old piano

It has become almost instinct, on the part of a modern consumer, to assume that a product made today is somehow designed to break down faster, cost more to fix, and generally be more disposable than an equivalent product of 20 or 30 years ago.  Cars don’t last as long; electronics don’t last as long; houses don’t last as long; etc.  And so it is that we hear many, many times a week, that customers also presume the same of pianos.  In fact, it is entirely reasonable to assume that a meaningful portion of used piano buyers make that choice because of this prevalent mythology.  Part of this is amplified further by the fact that brands like Heintzman, formerly based in Toronto, had such a good reputation 80-100 years ago. As one of North America’s top three markets for used pianos, Toronto is an interesting, if not confusing place to shop for used pianos.

For those worried that we exclusively discourage used piano buying, fear not: almost 1 out of every 3 pianos we sold in 2013 was a used piano.  However, it is extremely important that customers know how to properly assess the true value (or lack thereof) of a used instrument vs. a new one.

For those Torontonians wishing to include used pianos in their search, there are two pretty big questions to tackle:

1. Is a used piano what I need, or could new actually give me better value?

Used vs. New

Budget is a significant determining factor for most customers when deciding whether to go new or used. One method of comparison which always yields productive discussion is this: take your budget – let’s say $5000 – and compare what that will get you in new vs. used.  Both results come with some pros and cons.

For new pianos, the pros are:

  • Factory warranty
  • Smoother, more responsive action
  • Often better tuning stability
  • Clearer, more even tone (quality of tone, not quantity)
  • Aesthetically flawless exterior
  • Trade-up guarantees / programs

For used pianos, the pros are:

  • Visually larger compared to equivalently priced new
  • Sometimes a more desirable brand may be attainable
  • In some cases, a louder sound may be attainable (quantity of sound, not quality)

In other words, our advise to customers is that if musical/mechanical consideration is at the very highest priority, you will likely be most happy with a new piano.  If the visual presence and/or brand of the instrument is important (say, if you’re featuring it in a new home or renovation), then used could be a great option.  If you’re somewhere in between, then like most of our customers, we would likely introduce a range of options which included both used and new.  Just remember, though: pianos are generally being built better, with more advanced design advantages, and much more consistent manufacturing techniques than ever before.  Though there are a few exceptions, many manufacturers like Stuart & Sons, Ravenscroft, Mason & Hamlin, Fazioli, and Kawai all continue to push the envelope towards the elusive goal of the perfect piano.

2. If used is right for me, do I buy from a dealer, or look privately?

2. Piano Dealer vs. Private Sale

At the many piano-industry conferences that we have the privilege to attend every year, I invariably find myself in discussions with other dealers on how to deal with the private market. There seems to be a feeling that pouring as much cold water on the private-sale option, or simply pretending it doesn’t exist at all, is the very best way to avoid loosing a customer. While this may have been true 10 years ago, I can’t help but find this a tad foolish, and, given how easy people can access this information, almost bordering on dishonest.

Our approach to helping customers through the maze of used vs. new, dealer vs. private sale, is to be the absolute best source of information – verifiable, transparent, and unbiased information. Unbiased doesn’t mean without opinion, and we certainly have several when it comes to the pro’s and con’s of searching the private market.

The Pro’s of Private Sales

The singular potential benefit to shopping privately is price. While this sounds simple and obvious, it’s actually quite complex. It is true that every once in a while a seller will put a used piano on the market that simply does not know what they have. We’ve all heard of the auction hunters who buy a crate for $200 and find a Rolls Royce, or an estate sale where an Imperial Bosendorfer has been purchased for $5000. Let us be the first to tell you that those days are long gone, for two simple reasons. One, every dealer is searching for those deals just as much as you, and they know the landscape better than you do, unfortunately. Two, most sellers have access to the internet, and it doesn’t take a great deal of time to establish the market rate for the instrument you’re selling. So even in the ‘wild-west’ of private sale used pianos, the old edict still holds true: you get what you pay for.  The two areas where there still remains good value for buyers is:

  1. If you’re looking for an acoustic piano under $1000, and don’t mind taking on the risk that you’ll blow the $1000 on a mechanical nightmare.  The cost of moving used pianos alone usually keeps dealers away from these instruments, since there is simply no room in the price to adequately service, warranty, and retail the piano.  This might include off-brand or defunct used pianos from the US market, circa 1940’s – 1980’s, sub-premium used pianos from the 1900’s – 1920’s (i.e. NOT Heintzman, Steinway, or still-existing German brands), and used Chinese pianos of any type that aren’t from one of the better-rated factories
  2. An expensive, esoteric brand such as Ibach, Bluthner, Fazioli, Feurich, Playal etc.  While these used pianos may be lovely and very rewarding to play, many dealers won’t take the risk on such an un-known brand unless they can purchase it for a VERY low price. As most sellers aren’t prepared to take 70-90% hits on their original investment, they will often opt to attempt a private sale. Opportunities such as these do come up semi-regularly, but with price tags in the $25,000 – 50,000 range, the potential risk to a buyer is quite high, and the resale value is highly volatile.

The tax argument comes up pretty often; buy privately, you don’t pay tax. This is partially true: private sales are supposed to be reported to the tax authorities, however most people don’t.  However, many dealers will include delivery with the sale, which often has a similar cost to the tax.  For example, if someone were to purchase a $3000 used piano from a private seller, their out-of-pocket may very well be close to $3500, once you add $200-300 for delivery, and $100 for the tuning.  On the other hand, a $3000 from a dealer will have tax charged at $3400 approx, but the tuning and delivery are included. Out of pocket is the same, but now you have a dealer to yell and scream at when something goes wrong.

A number of great sites to find private sales for acoustic pianos would be www.kijiji.ca, orwww.craigslist.com.

The Con’s of Private Sales:

There are four common drawbacks to shopping privately.  In no particular order:

  • Unable to compare pianos side-by-side – even when shopping between dealers this can be a challenge, as most dealers deal with just one or two brands. The problem stems from the fact that the average person can only recall specific tonal quality for about 7 seconds. As a general principal, regardless of who you are buying a piano from, the ability to compare side-by-side is hugely important
  • No access to any warranty coverage – this is a big one, as most people want some protections if they are forking out 4-digits for anything. You’re on your own, plain and simple.
  • Higher risk of structural damage, since there is no history or formal inspection – unfortunately for novice buyers, the most expensive repairs to a used piano are on parts which are partially or wholly invisible. And to make this more difficult, that damage isn’t caused by physical abuse or obvious signs of over-use. It’s caused by improper climate, and that can lead to a split soundboard, shrunken pin block, loose hammer heads, loose key bushings, sticky front rails, and more. It’s a long list of risks, and it makes sense when you consider that most of the piano is made of wood, under enormous stresses.  Wood + humidity shifts = movement.  Movement + 26,000 lbs of stress = breakage.
  • No access to in-store financing mechanisms – Some manufacturers have financing arms which offer extremely good incentives to buyers, such as low interest rates, or deferred payments.

Do make sure to ask the private seller to provide the piano’s technician reports. If possible, hire a piano technician to come with you to inspect the used piano. Also, be ready to put anywhere from $200 to $2000 worth of work into the piano to bring it up to a suitable playing level.

Sometimes the most productive discussions with customers happen when we can sit down and actually review all the options open to the customer, and then talk through them. Sometimes it means we don’t sell them a piano, but we are still able to provide valuable advice. Most of the time, it leads to a well-informed choice, and gets rid of the anxiety of not knowing what you might have missed.