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.



10.  A fine piano will outlast the lifetime of the original buyer and often outlasts the lifetime of whoever inherits it next.  The only other purchase most of us make that can approach this return on investment is our home.

We move from house to house an average of 7 times, setting up 15 or 30 year mortgages each time! Houses must have value if we’re willing to pay so much interest!

9.  The cost of buying an “OK” piano and replacing it later with a fine one is too high.

One quality piano plus interest costs less than two pianos paid for with cash.

8. Fine pianos rise in price endlessly as skilled labor and raw materials like Spruce or Mahogany are fixed expenses that cannot be compromised without ruining the instrument.

The resale value of a well-maintained 5-10 year old piano of high quality is often equal or greater than its purchase price. 

7.  The investment in lessons (which can easily average $1,800 per year per student) is wasted without a good piano to practice on.

6.  Piano lessons and daily practice are, for many children, the first experience with regular disciplined study.

5.  Kids who learn to play grow up to have kids who learn to play.

4.  Adults who learn to play have a stress-relieving and enjoyable alternative to TV.

3.  A fine piano turns a seldom-used “living room” into a music room, a place  where the family can enjoy music together (and each others company!).  Nothing will bring families and friends together better than music.

2.  Most high-ticket “toys” such at ATV’s and boats become obsolete very quickly and depreciate immediately.

The family car, a necessary expense, is a financial disaster costing thousands of dollars in gas, insurance, upkeep and depreciation over 5-10 years after which is usually gets replaced and the expense is started all over again!  The cost of a top-of-the-line Conservatory grand piano plus interest, spread out over 10 years, makes most cars look like a questionable investment. 



Musical instruments are about personal expression and while money is important, money can not provide the life-long benefits of enjoying a fine piano.  


What is a Starter Piano?

After 35 plus years helping families to select their first piano for their Son or Daughter to begin lessons, the most common statement I hear by far is “We are looking for a starter piano so our child can begin lessons.” When I ask what they mean by a “starter piano” the answer is usually something like “We don’t want to invest much in a piano until we know they are serious and that they are going to stick with it.”  My response is usually “How can you expect your child to be serious when you do not provide a serious instrument for them to learn on?”


Think of someone wanting to learn to art of photography.  How motivated would they be if they were given an old disposable camera that was only capable of clicking the button and taking a mediocre picture at best?  Or maybe someone who wants to be an auto mechanic and was given a set of tools purchased at the local toy store.  You see where I am going with this.  They can never expect to be serious because they are not given the chance in the first place to be motivated and excited.  They will be frustrated at best.


Let’s look at the definition and specifications of a starter piano.  An experienced player can sit down at a piano that is not in top condition and adapt as much as possible to the instrument because of their experience.  A beginner is not capable of doing this.  A beginner is learning three important aspects of playing the piano – touch, tone and pedaling.  So what does a starter piano have to have?


A starter piano must:


  1.  Be tuned to the correct pitch and be able to hold its tune for a reasonable time.  Every acoustic piano must be tuned a minimum of once a year to maintain its pitch.  If it is not properly maintained, the piano may not be able to be brought up to the correct pitch and hold tune.
  2. The action (the mechanism that allows the push of the key to activate the hammer that hits the string) must be well regulated and free of any problems.  This means that all keys must have exactly the same weight going down, all travel the same distance up and down, and must be able to repeat quickly without missing notes.  If an action is not well regulated or parts are missing or worn out, the experience will be frustrating at best.  It would be like pouring syrup on some of your computer keys and asking you to type a letter.  Not a pleasant thought, huh?
  3. The bench must be sturdy and at the correct height for the piano in relation to the keyboard.  The posture of the student is very important to learning the technique of how to strike the keys in order to produce the correct tone.
  4. All three pedals must function as designed.  The most commonly used pedal is the right pedal which is sustain.  When this pedal is depressed, the dampers lift off the string allowing the string to continue to vibrate.  When the pedal is released, the string and any tone produced from the string should stop abruptly.


There are many more aspects to consider but for the sake of discussion, I will limit it to these.  So the question becomes “So how much do I really need to invest to give my Son or Daughter an instrument that will allow them to progress and keep them motivated?”  The answer is not as much as you think!


Generally speaking, an initial investment of around $1,500 will allow you to purchase a decent used acoustic piano from a reputable dealer who has already gone over the piano, tuned it up to pitch, and taken care of any needed work to put the piano in good condition.  It doesn’t take much to end up investing thousands of dollars in a neglected instrument.  This is the most common mistake that many people make when they purchase a piano privately from someone who is not an expert.  The purchase price may be low, but the cost to fix the piano up and tune it up to pitch can cost as much or more than a brand new piano.  The number one rule is DON’T JUST GO BY THE CONDITION OF THE CABINET!


Digital pianos are also an excellent option to consider.  Most Universities and public schools use digital pianos as well as many piano teachers.  Digital pianos have come a long way since Yamaha introduced the first one in 1983.  A good digital piano will meet all of the above criteria and does not need tuning.  Most come with a bench which is the correct height.  Digital pianos also offer many exciting features such as recording and the capability to practice with headphones.  Best of all, a good digital piano starts under $1,000.


Many adults state that they wish they would have stayed with their piano lessons when they were young.  More often than not, they did not continue because of the teacher or the instrument they learned on.  This is a lesson to be learned for a beginning student today.  Find them a fun, motivating teacher, an exciting instrument, and the chances of success are excellent!