©Copyright 2001 McAulay Piano Service


Purchasing a piano can be a fun exercise or can be very frustrating and disappointing.   I wrote this article to help a little with the process and to impart some of my experience and training for your benefit.   There is no implied endorsement of any particular manufacturer or retailer.  Remember, retailers and other sellers have one thing in mind - a sale; while most piano technicians hope the piano you purchase will have good tone, be a joy to tune and have few problems.  Pianos are complicated instruments yet they are reliable and relatively problem free, if regularly maintained.  If neglected they can be real headaches.   I hope the information below will assist in your decisions.  First some interesting facts:

In 1888 a Steinway upright cost $700 - 1500.  A grand was priced at $1100 to 1800; more than the price of a good house.

Piano keyboards are 48” wide (with a few exceptions).  Upright height is measured from floor to top of back.  Grand size is from front of keyboard to farthest point of rounded back.

Experts consider any piano made before 1850 to be Antique, 1850 to 1900 Victorian, and 1900 to present is modern.  (Don’t let a seller tell you the piano is “antique” or more valuable without expert appraisal of such.)

My perception is that top name quality pianos often appreciate in value over time.  Lesser known and lower quality pianos usually depreciate.   A 1965 "top-of-the-line 5'10" Grand" cost less than $6000 new in 1965 but would sell today for $15,000 to $20,000 if in reasonable condition.  A 6’ 3” Good Name Grand sold in 1986 for about $9000 and would bring over $12,000 today.  A low end spinet sold new in 1986 for about $2500 and would bring about $1000 today. (these prices are reflective of where I live and may not be the same in your area).  


Consider these pianos:

  1. The larger the better.  Uprights over 44” or Grands over 5’8” are best.  Note: you would be surprised how well a larger piano will fit in the average room.  The width of all pianos is within a couple of inches (the keyboard for 88 key pianos is 48", whether spinet or concert grand).

  2. High quality pianos with name recognition will demand a premium to purchase but will be much easier to sell when you decide to upgrade or move on to other things.   A rule of thumb I use is that a 15 year old piano was purchased for about 50% of the asking price of a new one.   It was probably purchased for about that price given a 5% inflation factor.

  3. Pianos with good sustaining base and treble indicate quality of design.   Before deciding on a piano, I suggest you visit a couple of piano dealers.  Don’t be intimidated if you don’t play.  The idea is to get a feeling for how the various pianos sound.   Just strike the same note in the bass and hold until it dies out , and listen carefully to the sound.   Try this on a number of pianos.  Don’t use the last note but up from that about 12 notes.  Next, listen to a couple of high notes (again using the same on all the pianos).  Try this on both the new and used pianos.   The new ones should obviously sound brighter and sustain longer.   Also open the top and see where the plain wire starts and copper wound strings end.  Play the notes around this area and octaves associated with this area.  You will have a hard time telling where the strings change with a well scaled piano.  Make sure the piano is in tune for this test or you may get an inaccurate result.  Incidentally, a quality 10 year old piano should still have good sustain and often be smoother in tone than a new one.  A 20 year old piano, with little effort, can be made to sound almost the same.  Use this knowledge when evaluating used pianos.

  4. Best if not over 20 years old.  Over 50 years can present problems unless rebuilt (e.g. new strings, hammers, damper felts, etc.).

Avoid these pianos: 

1.     Spinets.  They usually have poor tone, are very difficult to tune and are difficult (expensive) to repair.  Many technicians will not service them.  (See page 45 in "The Piano Book").

2.     Be careful with pianos not tuned within the last 2 years.  If the tuning date is unknown, you can borrow or buy an electronic chromatic or guitar tuner from a music store and check the pitch of “center C” and 2 octaves up.  If more than 20-30 cents off, strings may break when tuned and various tone problems can emerge.  A well maintained piano will be within 10 cents if tuned within the last 12 to 18 months. Note: On other pages there are links to a site with many electronic tuners.  Although older pianos can be tuned to a lower pitch to avoid string breakage, I wouldn't  plan a purchase based on this.  Why start children or new students learning music to a non-standard pitch?

3.     New pianos that have not been prep’d by the local dealer.  I have serviced new pianos that were first uncrated from the factory  at the customers home.   These often  have problems that dealers are supposed to fix when uncrating and prep’ing.   For this reason, floor models that are in tune and that you have actually tried are best.  Otherwise ask the dealer about their piano prep policies (e.g. do they actually work on the piano before delivery, how many  tuning, if any, before delivery, etc.)

4.     Avoid pianos with heavily grooved hammers, keys that stick or don’t work or other problems unless you have a qualified technician evaluate it. (There are many very poor pianos for sale in the free to $1500 range).

5.     Pianos advertised as “Antiques” with beautiful cabinets but with no evidence of rebuilding.   These almost always cannot be tuned to standard pitch.  They're fine as pieces of furniture but don't plan serious musical studies around them.

6.     Avoid pianos over 50 years old that have not had the strings replaced, the hammers replaced, key bushings replaced, and the action regulated.  Not only do they sound poor, you will be facing increasing service difficulties.  If rebuilding has been done, ask for specific details, invoices, etc.   I have been told numerous times that the piano was “rebuilt” only to find that the only thing done was to replace the key tops and polish the wood.  The tuning pins still showed rust, the strings were dead and the hammers still showed heavy grooves. 

7.     Avoid pianos with the only attraction being a “lifetime warrantee”.  Be very careful when in the showroom.  I have been told of some “interesting facts" and promises that are hard to substantiate.  The “lifetime warrantee” is often on the parts that almost never fail.

8.     Carefully evaluate the entry level of new pianos that dealerships offer.  Some can be adequate instruments for beginning students but must be chosen wisely.  In the case of piano brands that have good reputations of quality the entry pianos can be fine, but I have heard stories of people that have had nightmares with others.  I would much rather put the equivalent amount into a good used piano.

9.     Avoid older pianos with plastic parts. (you must look inside to tell).  The plastics used 25 to 50 years ago are now deteriorating and causing major expenses for owners of these pianos.  The new pianos with newer plastic materials are significantly better and even have some advantages such as less heat and moisture problems.


In Summary:

Take your time in deciding on the purchase of a piano.  It is something that may end up being an heirloom in your family for the next 100 years, or it may last until next year when the son or daughter decide the flute is more suitable.  In any case, you shouldn’t have to mortgage the house to get piano lessons for the kids.  On the other hand, a quality instrument should not lose value and can even appreciate over time.


My main suggestion is to get a qualified piano technician involved in your purchase decision (whether used or new).  Most technicians will charge a small fee to evaluate the piano you have selected and can provide excellent information for your price negotiation.  Peace of mind is worth it.  

If you want to do some research, go to my  Piano Links   and look at the various manufacturer and used piano links.

1.      Buy and read the consumer report of pianos: “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine          

2.      Have a qualified piano technician evaluate the piano before purchase  

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