Should You Buy a New or Used Piano?

Many people decide to buy an instrument after renting for a while or after deciding that an electronic instrument is no longer appropriate. Other folks elect to begin study with a real piano.

Having decided to buy a piano, the next question is whether to buy a new one or a used one.

This is such a personal decision! It's a lot like buying stereo speakers!

Cost

The bottom line of a piano purchase usually is cost. Most used pianos are less expensive than most new ones.

What's involved in setting the price for a piano?

When you go shopping for a new instrument, you will find many pianos with incredibly beautiful cases! The finish is so glossy it's like a mirror! Wow! (Reality check: Think about rubbing away smudges on a constant basis.)

The mystery to solve is whether the inside of this fantastic-looking piano is as nice as the outside. Usually it isn't if the price seems "reasonable."

You pay for what you get - - and what you want, musically, is a good action. What you want aesthetically is a personal decision. It will be sitting in your home, after all!

A New Piano

A new piano has all the benefits of a new item of any kind. It has not been used, however "gently." It has a full warranty. The casework should be in perfect condition.

A Used Piano

A used piano usually doesn't have a warranty, although some dealers will give a limited and short-time warranty. If you buy from a private party, consider the piano "as is."

There may be extra repair and maintenance costs with a used instrument, especially one that is being sold to "clear the decks" by a private party. Suppose the child of the house quit lessons. Do you think the parents will continue to pay to maintain the piano in tip-top shape until they sell it? (I have an excellent bridge I'd like to sell you!)

The casework of a used piano probably will have some dents and scratches. Is this a problem? How much would it cost to have the damage repaired?

If you find a used piano with wonderful action, its casework might not match your décor. Is this a deal-breaker for you?

If you find a used piano with good action and a seductive price, how much would it cost you to have the case refinished? (Also ask yourself how the case got to be so forlorn, yet the insides are still ok? Really ok?) How long would case refinishing take? Figure about $500 per foot (for a grand piano); probably about $3000 minimum. Use a real piano refinisher, not a furniture refinisher. (Horror stories abound about furniture refinishers and do-it-yourselfers who varnished the soundboard "to make it look prettier.") Ask a tech for a referral.

Are delivery charges to and from included the refinisher? Do you have to arrange pick-up and delivery yourself?

With -any- used piano, whether from a dealer or a private party, I -most strongly- advise you to pay a registered piano technician to look over the instrument. This will cost you $50-$100. Not only can the tech advise you of any worn parts that will need repair immediately or x years down the road, but she can advise you whether the price asked is too high, reasonable, or a real bargain.

Those who wish an antique will need to buy a used instrument.

Those who wish a certain brand of instrument but cannot afford a new one will be able to purchase an older one for less. Pianos are like cars; their value plummets as soon as they leave the showroom.

Piano Being Sold by Colleges and Universities

This is a recent phenomenon. Colleges sell instruments used in practice rooms or in their concert halls, usually in preparation for buying new instruments (in order to use the money to keep the line item in the college's budget). You can get a good deal, or you can get skinned.

As a general rule, pianos from practice rooms receive heavy use and often not a lot of care from the students who use them. (Sure! Lay this horn case with its protruding tacks on the top of the piano?)

Instruments from the concert rooms usually fare better because someone who cares keeps track of what's going on with the piano, often the piano is covered, and just anyone is not able to stroll in and use the concert piano.

Any Piano

Whether it's new or used, the piano will have to be tuned when it arrives at your home. You should let it "settle" a week or two; usually it will take you that long to get an appointment with a tech.

A dealer may include an initial tuning in the purchase price, whether the instrument is new or used. How much would a tech charge you? Ask the dealer the cost of the tuning and who will do it. It may be better for you to subtract that amount from the purchase price and substitute your own maintenance.

We would expect a new piano to be in "perfect working order" on the showroom floor, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the factory takes a shortcut (which results in a lower price to the dealer, and, we hope, the customer) by omitting regulation, voicing, and other fine adjustments. Ask whether this piano has been regulated and voiced, when, and by whom.

How can you tell for sure you're getting the truth about a piano? You call in a registered piano technician for an independent survey.

The dealer probably will not like this. Before you sign the purchase contract, after all the finances are worked out and you have pen in hand, tell the dealer you will have your tech come in and take a look. If this cancels the deal, you know you are losing something you would rather not have had. (The dealer may tell you the in-house tech will inspect the piano, but this is not a substitute for an unbiased opinion. Besides, you don't know the real credentials of this person and whether there is a scratch-my-back situation at work.)

Similarly, if the dealer implies or states outright that someone else is interested in this piano and that you should close the deal or risk losing the instrument, walk. Don't be pressured. If the dealer had another buyer, do you think he'd wait around and let you make an offer on the piano?!

A new piano is a -large- expenditure. You usually could buy a car for the same money!

Don't purchase a piano without outside confirmation that the instrument is worth what is being asked.

Contact your tech in advance so he knows that you will be calling with this request. Don't make the purchasing decision and then call a tech for an appointment. It might be several weeks before he can fit you in the schedule, especially if you're just somebody out of the blue! If you are presently taking lessons, speak with your teacher about his tech. The teacher can pave the way for you by contacting the tech and telling her that you would like to engage her to look over an instrument you are considering.

Sound

How does the piano sound? This is where the stereo speaker analogy comes in. Some pianos have a bright treble. Some a booming bass. Some have both. What do you like? What kind of literature do you like (and therefore will be playing a lot of)?

In what room will the piano be placed? Does the room have hardwood floors with no (or small) rugs? Is the room heavily draped and furnished with overstuffed sofas and chairs? The home environment impacts brightness. An instrument with a bright treble in the showroom may be too bright (to the point of tinny shrillness) in a room with very little upholstery, drapery, and carpet to absorb sound.

Play the instrument, using the literature you like best. Play the same piece on a number of instruments. Lid-up on all of them, so it's apples-to-apples.

If the musician is a child, ask the dealer to perform some of the child's pieces on each instrument you are considering. Naturally, you'll want your child to play, too, but if the child plays all the songs on all the instruments before you, you'll be there all day! Therefore, let the child play a couple of songs on one or two instruments, and then let the dealer take over so you can listen carefully to the sound when the performer is "neutral."

Size

Don't disregard size! You don't want the piano to arrive and not fit where you planned it to go! Get the rough dimensions of the piano(s) you are looking at, and make a life-sized template from newspaper. Move furniture around and see how best to position your new toy! (Make the grand a plain rectangle, unless you particularly want to cut out the bentside.) A grand takes more room than an upright, but those who purchase grands anyway decide that the improved tone is more than a fair trade-off.

Just because the piano is a grand, though, doesn't mean its tone is superior to all uprights! Excellent uprights are head and shoulders (tone, action, etc.) above mediocre grands.

A "parlor grand" is usually not as good a choice as a good-quality upright because size of the parlor grand virtually precludes a rich sound.

"Old Klunkers"

Many times people give serious consideration to buying what is called "an old klunker." This is a piano that looks pretty awful on the outside (damage to the case, broken or cracked key surfaces, etc.) and most certainly is out of tune when first viewed. Naturally, an old klunker is much cheaper than a piano that looks better, even if the more attractive one is also out of tune.

The main problem with old klunkers is that the insides are in just as wretched a condition as the outsides.

Therefore, an old klunker may cost so much to repair that it is not cost effective for you to buy it.

And certainly after you have it, if you decide to unload it (even after some investment in repairing it), it will be difficult for you to get your initial purchase price out of it, let alone the money you've put into it trying to get it into playable condition. Do not expect much on a trade in from a piano dealer. The dealer will not be able even to rent it out, and it's highly unlikely that any parts will be useable enough for the dealer to tear it down for parts. Don't be surprised at all if the dealer refuses to take it in trade-in. Then you will have to pay to have it carted off.

From a student's point of view, playing on an old klunker is an exercise in frustration. Some of the keys don't sound. Some of the notes dip a different amount than others. Some of the keys are cracked. Some keys stick. The pedals work sporadically. In sum, this piano is unsafe at any speed! Parents reason that they don't know if their child will "like" piano study and thus do not want to invest in an expensive instrument until they have a feel for the child's interest.

This is false economy! They're going to pay for lessons, take time from other activities to get the child to the lessons and help at home, and, with a klunker, they're going to give the child an instrument to learn on that is guaranteed to make the child angry and upset! A beginner doesn't even know which end of the piano to blow into; such a child is lightyears away from having the patience to sit at the instrument and learn how to work around its idiosyncracies! An old klunker is -not- a good choice for a beginner! Rent, instead.

In the final analysis, I'd advise that you stay away from an old klunker. If you do find an "ugly duckling" that you think may have a decent action, get a registered tech in to take a look at it before you get out your checkbook. If in doubt, sleep on the decision.

Other Sources of Information

You may be interested in my file where I make an attempt to rate piano brands. Please keep in mind that these are my opinions only, based on my observations. The quality of piano manufacturing goes up and down, and sometimes pianos from the same company are quite different in quality depending on the year they were made. (Perhaps the company was bought by another. Perhaps the company started using better parts.)

I most highly recommend Larry Fine's The Piano Book (Brookstone Press, 800-545-2022). It has frank (and often unflattering!) reviews of almost every piano on the market today, including very detailed information on how to buy a piano, new or used, how to "read" salespeople, etc.

As of 1999, the book is in its 3rd edition and costs about $20. Fine issues supplements, and these cost about $15 (about $12 if ordered with the book).

Also see Tipbook Piano, another helpful guidebook. This one also includes how to buy a piano, what makes a good piano, and so forth. A valuable chapter is how to "play test" a piano, with suggestions for those who don't play yet. Also information on piano care, parts of the piano, and so on. No brand-specific information, however, there is a brief description of the major piano companies, including the peripatetic manufacturers (for example: which brands used to be made in the US and now are made elsewhere) and pianos from lesser-known piano-manufacturing countries. The distributor is Hal Leonard.

Consulting both these books will give you a good idea where you should be looking for the instrument to meet your particular needs.

In a Nutshell

In the end, you should buy the best piano you can stretch to afford, whether it's new or used. And have a tech check it out before you sign the check.

copyright 1999-2003, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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