[1.III.17.5] Purchasing an Acoustic Piano

Buying an acoustic piano can be a trying experience for the uninitiated, whether they buy new or used. If a reputable dealer can be found, it is certainly safer to buy new but even then the cost of the initial depreciation is large. Many piano stores will rent you the piano with an agreement that the rental will be applied to the purchase price in case you decide to keep it. In that case, make sure that you negotiate for the best purchase price before you even discuss rental; after you agree to a rental, you will have very little negotiating power. You will end up with a higher initial price so that, even after subtracting the rental, the final price is not a bargain. Even with expensive pianos, many dealers find it too costly to keep them prepped and in tune. At such dealers, it is difficult to test the piano by playing it. Thus buying an acoustic piano is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. For mass produced pianos such as Yamaha or Kawai, the quality of their new pianos tends to be uniform, so that you know pretty much what you will get. The sound quality of the more expensive "hand made" pianos can vary considerably so that buying these pianos is more difficult if you want to pick a good one.

Good used acoustic pianos are difficult to find in piano stores because playable pianos sell first and most stores are left with an excess inventory of unplayable ones. Obviously, the best bargains are to be found among the private sales. For the uninitiated, you will need to hire a piano tuner/technician to evaluate the used pianos in the private market. You will also need a lot of patience because good private sales are not always there when you need them. However, the wait can be worthwhile because the same piano will cost only half as much (or less) at a private sale compared to the store. There is a steady demand for good, reasonably priced pianos. This means that it is not easy to find bargains at widely accessible sites, such as the internet piano markets, because good pianos sell quickly. Conversely, such sites are excellent places to sell, especially if you have a good piano. The best place to find bargains is the classified section of newspapers at large metropolitan areas. Most such advertisements are placed on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

Only a few name brand pianos "hold their value" when kept for many years. The rest quickly lose their value so that trying to sell them years after purchase (new) is not worthwhile. "Hold value" means that their resale value will keep up with inflation; it does not mean that you can sell them for a profit. Thus if you bought a piano for $1,000 and sold it 30 years later for $10,000, you have made no profit if inflation is 10X during those 30 years. In addition, you will incur the cost of tuning and maintenance of at least $2000 for this example. It is cheaper to buy a brand new 7 ft Yamaha grand every 30-40 years than to buy a new Steinway M and completely restore it every 30-40 years; therefore, the choice of which piano to buy does not depend on economics but on what type of piano you need. With very few exceptions, pianos are not good investments; you have to be an experienced piano technician in order to find bargains in the used piano market that can be resold for a profit. Even if you find such a bargain, selling pianos is a time consuming, labor-intensive task. For more details on how to buy a piano, consult Larry Fine's book. Even with the most famous brands, a newly purchased piano will immediately lose 20% to 30% of its purchase price upon delivery, and will in general depreciate to half of the price of an equivalent new piano in about 5 years. As a very rough "rule of thumb" a used piano will cost about half the price of the new one of the same model in a piano store and about 1/4 at a private sale.

The price of pianos can be roughly classified according to whether they are worth rebuilding. Those worth rebuilding tend to cost at least twice as much when new. Practically all uprights and all mass produced grands (Yamaha, Kawai, etc), are not rebuilt because the rebuilding cost is about as high as the price of a new piano of the same model. Rebuilding such pianos is often impossible because the rebuilding trade and necessary parts are non-existent. Pianos worth rebuilding are Steinway, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Mason and Hamlin, some Knabe, and a few others. Roughly speaking, it costs about 1/4 of the price of a new piano to rebuild and the resale value is about 1/2 of new; this is why rebuilding such pianos can be cost effective, for both the rebuilder and the buyer.