Buying a Piano Posted in the Classifieds
Craigslist or a local paper is a great place to find a used piano. You can find some really good bargains, if you are careful. I strongly recommend that you have a piano technician (me) look at the piano before you buy it. I've also put together a list of things to watch for and consider before even having the tuner check it out.
Share the price of a tuning. When you contact the person that is selling the piano, ask them when it was last tuned. This will give you an idea of how well the piano was cared for. If it has been a year or more ask them if they would consider sharing the cost of having it tuned. The cost difference between an evaluation and a tuning is not that much and the benefits are significant. You can hear what it sounds like when it is in tune. If you decide to buy, it will be in fairly good tune when you have it delivered. I'll have a much better idea of the worth of the piano if I spend a full two hours. The owner would have a tuned piano to sell, if you decide not to buy.
Sometimes you get what you pay for. You see some pianos for a very low price and you think you don't need to have it evaluated professionally. Remember that it will cost you at least $200 to move it to your home. Then you'll be out another expense to have it tuned in your home. If there is something seriously wrong with the piano you will be confronted with considerable expense to have it fixed. If you decide that it not worth fixing it will cost you another $200 or more have it taken to Piano Heavenů or you could just sell it again on Craigslist. ;-)
Determine the pitch. Use a pitchpipe, harmonica, etc. to hear if the piano is close to pitch. I often have the owner hit a series of C's on the piano over the phone and I compare it to my piano. People let their pianos sit for 20 years without any maintenance and the piano will be a half a step low or more. If the piano is considerably low in pitch there will be an extra tuning expense to bring it up to pitch. Also, strings are more apt to break when the piano is low which is an added expense.
Test octaves and double octaves. Most pianos that have been ignored for a few years will have some pretty sour sounding octaves. If they are horrible (especially in the bass section) there could be a very serious problem requiring Bridge repair, Pinblock treatment or even worse.
Play each note. Usually a note or two that doesn't work correctly can be fixed without too much problem but more than a couple could indicate significant repairs. If the keys are sluggish it could also result in expensive repairs. If there are horrible sounding single notes, especially in one area it could mean that there are pinblock issues and it could require a Pinblock treatment.
Find the date of manufacture. By lifting the top of the piano and peering inside with a flashlight you can usually find the serial number and sometimes the model number above the tuning pins. In a Grand these numbers are under the music desk. The serial number is usually anywhere from 4 to 8 digits. If you send this number to me I can look it up in my Pierce Piano Atlas and find the date the piano was made. I tune many 100-year-old pianos that have plenty of life left in them but they also have 100-year-old parts that can become brittle.
What condition are the keys? Repairing keytops can be expensive. Most technicians agree that about 7 or 8 missing or chipped ivory keytops warrants putting replacing them all with plastic. Also check and see if the keys wiggle from side to side. If they are quite sloppy (more than a 1/16 of an inch of play) the piano might need a key bushing job.
A Yamaha or Kawai is usually a safe bet, but I've seen a few that have been ridden hard. Over the years some dealers have imported used Kawai's and Yamaha's from Asia and sold them for a reasonable price. These pianos are referred to as "Grey Market" pianos. Yamaha has a webpage where you can enter the serial number of the piano and determine if the piano was manufactured for the North American market. They make it sound like they are inferior instruments but I've worked on many of these and have not run into any "quality" problems.
Size matters. Any piano that isn't at least 40" tall or higher has bass strings that are too short and will never have great tone. Often these "apartment size" pianos were at a lower price spectrum and the lack of quality shows. Remember that an "apartment size" piano takes up the same floor space as a full sized upright. Also note that a Baby Grand can also have very short strings. There is quite a difference in the bass sound of a 5' Baby Grand and a 5' 8" Parlour Grand.
Watch out for "Antiques". Piano technicians often refer to Antique Pianos as those that no longer work. Someone imported quite a few Birdcage Pianos from England many years ago and they continue to appear in antique shops and on Craigslist. Although their aesthetic value may warrant a place in your living room, they never were and never can be a good instrument. Birdcage and Square Grand pianos may be fixed to the point where they resemble a piano but never should be considered as a beginner piano. Check the Birdcage Pianos page on this website for more information and how to identify them.
Check the pricing Another reference on buying pianos is eBay Piano Buying Guide. Click on any of the piano names in the "Shop on eBay" section. By checking the prices you can tell if the asking price is reasonable.
Read Further Another source for help on buying a used piano is The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano. There are probably copies at your local library.
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