How to Buy a Pre-Owned Piano

©2024 Matthew Grossman

Caveat Emptor: “The principle that a person who buys something is responsible for making sure that it is in good condition, works properly, etc.”

There ARE a few good pre-owned pianos on the market, however, one should keep the principle stated above top of mind when you are searching for a pre-owned piano.

Pianos are made of wood, felt, cloth, cast iron, and metal wire. The wood and iron frame of a piano must bear nearly 20 tons (40,000 lbs.) of tension from its approximately 200 metal wire “strings”. Pianos exposed to frequent wide-ranging humidity fluctuations can deteriorate rapidly. As humidity levels in the air rise and fall the piano’s wood parts expand and contract. Repeated cycles of high to low levels of humidity will eventually cause deformities resulting in critical damage to a piano. The soundboard will lose its crown or worse; separate and crack. Similarly, joints come apart, bridges crack, tuning pins become loose, action parts warp, and action centers malfunction.

As a piano is played the action parts wear down from impact and friction. The dynamic properties of the hammers deteriorate due to age and wear causing a loss of tone. The springs in the action weaken. The metal strings lose their elasticity over time from being stretched to 80% of their breaking point. Similarly, the copper-wound bass strings lose their resonating properties as the windings collect dust and dirt, and oxidize.

Then there is the question of design and materials. Over the years, piano manufacturers have experimented with different designs and materials; many were failures. Defective plastic parts were largely responsible for a top Philadelphia-based piano company going bankrupt in the 1950’s, one of the icons of the American piano industry lost its prominence and eventually went bankrupt when it re-engineered its pianos solely for faster production in the 1960’s, and defective aluminum parts were a factor in a major Korean piano manufacturer’s demise in the 1990’s.

Typically, when purchasing a pre-owned piano, the buyer is responsible for moving it, tuning it, and making any needed repairs. These costs usually start at around $500 and can exceed several thousand dollars to restore the piano’s tone and put it into good playing condition; if indeed that is at all possible or practical. The cost of the repairs could surpass the piano’s value. And often, after spending the money to repair it, a used piano still may not possess a good quality sound or action due to its original construction. Pianos that are not a joy to hear and play are a deterrent to practicing and playing, no matter your level of skill or ability.

When a pre-owned piano comes into The Piano Shop, it is carefully inspected by our technicians. The make, model, and age is determined, and in general, most pianos over 25 years old will not make it to our showroom floor. The exceptions are Steinway pianos.

Steinway pianos are designed and built to hold their value. For example, take a Steinway grand that sold in 1920 for about $1400. In today’s market, that same piano, if it were properly maintained with genuine Steinway parts, would be priced at about $30,000.

You can be sure that any pre-owned piano you find at The Piano Shop is what we judge to be a good value, thoroughly inspected and adjusted to give you a satisfactory piano experience and a long usable and serviceable life.

We invite you to make an appointment to stop by The Piano Shop for a crash course in “How to Buy a Pre-Owned Piano”. Give us 30 minutes of your time and we will walk you through the steps of how to evaluate the piano. If you find one for sale privately we will be happy to check it out for you before you buy.