Can I save money by buying a piano privately?

Can I save money by buying a piano privately?  In some cases, yes.  But almost always, no.  For example, how often has it been tuned?  This is the #1 question to know. Buying a piano privately without knowing what to look for is risky at best. Pianos need to be tuned at least once a year to keep them at the correct pitch and properly maintained, regardless whether it has been played or not.   A common misconception is that even if it’s been years since it was last tuned, it can just be tuned once and it good to go.  Almost 100% of the time this is not the case.  Due to fluctuations throughout the year in temperature and humidity, the piano will drop in pitch.  When the wood swells it raises pitch.  When it shrinks it drops pitch.  Over the course of a year it will drop in pitch from the standard A440 pitch.  The majority of pianos sold privately are passed on from owner to owner and have not been maintained properly.

Let’s use the example of a piano that has not been tuned in 10 years.  This piano will likely be at least a half step or more below pitch.  It’s very likely that if a tuner tried to introduce the tension needed to bring it back to correct pitch at one sitting, strings will snap.  Even if it could be done without breaking strings, the piano will still not be stable and hold tune properly for a period of time until the strings stretch and stabilize.  For those who play guitar or other string instruments, they know that a new set of strings will go out of tune quicker until they’ve been tuned a few times and they stabilize.  Therefore, if a piano must be tuned several times due to lack of maintenance, there will be a considerable expense and money wasted.  

Piano dealers can tune and repair pianos for a much lower cost than an individual.  For example, when Fresno Piano Gallery receives a used piano, it is evaluated top to bottom by doing a 48-point inspection.  If the piano is a quality piano and warrants the dealer expense of putting it in top condition and including a warranty, this is what is done.  But often the cost of tuning alone  would exceed the value of the piano.  Therefore, these pianos are either disposed of or sold at a low cost with no warranty and the problems are disclosed to the buyer.

It is not uncommon, especially on an older piano, to find cracks in the pin block.  The pin block is the layers of wood where the tuning pins that hold the winding of each string are drilled in.  If it’s cracked, the pin can not grip tightly and that string will never hold tune.  Here is an picture of cracks in a pin block from a piano we just received:

Pinblock cracks (2)

A standard piano has over 12,000 parts and it is not possible to discuss every possible problem without writing a thesis.  But I will cover one more area since the soundboard is probably the most important (and most expensive) part of a piano.  The soundboard on an upright is the large sheet of wood, usually spruce, on the back of the piano.  On a grand piano, it is the wood under the strings when you look inside the piano.

The soundboard is the piano’s speaker.  If it is cracked, warped, or if it has lost the curve that was put into the board when built, the piano will have lost tone.  A crack will often cause buzzing and possibly cause the board to collapse over time.  Think of it like a speaker that has a hole or crack.  The worse the crack or hole becomes, the more it will buzz and distort until it come to the point where it is totally useless.

Here is an example of a crack in a soundboard on a grand piano we received (and this piano was only 12 years old!!!!):

Soundboard cracks (3)

 

With over 12,000 parts, any used piano must be carefully inspected.  A piano can either be a solid financial investment or a huge money pit depending on the quality of the manufacturer, the age and how it has been maintained.  Where the piano has been also can plan an important role in its life expectancy.

There are three “costs” to consider:

1. The initial cost – Unfortunately, this is often the only consideration when purchased a used piano.  Often a free piano will cost more than a new one if it is fixed up to play properly and be tuned to correct pitch.  If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

2.  The maintenance cost – A good quality piano should hold tune well and usually can get by with only tuning annually.  But if the piano has problems such as not holding its tune well, sticking or non-playing keys or any other problems, the annual cost of just maintaining it could easily exceed the cost of a brand new quality piano.

3.  The appreciation (or depreciation) cost –  Quality pianos actually increase in value over the years.  It’s very common to resell a quality piano down the road for more than its initial cost if it was properly maintained.  Why is this the case….why do they increase in value?  The reason is simple.  First, a good piano should easily last 80 years or more. It takes expensive materials and lots of labor to build a good piano.  Material cost increases every year as does labor.  Therefore, since pianos have such longevity and prices increase annually, the values of good used piano increase as well.  On the other hand, a poorly made new piano or used piano that is “tired” or needs work or substantial upkeep will decrease in value.