Buying a used piano is a good move for most prospective piano owners. Pianos tend to have long shelf lives, especially if they are properly maintained and cared for.
Pianos are expensive instruments and moving them around is not easy. You want to be sure you’re buying a good instrument before you shell out cash or spend time and money moving it.
Depending on your budget and what kind of piano you are buying, you could hire a piano technician to give the instrument a once-over and ensure that it is good condition. However, for many people will have to go into purchasing a used piano alone.
This guide will show you how to inspect, buy, and move a used piano.
Inspecting Before You Buy
Before you buy a used piano, you need to talk a close look at it, to make sure it is well taken care of and suits your needs. If you follow the steps in this inspection, you should be able to avoid buying a piano that will cause problems in the near-future.
Inspect The Finish, Dimensions, And Style Of The Piano
Before we get into any technical considerations, you have to consider the look and style of the piano. How does it fit in your house? Does it go well with your walls, with your other furniture?
It is possible to get a piano refinished, and a grand piano can technically have its legs swapped out, but this is usually to be avoided. Refinishing a piano is very expensive – easily upwards of $3k for a refinishing job.
Measure the piano and make sure it will fit in your space. Take into consideration how easily you’ll be able to move the piano into your space. Professional piano movers can deal with almost any situation, but the easier you make their lives, the cheaper it will be to move the piano.
Verify The Age, Model, And Serial Number
Take note of the age, model, and serial number. You should be able to find this info somewhere on the piano, and then look it up online to see if it all lines up.
While you’re looking up the age, model, and serial number, check where it was manufactured. The wood in a piano is seasoned (pre-dried) to match specific humidity levels in whatever country the piano was originally supposed to end up in. This means pianos manufactured for shipping to the United States will be different from those destined for Japan.
Look out for pianos that were manufactured for a specific country and then shipped somewhere else later in their lifetime. These pianos may have problems with cracking wood or soundboards as the humidity gradually takes its toll.
Check For Obvious Damage To The Finish
Look for obvious damage to the finish. Some damage, like scratches, dents, and dings are just superficial or can be cleaned. If you want a piano in mint condition, you won’t buy it, but sometimes a few dents and dings can bring down the price of an otherwise perfectly useable piano.
The biggest thing to look out for is water damage. Check for loose veneer around the bottom edges of the piano – loose veneer is usually found on pianos that have either been exposed to water damage or extreme dryness.
Loose veneer doesn’t look appealing, but more importantly it points to signs that the piano hasn’t been maintained properly or kept in a humidity controlled environment. This is a major concern.
Look Out For Restyling
If the piano has been restyled or altered in an unconventional way, beware. Old uprights are often restyled by cutting down the height of the piano and installing mirrors.
This kind of restyling can be okay if it done by a professional technician, but more often than not it was done decades ago by someone who didn’t totally know what they are doing. This can cause all sorts of problems with the piano in the future.
If the piano has been restyled, ask for proof that the restyling was done by a piano technician or someone who really knows what they are working with.
Note The Humidity Control In The Piano’s Current Home
Humidity can literally make or break an acoustic, wooden instrument. Pianos are comprised mostly of wood and are very susceptible to humidity. That is why many pianos have humidity sensors built-in and some have humidifiers as well.
The soundboard is the most important part of the instrument and it is also the most susceptible to humidity. Low humidity will dry out the wood and can cause them to crack. A cracked soundboard will lose the depth and richness of the sound.
Low humidity can also cause the wood to shrink, which can wreak havoc on the tuning of the piano. The tuning pins on a piano are screwed into wood. If the wood shrinks, the pins will become loose and the piano will go out of tune, and sometimes the tuning can never be fully fixed.
Ask the owner of the piano if they monitor the humidity of the piano and of their home. If they do not, that is a possible red flag for the instrument.
Ideally, the humidity of the room/piano should be around 45%. 40%-60% is considered acceptable.
For around $20, you can buy a digital hygrometer, which will tell you the humidity level of a given room. When you’re going to check out a piano, bring this little instrument with you and test the room.
Playing The Piano
If the inspection went well, it is time to play the piano. This is the most important step – if you don’t like the way the piano sounds or the way it plays there is no point in buying it!
As you play, make sure to cover the length of the piano. Play the low notes and the high notes. Play it dynamically – go from soft to loud. Try playing fast lines and slow ones. Make sure to use the pedals. As you play, take note of anything you think should be looked into.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How is the pitch and tuning? If a portion of the piano is a semitone flat or flatter, this may mean serious trouble.
- When was it last tuned?
- Are any notes so out of tune that when pressed they play two different pitches? This is usually a sign the tuning pins are loose, which may not be reparable.
- How is the action? It’s always better to buy a piano that has action you like, rather than trying to fix the action later, which is tricky and can be expensive.
- If the action is good, but a couple keys don’t make sound, do not fret. While the action is complicated and comprised of a million different parts, replacing these parts is usually pretty cheap.
- How do the bass notes sound? Do they sound properly or do they sound like they are underwater or covered by a blanket? If they don’t sound good, it may mean that the strings are too old.
- Take a look at strings, are they rusty? A little bit of tarnish/rust is normal, but heavy rust will make the tone bad and the strings are likely to break eventually. Are any strings missing?
- Listen for buzzing noises. Rib separations are potential sources of buzzing noises. The ribs run perpendicular to the grain of the soundboard. Cracks in the ribs can cause buzzing – this is not usually fatal to the piano, but it’s worth noting.
- Take a look at the keys. Take note of whether they are ivory or plastic. If keytops are chipped, burned, or stained, don’t let it scare you away. Replacing a few keytops is not very expensive.
- Do the ‘pluck test’: slowly press a key in the octave above Middle C. While holding the key down, pluck one of the strings of that key with your hand. The note should be audible for at least five seconds. If not, the soundboard may have problems or the piano may be of poor design.
Questions To Ask The Owner Of The Piano
Once you’ve done your inspection, you should ask the owner of the piano some basic questions about the condition, history, and maintenance of the instrument. These questions are similar to what you would ask of a used car – when you’re spending a lot of money on anything used you need to do your due diligence.
Why Is The Piano Being Sold?
There are many reasons why someone would sell a piano, but it’s worth asking. If the answer is ‘they need the money’ or ‘it’s taking up too much space’, take extra care on the inspection, as the piano may have been neglected.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes you can score a great deal because the owner is moving and needs it out of the house.
How Was The Piano Used/Who Was Playing It?
The owner of the piano is what determines the shape of the piano. A piano owned by a professional player or serious hobbyist will be in great shape. A piano owned by a family with young children may have been put through years of abuse and spills.
Churches, music schools, and universities all take good care of their pianos, but a piano that has been played for hours upon hours every day will wear out faster than a piano that is played every once in a while.
How Old Is The Instrument?
You’re looking for a used piano, not an old worn out piano. The average piano under average conditions should last 40-50 years without the need for major restoration.
Was There A Maintenance Schedule And Who Maintained The Piano?
All pianos need regular tuning, especially ones that are being played frequently. Check with the owner to see if they were tuning the piano regularly.
If you can, check to see who was doing the maintenance. If it was the neighbourhood handyman, beware of inexperienced workmanship. Pianos can be quite delicate and an inexperienced hand may cause problems.
If the piano was regularly serviced by a professional technician or a technician send by the company that builds the piano, you are probably in good shape!
Was The Piano Moved And Where Was It Stored?
Pianos aren’t meant to be moved around frequently. Check to see if the piano has been through multiple owners and transported frequently.
Investigate where the piano has been stored. If it has been in one house for a long time, how is the humidity in the house? Is it controlled?
Making An Offer On A Used Piano
If you’ve gone through our guide and decided to make an offer on a used piano, here’s what you need to know about pricing.
The first thing to establish is your budget. You can get a great used piano in many different budget levels, but there are some limitations. You can’t expect to get a good used grand piano for under $5000, for example.
There are tons of piano available for under $500. Old church pianos, pianos that have been sitting in basements for years, etc.
You can absolutely find something worth salvaging, but you should take precautions. Follow this guide for inspecting the piano and if you can, get a piano technician to take a look at the piano before you have it moved.
You do not want to find out after you’ve moved the piano that it is unfixable.
For between $1000-1500 you can find a reconditions upright, spinet, or console piano from a dealer. These are usually taken on trade. Buying from a dealer will save you time and worry, as they will have restored the piano, cleaned it, and may even offer a warranty.
You can buy privately for this price range as well, but the risk is higher.
At this price point you can find good instruments. Look for used Yamaha, Sammick, Kawai, and Sohmer pianos. You should be able to buy something restored with a good guarantee. At this price point, you should not be buying anything older than 1975.
At this price range, you can get a piano for an advanced student. Yamaha and Kawai upright pianos 30 years old or newer with solid action and a musical sound. The finish should be in good condition.
At this range, you can buy a lot of incredible used instruments. Above $7,500, you can look at good quality baby grand pianos from Yamaha, Boston, Sammick and more. Look at piano no older than 30 years old and in immaculate condition.
At this range you can look at reconditioned Steinways, Mason and Hamlin, and other reconditioned high-end pianos. Keep in mind that these pianos will eventually need to be restored. Still, this is a great deal for a beautiful instrument.
How To Buy A Used Piano, Final Notes
Here are a few final thoughts on buying a used piano:
- Always inspect the piano thoroughly. If you can, hire a piano technician. Don’t make a rash decision.
- Always take into account the cost of moving a piano – that’s our piano moving guide
- A good quality upright will be better than poor quality grand pianos – and much less expensive.
- Buying used from a dealer will minimize your risk.