Buying a used or restored piano is generally more difficult than buying a new one because, in addition to making judgments about the underlying quality of the instrument, you also must make judgments about its condition or about the skill and trustworthiness of the restorer — there's a greater concern about being burned if you make a mistake. Some find this too stressful or time-consuming. Others find the hunt fascinating, and end up discovering an entire world of piano buffs, and piano technical and historical trivia, in their community or online. It helps to remember that a new piano becomes "used" the moment it is first sold. Although junk certainly exists, used pianos actually come in a bewildering variety of conditions and situations, many of which can be quite attractive, musically and financially. The subject is vast. The Piano Book has a chapter devoted to it, including how to do your own preliminary technical examination of a piano. A summary of the most important information, including a description of the most common types of used pianos, where to find them, and how much to pay, can be found in the article "Buying a Used or Restored Piano" elsewhere in this issue.
The Piano Dealer
The piano dealer is a very important part of the piano-buying experience, for several reasons. First, a knowledgeable and helpful salesperson can help you sort through the myriad possibilities and quickly home in on the piano that's right for you. Second, a dealership with a good selection of instruments can provide you with enough options to choose from that you don't end up settling for less than what you really want (although you can make up for this to some extent by shopping among a number of dealers). Third, all pianos arrive from the factory needing some kind of pre-sale adjustment to compensate for changes that occur during shipment, or for musical finishing work left uncompleted at the factory. Dealers vary a great deal in their willingness to perform this work. There's nothing worse than trying to shop for a piano, and finding them out of tune or with obvious defects. It's understandable that the dealer will put the most work into the more expensive pianos, but a good dealer will make sure that even the lower-cost instruments are reasonably playable. Last, a good dealer will provide prompt, courteous, skilled service to correct any small problems that occur after the sale, and act as your intermediary with the factory in the rare event that warranty service is needed. Knowledge, experience, helpfulness, selection, and service — that's what you're looking for in a dealer.
Shopping Long-Distance via the Internet
The question often arises as to whether one should shop for a piano long-distance via the Internet. It turns out that this is really two different questions. The first is whether one should locate a dealer via the Internet, possibly far away, then visit that dealer to buy a piano. The second is whether one should buy a piano sight unseen over the Internet.
If you're shopping for a new piano, you'll probably have to visit a dealer. This is because dealers are generally prohibited by their agreements with manufacturers from quoting prices over the phone or via the Internet to customers outside their "market territory," the definition of which differs from brand to brand. But once you set foot in the dealer's place of business, regardless of where you came from, you're considered a legitimate customer and all restrictions are off, even after you return home. There are no such restrictions for advertising or selling used pianos.
Customers, of course, don't care about "market territories." They just want to get the best deal. Given the ease of comparison shopping via the Internet, and the frequency with which people travel for business or pleasure, dealers are increasingly testing the limits of their territorial restrictions, and more and more sales are taking place at dealerships outside the customer's area. This is a delicate subject in the industry, and the practice is officially discouraged by dealers and manufacturers alike. In private, however, dealers are often happy when the extra business walks in the door (though they hate like heck to lose a sale to a dealer outside their area), and some manufacturers are choosing to look the other way.