5 things to consider when buying a used piano
Pianos use a complex system comprised of thousands of parts to make music. They are a marvel of engineering, but all that complexity can present a problem to any layperson looking to purchase a quality used instrument. If a piano is reasonably well maintained, however, it can be passed on to multiple generations, and provide decades of enjoyment to music lovers.
In order to find such an instrument at a reasonable price it is important to keep a few things in mind:
1. If possible, hire a piano technician to do an evaluation.
Many technicians charge somewhere in the range of $100 to evaluate a piano. Since a decent used piano might cost thousands of dollars, having an experienced, trustworthy, and impartial technician go over it before you buy it could keep you from spending all that money on a lemon. I fully encourage you to research your purchase on your own, but a technician will still be better at spotting potential problems. For instance, when I evaluate a piano, I tune a couple of strings to see how well they hold. A layperson is not likely to be able to do this. Even with the proper equipment, one would need to have a feel for how a tuning pin should move in the block of wood in which it sits. If a piano can’t hold a tune this is obviously a serious problem, but it’s not one you would notice just by looking at it.
Also, whichever piano you end up with will likely need at least some work, even if it is just routine maintenance or tuning. A technician will be able to estimate what work is necessary and how much it will cost.
2. Don’t assume that a used piano is in good condition just because it is in a store.
Don’t take it for granted that a store owner has taken the time to properly care for the used instruments in the store’s inventory. A piano on a showroom floor can have just as many problems as a piano in someone’s home. Store owners are just humans, and, like the rest of humanity, they run the gamut in terms of honesty and trustworthiness. If the store or the company that owns the store employs some well-trained technicians that is a good sign. If your purchase comes with a warranty for a year or more that is another good sign. However, you should still be on the lookout for potentially costly defects. Again, hiring a trustworthy and impartial technician to do an evaluation is always a good idea.
3. Beware of damage that may have occurred from the piano being housed in a poor environment.
The environment in which a piano resides has an enormous impact on its useful life. A piano is made from materials that are sensitive to climate conditions, such as wood, felt, and metal. If it sat for years in a place that was too humid, for instance, it could cause a wide range of problems from sluggish parts to mold. If its environment was too dry, it could cause issues like cracking in the wood or loose and wobbly parts. In some instances, like on the east coast of the U.S., it can be exposed to both extremes, which will wreak havoc on it. Pianos fare best in stable climates with a humidity level of about 50%. The humidity level being too low, or around 30% or below, presents the biggest problem, because that could seriously damage the structure of the instrument.
In addition, pianos make nice homes for pests like mice or insects. You can clear them out and possibly repair some of the damage they’ve done, but not always, and it’s definitely best to start out with an instrument that hasn’t been infested with vermin.
Try to get some information about the history of the piano you’re looking to buy. I’ve come across an unsettling number of people who think that a barn with no insulation or climate control is an acceptable place to store a piano (Hint: it’s not). Take a look inside the piano as well, because you can probably spot things like mold or evidence of infestation yourself, and you may be able to rule out a couple of options before getting a professional evaluation.
4. Understand the difference between reconditioning, rebuilding, and restoring.
You may hear terms like “reconditioned”, “rebuilt”, or “restored” on your quest for a used piano. These terms are sometimes used in confusing ways or even interchangeably, but they have specific meanings that are not interchangeable, and aspects such as pricing and quality are dependant on what was actually done to the intrument. The best way to think about these terms are as follows:
This is the most common form of work done to prepare a used piano for sale and the least costly to the seller in terms of parts and labor. Reconditioning involves standard maintenance procedures, such as tuning and regulation, and minor repairs. This type of work should be done on pianos that are already in fair condition and have not suffered any structural damage or extensive damage to parts.
Rebuilding is far more costly and labor intensive than reconditioning. During the course of a rebuilding, the rebuilders will do serious repairs to the instrument and will in many cases replace existing parts with new ones. They may even change certain characteristics of the original piano, such as the weight of the keys. This type of work done by someone with skill and experience can yield beautiful results. It can extend the life of a piano for decades, and can signifcantly reduce the price of a high end piano, like a Steinway B, compared to what it would cost new.
If the work is not done well, however, it could exacerbate existing problems, or even not function properly at all. Fixing a poorly rebuilt piano is a major headache because problems pop up everywhere, and the best you can usually hope for is something that barely works in the best circumstances.
Restoration is costly in terms of parts and labor as well. Unlike rebuilding, however, a restorer will stay close to the original design of the piano and try to use as many existing parts as possible. This is often done on old pianos that have unique features or historical or sentimental value.
5. Play it!
One of the best ways to get a feel for the quality of an instrument is simply to play it. Play every key on the piano and make sure the pedals are doing their jobs. If you already play the piano, play something you know well, and play the same thing on every piano, so the differences really stand out. While you play it, think critically about how it feels and sounds. Do the keys feel heavy or light? How quickly are you able to repeat notes? Is the tone harsh or mellow or somewhere in between? Many of these things are highly subjective, and only you can truly know what you’re looking for.
Playing it is a quick and easy way to get a basic feel for how it is functioning overall. If the keys and pedals are working smoothly and you are able to repeat notes quickly it may be in pretty good shape. Listen for unwanted sounds as well. When parts of the structure of the piano come loose they will often make buzzing or rattling noises while someone is playing. These issues can be costly and difficult to fix, so it’s good to be aware of them as soon as possible.
Buying a used piano can be a little overwhelming if you are taking it seriously. There is a lot to watch out for. Doing your own research on the instrument before you buy it is always a good idea, but you need some training to properly evaluate a potential purchase. If you keep the above points in mind, especially hiring a technician, you will greatly increase your chances of finding a quality instrument. Choosing a piano is a fun and exciting process, and totally worth it if you enjoy music. Happy hunting!