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“The Complete Piano Buyer's Consumer Information Guide to Quality Used Pianos”
January, 2014


Piano industry estimates in 2014 there are that more than one million plus pianos being sold each year, only 50,000 or so new. The rest are being sold by private parties, and the resurgence of the American piano builders, the piano industry no one seems to know about. The return of the true craftsman in the form of the new piano re-builders, who make a piano better than new for a modest investment, here's the answer to the perplexing question, of how to buy a really good quality piano for a reasonable cost. A new grand piano of decent quality will run around $25,000, or you can buy a great used grand have it rebuilt and refinished, and the truth is you'll wind up with a far superior instrument for about half the cost. A quality grand piano completely rebuilt and refinished by experts who do their work just a little bit better than perfect IS better than new. It's almost as though your instrument becomes a hand crafted, true one-of-a-kind, collectors dream. In this case the old instrument is not only less money but better in many respects. Better materials, better workmanship, because now you have a master craftsman rebuilding this piano the way pianos were supposed to be built one-at-a-time.

Several factors contribute to the used piano market. One is the high price of new pianos, whose manufacture is questionable compared to the lower and lower prices of electronic entertainment devices televisions, VCRs, and electronic keyboards. Another is the growing pool of skilled piano technicians who are rebuilding and reconditioning pianos, and efforts fueled by the bad reputation earned by the junk import piano makers of the last two decades. A hundred years ago there were literally hundreds of piano makers in the United States, and even twenty five years ago there were at least a dozen major firms, now only a few remain, five having ceased production in the first half of the 1980s alone. Some of the ones that remain are able to hold on only because they have diversified to other products that subsidize their meager piano sales. Consumer interest in the piano seems to remain vibrant. If only the industry could create an instrument that would render past models obsolete in the minds of the buying public.

If a piano brand is not currently being manufactured, it is usually not being promoted to the public through advertising, media and other efforts that increase it's reputation and recognition.  The amount of advertising dollars spent on promoting a piano to the public by both the manufacturer and the dealer has an impact on the used values of pianos of the same brand name. If the piano manufacturer does not spend a lot of money promoting the brand recognition, then usually this will decrease the value of the piano. These prices are based upon the U.S. Market and U.S. dollars.  It is common to find that many European made pianos, that are very well promoted and recognized in Europe, have significantly lower resale values in the U.S. because the brands are not promoted or well represented by dealers in the U.S. Market.  Also, there are recently established manufactures in places like China, Belarus, Indonesia, that have simply not been around long enough to have a solid market recognition in the U.S. Market.

Part of the value of a used piano is based by the opinion of the technicians who servicing them.  If a piano hasn't had at least 25 years of service history with technician's in the U.S., it is basically considered a newcomer.  It takes about 25 years of service history to begin to predict issues like durability.  If a piano lacks that service history, then when it is time to resell it, the seller may find that technicians discourage potential buyers from buying it either because of a poor service history or a lack of service history.  This makes it necessary for the seller to lower the price in order compensate for the perceived risk the buyer is taking in buying the piano when it may have inside problems.

A piano is a precision engineered musical instrument but it is also a piece of furniture.  There are furniture styles that affect the popularity of a piano.  If a particular style is not considered desirable by most buyers, it may be difficult to sell without refinishing or modifying the cabinet style.  Usually traditional finishes such as ebony, walnut, mahogany have always been in fashion throughout the ages, despite furniture trends.  And specialty cabin. It is the colors like white or ivory that seem to go in and out of fashion the most.  There was also an era when pianos were painted (not usually by the manufacturer but by the owner) and these pianos are way out of fashion today. 

Over the past 50 years some nine million new pianos have been sold in the United States. Given the longevity of most pianos, it is reasonable to assume that a large percentage of those nine million instruments are still in service out there somewhere. From a high in 1979 of 275,600 units, piano sales slid to 98,778 units in 1994. This precipitous decline has prompted serious soul-searching at all levels of the piano industry. The truth is many of these used pianos have not been used in many years and in some cases are "like new" with some TLC will out perform most imports.

Piano Sales from 1987 to 1991

Source 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991
Total Market 216,193 209,361 181,845 179,635 168,260
Verticals 141,293 128,761 94,871 95,635 81,204
Digitals 41,200 46,500 53,100 54,900 57,500
Grand Pianos 33,700 34,100 33,874 29,100 29,556

Piano Sales from 1997 to 2006

Sales of existing homes dropped 9 percent to 6.4 million units in 2006, versus sales of 7.1 million in 2005. The drop in the sale of new homes was even greater, sinking 21 percent to just over 1 million units, compared with 1.28 million in 2005. These numbers help explain the significant sales decline In all piano categories. Grand unit sales dropped 23.5 percent verticals were off 17.9 percent; player equipped units fell 19,4 percent; and even digitals dropped 132 percent. Fewer people buying new homes or moving apparently translated into fewer piano sales. Although it provides little comfort to piano makers and retailers, it’s worth noting that manufacturers of furniture and home appliances blamed their disappointing sales results on the housing slowdown.

Assessing the sales data by country of origin, size and price point, it’s clear that the slowdown affected every segment of the market. Lower price points generally suffered a steeper decline, but every category shred double-digit declines.

CLICK ON IMAGE TO VIEW CHARTS

      

Historically:

Given the fact that pianos don't wear out, used pianos have been a factor in the market for over a century; however, in the past decade the influence of used pianos has steadily grown. The chart below illustrates that between 1950 and 1979 new piano sales closely tracked household formation. Declines posted in 1970 and 1975 reflected recessionary problems, and the surge in 1965 was the result of the baby boom generation approaching lesson-taking age. How then to explain the halving of household penetration between 1979 and 1985? A look at historical production levels offers some telling insights.

Acoustic Piano Sales: 1975-98 (units)
 
1975 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208,429 1987 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169,100
1976 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 237,092 1988 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141,697
1977 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247,446 1989 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126,317
1978 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 262,920 1990 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111,928
1979 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255,039 1991 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106,941
1980 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 212,849 1992 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102,882
1981 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 209,876 1993 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99,721
1982 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 191,319 1994 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98,778
1983 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 187,965 1995 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98,229
1984 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174,341 1996 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84,356
1985 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147,487 1997 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94,709
1986 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 163,100 1998 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106,759
Note.–Includes sales of domestically produced and imported pianos.
Source: For 1975-87, National Piano Manufacturers Association and industry estimates; for 1988-98,
The Music Trades, April 1994 and April 1999 issues.
"1990 Consumer Information Guide"

The number of new pianos sold in the United States (including imports) peaked in 1978 at over 282 thousand, by 1985 only a little more than 150 thousand were sold. A survey sponsored by the American Music Conference and carried out by the Gallup Poll Organization reports that amateur piano playing is as widespread as it has ever been, and extrapolations from the survey suggest that nearly two million U.S. households bought a piano in 1984.


The first thing a buyer usually discovers when looking for a piano, is that the prices are usually not fixed, they are negotiable.  The piano "sale" is still an event used to motivate purchases on the spot, but most buyers take more time to make their decision.  And that time taken will show them that prices are not what they at first seem.  Something usually tips the buyer off to this fact.  Buyers may call a store and ask for prices over the phone, only to be told that prices are only given to buyers in person. Or they may receive one price over the phone and another when they walk in the door.  A buyer may find that none of the pianos are marked by price.  A salesperson may drop the price on a piano to motivate the buyer to close the sale today.     

Pianos hold their value well, in fact well enough that many piano dealers I know have for many years, guaranteed to buy a piano back, or take it on trade at 70% of its original purchase price for 3 years after purchase. Long-term dependable pianos may cost a little more, but your money is safer, and the musicians in your home will be more inspired.

Most people pay too much for old pianos; the as-is value of old pianos is actually quite low. Unfortunately however, a naive buyer may see new pianos for $4,000 and think an old piano they see privately for $800, is a bargain. In reality they will probably pay $600 too much, particularly if it requires thousands of dollars worth of work. There is no reason why a piano buyer or shopper should pay to have a piano technician inspect a new or used piano. No matter how many books that are written piano technicians for piano technicians or would be piano salespeople.  The very simple rule to follow is:

Before buying any piano NEW OR USED is to see it and play it and:

IT MUST BE IN TUNE - IT IS THE SELLERS RESPONSIBILITY TO HAVE THE PIANO IN TUNE - IF IT IS NOT IN TUNE PASS ON IT - IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN TUNED RECENTLY BY A PIANO TUNER AND THE SELLER MUST PRESENT A TUNING CERTIFICATE WITH NOTATIONS OF ANY REPAIRS NEEDED. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO PAY A TUNER TO FIND OUT IF IT IS IN GOOD CONDITION.

 THE RECEIPT IS A FORM OF A WARRANTY AND IS ACCEPTED IN ANY COURT AS THE REPRESENTATION OF THAT MUSICAL INSTRUMENT  AND DOUBLY SO IF YOU ARE BUYING A NEW PIANO - AVOID ANY PIANO THAT YOU CANNOT SEE AND HEAR. THE SELLER SHOULD AND MUST HAVE THE PIANO TUNED BEFORE THE SALE. APPLY THIS RULE TO ANY PIANO YOU WANT TO BUY. AND IF YOU ARE SELLING, A TUNED PIANO WILL SELL FASTER AND FOR MORE THAN ANY PIANO NOT IN TUNE.

Do not think that pianos age like violins and guitars. Unlike violins and guitars, the strings in a piano create literally tons of stress which takes its toll on soundboards, bridges, and pin-blocks, aging a piano far more quickly than other strung instruments. Moreover, there is nothing between your fingers and the strings of a violin or guitar, but when you play a piano, you express yourself through a very complicated machine which like any machine wears out as it is used.

Many parents think any old piano will do for their children starting out. If these parents knew as much about pianos as they do bicycles they would realize that their children were about to go on a bike with flat tires, a bent frame, and twisted wheels.

If you find a younger piano, bear in mind that even if you have been very lucky and found an instrument in excellent condition, it would cost at least $400-$700 to put it in a similar condition to one you'll find at a reputable dealer showroom floor. Unfortunately most older pianos require far more expensive repair.

If a piano passes a common sense test i.e: the price is right and it does not seem to have been abused; and it is in tune -  If you fall in love with the cabinet charm and craftsmanship of an older piano, then it is something like falling in love with a beautiful turn-of-the-century home.

The cost of restoration is certainly worthwhile, but it will make the home (piano) far more expensive then most new or newer homes (pianos). It is true that many old pianos were wonderfully made, and happily their technology has not evolved in a hundred years, so components are still readily available, and in the hands of a good re-builder an old piano can be made new again. Yes, they are better pianos than any of the current Japanese, Korean, Chinese or Indonesian new piano of today - and don't let anyone tell you different.

Many advertisements in the paper which appear to be private people selling pianos are really dealers, and they are usually selling dubious pianos with inadequate work performed. Remember they've already deceived you once with a misleading ad. When a buyer discovers that the prices are negotiable, this makes things more complicated for them.  After all, what price should they really pay for the piano they want?  How do they know what is fair?  What is included in the price?


CONSUMER INFORMATION REPORT (Retail Prices and Quality from 1974)
Because of the large time span covered, this guide is also intended for those who are buying a used piano who wish to know something about the quality of a used piano of long ago.

You are shopping for and interested in buying a piano, and that you share some of the questions and problems similar to other piano buyers.  Any advice we give you about buying a piano, is really based upon opinion and experience.  This Guide was created as a tool to help you do things on your own.  It does require more than just looking up a piano price in the guide and asking the dealer to give you a piano for the low price listed for that model.   I recommend that you read everything on this page before using the guide.  This will help you understand the context for the prices offered and give you suggestions as to how to use this information. 

Today's piano market is flooded with dozens of brand names pianos coming from countries like the U.S., Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, China and Russia. With so many models and price points offering different features for different segments of the public, it is impossible to generalize the quality of one brand over another. Although it is important for you to be happy with a beautiful-looking instrument, don't let it be the deciding factor in purchasing a fine quality musical instrument. Let the quality of construction, the tone and the feel of the keyboard be the final judge. Plan to spend plenty of time browsing on several trips, and promise yourself you won't make a decision before you see as many pianos as possible. Visit as many reputable piano retailers as are available to you.

Play as many pianos as possible, from the best to the worst, just to get an idea of the differences in touch and tone. You can learn a lot about what you like by playing pianos that either you can't afford, or that are too poor in quality for you. After you have narrowed your choice down to about 2 or 3 pianos whose tone, touch and appearance appeal to you, negotiate a price with the salesperson. Every piano should come with a bench and at least one free tuning. You can usually knock 10 to 20 percent off the price tag if you are willing to walk away and think about it, or go to another dealer. 

RETAIL PIANO PRICE GUIDE - CURRENT STREET PRICES OF NEW PIANOS

When shopping for a piano you'll find that dealers don't want to give you price information over the phone. They expect  you to come into the store and hear a sales presentation before prices are given.  If you know what  pianos cost this can make it very difficult when you want to buy. Most buyers want a general idea of the marketplace before they go out shopping because it helps them to make the larger scale decisions like:  "How much money do I want to spend?"  and "What will I get for what I pay?".  If you buy a tip sheet, a piano book will give you a good understanding of what is available for sale and how much it might cost on the high and low side. Based on someone else's opinion. But don't expect anyone to tell you the truth that doesn't have their hand out.

If you have already been out shopping, you may have found that each dealer has their own "List Price" for their pianos and there often is no consistent information available to you that will help you know what is a fair price for a particular piano. No two dealers are alike, and no two markets are alike. One dealer may mark their piano list price up considerably higher than another so that when they discount the price, it seems that you are getting a much better deal. 

Competition at the Retail Level

Since most of the dealers in the United States offer a variety of models in both domestically produced and imported pianos, manufacturers often compete at the same dealership. The reduction in the number of retail outlets combined with a growing variety of pianos sold has increased competition at dealerships across the country. Many dealers sell both new and used pianos. An industry representative noted that prices advertised on used pianos often serve as a leader to entice customers into the store and provide the opportunity to sell them a new piano.

In the late 1980s, new methods of retailing, called “event sales” and “academic sales” were introduced. These methods were designed to remove excess inventories. The event sales take place at locations such as an armory, stadium parking lot, or hotel ballroom. The academic sales take place at a college or university that advertises the sale of its used pianos in the local newspaper. The prestige of the academic establishment’s music department is used to sell instruments that have been at the department for varying lengths of time. New pianos are also brought to colleges and universities for these sales. Piano companies were allowed to use the University’s letterhead on specific occasions and obtain alumni mailing lists. Alumni are often inclined to buy pianos on these occasions and are willing to pay relatively high prices because they believe that their purchases will benefit the institutions. Although this type of sale was originally designed to remove excess inventories, it has become a more regular method of marketing for certain U.S. producers and importers based on cooperation between the piano manufacturer or dealer and the academic institution.

"They are all fighting for a piece of the pie on the sales floor.”  We currently live in an era of "warehouse" clubs and large chain discounters. This mentality is carrying over into the way people think about all consumer purchases, whether large or small, simple or complex.

Sam's Club is a membership-only warehouse club owned and operated by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The first Sam's Club opened in April 1983 in Midwest City, Oklahoma in the United States. Sam's Club is named after Sam Walton. A division of Wal-Mart announced that it would stock a Kohler & Campbell grand piano in each of its 300 stores, a number of keyboard retailers were justifiably concerned. It would appear that while the giant discounter can move immense quantities of consumer goods but not Grand Pianos. "With only one model, and a reasonable price, We think they actually might help business by putting the idea of grand piano ownership into the minds of the millions of consumers who receive the catalog and visit the store each day. It is certainly presents the piano in a more positive light than a lot of the blow-out armory sales and university promotions the industry has been running."

A Kohler & Campbell grand piano graced the cover of its Christmas catalog, which is mailed to 8 million, and a 1/2 page ad within the publication describes the instrument, although the name is spelled incorrectly as Kohler & Campbell. Priced at $5,450, the 5'1" Kohler & Campbell Grand Piano at SAM'S Club was competitively priced, but certainly not at a level dramatically below many specialized keyboard dealers.

The first thing a buyer usually discovers when looking for a piano, is that the prices are usually not fixed, they are negotiable.  The piano "sale" is still an event used to motivate purchases on the spot, but most buyers take more time to make their decision.  And that time taken will show them that prices are not what they at first seem.  Something usually tips the buyer off to this fact.  Buyers may call a store and ask for prices over the phone, only to be told that prices are only given to buyers in person. Or they may receive one price over the phone and another when they walk in the door.  A buyer may find that none of the pianos are marked by price.  A salesperson may drop the price on a piano to motivate the buyer to close the sale today.  

This is what makes piano pricing in the US a complete jungle, i.e. the lack of control that manufacturers have on the pricing by the distributors and dealers in the US. Retail pricing is the responsibility of the dealer. No two dealers are alike, and no two markets are alike and many starting retail prices are set by individual dealers. Prices will vary from dealer to dealer with local economic conditions. Discounts of 20 to 25% are normal. One dealer may mark their piano list price up considerably higher than another so that when they discount the price, it seems that you are getting a much better deal. 

There are laws that prohibit the making, or the permitting of the making, of any materially false or misleading representation, to the public, as to the ordinary selling price of a product, in any form whatever. The ordinary selling price is determined by using one of two tests: either a substantial volume of the product was sold at that price or a higher price, within a reasonable period of time (volume test); or the product was offered for sale, in good faith, for a substantial period of time at that price or a higher price (time test).

  • In the event that the represented ordinary price refers to the ordinary price of suppliers in the market, unless these suppliers have sold a substantial volume of the product at the represented ordinary price, or alternatively, these suppliers have offered the product for sale in good faith at the represented ordinary price, this price can not be referenced as the ordinary price.
  • In the event that the represented ordinary price refers to the supplier's ordinary price, unless the supplier has sold a substantial volume of the products at the represented ordinary price, or alternatively, the supplier has offered the product for sale in good faith at the represented ordinary price, this price can not be referenced as the ordinary price.

If manufacturers were to make public "Manufacturer Maximum Selling Prices" - as is the case in Europe - there would be no way the dealer could first mark up these and thereafter apply a discount. The end user price would then vary somewhat from dealer to dealer but would be determined by what discount the difference between wholesale and that 'recommended max. selling price', and legal constrictions would be possible for any particular dealer.

None of our published price guides profess to provide anything more than a general reflection of marketplace conditions compiled just prior to publication. The more sources you consult, the more informed your buying or selling decisions will be. It's really as simple as that! Just keep in mind that these are only guides, and that there really is no substitute for experience. There is wisdom in a multitude of council.


Consumer Guides to Quality & Price Guidelines for Used Pianos

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