will be your responsibility to get the piano to your home. You'd do well to do some research in advance to find out how much a piano-moving firm will charge you. Add that to the cost of the instrument before negotiating.

Note: You might be able to move the piano yourself if you have a truck, plenty of extra muscle, a lot of tie-down straps and blankets, and a dolly (maybe more than one). I will not pretend to know the details of an amateur piano move! Please search the Web. I do know, however, that many people have done it...carefully!

A craigslist Piano for a Beginner

IMPORTANT - IMPORTANT – IMPORTANT: A bad piano is lethal to a beginner: the pianist must "fight" the instrument's physical shortcomings, in addition to everything else that is required in learning how to play. The beginner will become frustrated and angry. All the joy of playing piano will be leached away, and the entire enterprise will have cost a lot for little gain.

Please don't saddle your beginner with a piano that is difficult to play!

If you can afford only a $500 piano, don't look at craigslist ($500 almost certainly will not buy you a decent piano there, as you have read). Instead rent a piano from a piano store. They will stand by their product. A craigslist piano sells "as is."

See also my file about whether to buy a new piano or a used one. "Used" in this context means a used piano from a piano store.

Bottom Line Again

Very occasionally, you will find a gem that might be worth restoration; for example, a Steinway grand. It's normally the case, however, that if the person has a Steinway grand to sell, it won't be offered on craigslist but through a piano dealer/store!

In general, on craigslist you will not find pianos that are pretty much ready to play.

Proceed carefully and don't be swayed by "someone else is coming by to look at it later this afternoon, so if you want it…."

If you are at all unsure, wait. You are making a sizeable investment.

I use the following to help me evaluate whether I want to buy/do/say/whatever. I has served me well, lo, these many years! Perhaps you have used something similar. If not, you might wish to try mine. I call it the Kick-Me Test.

And a corollary:

With a modicum of research and a big measure of patience, you will find the piano you love!

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copyright 2015, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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