Assessing a piano prior to purchase

This can be an iffy universe, depending on whom is hired to do the new or used piano evaluation. I had one negative experience, paying a tech who basically had a commercial tie to the seller, who was himself a technician buying and selling pianos. Nevertheless, I still embraced my “new” Baldwin Hamilton’s character and tone, though ideally, I would not have anticipated all the man-size work needed. (particularly the overhauled action recommendation, ex post facto) Now that alone would have run me 6 to 10K– an investment I would not undertake, given the $1495 I paid for the piano.

Words of warning

Some piano examiners might charge $500 to do what they advertise as a complete inspection, when in fact, it will likely fall short of a comprehensive screening due to time constraints. Okay, so “the hammers look great…they’re not deeply grooved,” while these are sitting on the front rail, causing all kinds of regulation problems. Or the bushings, old as the hills, are contributing to more problems not always picked up by the tech. He may not have looked carefully.

For instance, Mark Schecter, RPT talked about “bad actors” hiding in inconspicuous nooks and crannies of the piano. So it might take a whole day or more to find these, costing the consumer prohibitive dollars.

But I also believe that techs parceling out the inspection as a separate cost (often inflationary) and then deciding to do the billed work on the piano at a hefty charge, would likely be out of range for a used piano buyer.

One of the reasons I passed up the services of another tech, was because he wanted to charge me a significant amount to assess the Baldwin piano– All well and good for him and his business needs. But I wanted to cut to the chase and have the tech I engaged, begin the regulation process at whatever level he deemed appropriate, putting his work hours to good, practical use.

Another tech whom I ruled out, had an out-of-line estimate to regulate my piano. I promptly crossed him off my list!

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I think the Caveat Emptor warning especially pertains to the “expert” you hire for a particular piano evaluation.

1) Seek a tech with good credentials and experience. I would start with the local symphony for a reference. Call other piano teachers who have fine pianos to maintain. Ask whom they use.

2) Make sure the tech is not affiliated in any way with a dealership (if you are checking out a brand new piano) Those that have dealer connections will get kickback commissions if they nudge a deal over the finish line. (By the same token piano teachers absorb these commissions so don’t ask your instructor to take the place of tech, though she can be of value in an evaluation of an instrument’s tone and timbre)

In the universe of used pianos, many are sold through dealerships, so be cautious!

3) Where piano appraisals are generated by techs for used instruments, BEWARE! I have seen too many inflated reports that fly in the face of truth while others produced from scanty exams, may undercut good pianos. So depending upon whom is paying the tech, his opinion might be swayed.

4) If you’re sending the tech out to evaluate and APPRAISE the prospective piano’s value, ask him about specific measuring criteria, and where he got his COMPS.

5) It’s a good idea to be present at a piano’s assessment, in order to ask pertinent questions and get immediate answers. (Make sure the tech is open about exchanging information. I have run into techs, particularly in situations where I am having work done on my piano, who are threatened by my inquiries, and want to make autonomous decisions about voicing my instrument) I dare a concert technician with this attitude to keep a job with a symphony where soloists come and go and have individual needs regarding the house instrument. Keep the lines of communication open and flowing. If this is not possible, hire another technician who can interact positively and be helpful. (Good chemistry definitely kicks in)

6) Don’t spend a huge chunk of money to evaluate a used piano that is being sold at a bargain price. Consider its resale value against what it might cost to “fix” the piano or rebuild the action.

7) Watch out for techs who basically pad the bill, and make up recommended repairs that are unnecessary, (just like car mechanics) thinking they’ll get the proposed overhaul work if you buy the piano. Many will push the refinishing end of things which will do absolutely nothing for improving the tone or playability of the instrument.

8) If the tech comes across as a money-generating machine, run in the other direction.

Sorry to be harsh, but I’ve had enough experiences with RPTS and Associates whose work was not top quality. And I had to go through an assortment until I found a capable technician who was not going to charge me five times the hourly rate of a piano teacher’s fees to look at a piano I was interested in.

Some techs recommend Larry Fine’s Piano Book, to get a sense of the marketplace of new and used pianos. The problem is, to be currently informed, you have to buy the “new” edition each year.

And then again, one may not agree with Fine’s assessment of particular piano models.