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Shopping for Pianos at Estate Sales

I’ve long considered picking up a piano at an estate sale.

I have room on my front porch, and a daughter in whom I should probably try to nurture some sort of musical ability. That’s what good parents do, right? We tried violin lessons, but it got to the point where both she and I wanted to throw it right out the window rather than fight our way through practice sessions.

If we’re going to try again, the piano seems like a good and logical next step. It’s too big to throw, plus, it will really class up the joint.

So I’ve been searching, waiting for the right piano to fall from the sky and into my lap—or rather, to make an appearance at a nearby estate sale (because that first option would hurt). Maybe a former music teacher is downsizing in order to move to a smaller home. Perhaps an heirloom piano has been passed from one family member to the next, and the buck finally stopped. Maybe some young, smart, and beautiful content writer bought one for her child, who quickly abandoned it after a few weeks of half-hearted practice. Without the upper-body strength necessary to unceremoniously eject it onto her front lawn, she instead allowed it to sit quietly on, say, her front porch for years, adding a much-needed modicum of fanciness to her home.

Whatever the reason, estate sales are a great place to shop for pianos. But the monetary savings you find at estate sales comes with its own price. Without a dealer to vet your choices ahead of time, you need to know what to look for, and you need to prepare yourself for the work—and cost—that will go into bringing one home.

In a situation where you may not be able to give your instrument the most thorough inspection, what are some key things you should look for to help ensure the piano you buy is one you’ll be able to enjoy for years to come? We spoke to Jeff Cappelli, director of Chicago Piano Service Inc., to get some insight. His company offers piano tuning, repair, appraisal, rebuilding, restoration, and refinishing services to the Chicago area, and he has done so for more than 35 years.

“The best point I can make about trying to figure out whether or not a piano is a good one or not at an estate sale is to bring a piano technician with you to look at it,” Cappelli said. “There isn’t a way to be an instant expert, and know all the things that may be telltale signs.” A tuner, he explained, will test the tuning pins to ensure they’re tight, and that they can still be tuned. “That’s the primary thing that needs to work—you have to be able to tune the piano, otherwise, significant work and expense may be necessary.”

Depending on the sale and the seller, this is a possibility. Many estate sale companies will allow early viewings of certain items, and it would be possible to bring someone with you to inspect it. But that’s not always an option. So, absent a professional technician, what can you look for?

“You can look at the condition of the strings and the hammers,” Cappelli said. Lift the top and look. “If you’re seeing rust and dust, if it looks old and dingy, that’s not a good sign.” An instrument with a clean interior is likely one that has been properly maintained. He also recommends checking for cracks in the spruce soundboard located beneath the strings.

Next, check the keys. Do they all work? “Listen to the piano, even if you don’t play. And if you know somebody that does, bring them along,” Cappelli said. How the piano sounds is an indication of how well its been cared for. “Pianos need to be tuned so the tension on the strings is correct. And they need to be maintained over time in correct tune,” Cappelli said. “If a piano has been sitting for 20 years and has not been tuned, it may have a detrimental effect,” he said, or at the very least, it will require several tunings to restabilize it and bring it up to pitch.

A benefit of going to an estate sale for a piano is that you can see where it’s been living. Was it kept in a place where it wouldn’t be harmed by the elements (e.g. a large window or a damp basement)? These conditions can affect the playability and longevity of an instrument—high humidity, for example, can cause an instrument to crack. “It’s very good to look and see if there’s been any water damage, because that can be detrimental to a piano,” Cappelli said. “If there’s been a flood, or if they live in a humid environment, there can be mold.” He also warned against pests, which can get into a piano and cause damage. "It's not uncommon for mice and even rats to find their way in," he said.

You might also consider the brand of piano being offered. A Steinway, for example, may have more value simply for the name alone. And there are many other reliable brands in the business, including Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe, among others.

So, you’ve found a piano that looks to be in good condition—enough so that you’re willing to take a chance. Now, you have to get it home. This, Cappelli says, is another place where professional services are a must.

“I know exactly how to move a piano myself, but I won’t tell you, because it’s a really risky option,” Cappelli said. “You can get hurt, the piano can fall and get badly damaged. There’s no good homeowner way to do it—there are a lot of unhappy endings.”

But, of course, there are those who, despite professional warnings, will attempt to handle the moving themselves. Sigh. Okay, here are just a few tips if you do dare to move the piano itself.

Do not lift the piano by its legs, which can easily break off. And if your piano happens to have wheels, do not rely on them to get you from Point A to Point B. For all intents and purposes, they are decorative. Check instead for handles in the the back, in the case of an upright piano. Use a dolly, but be sure to stabilize it because some pianos can have curved bottoms which will cause issues if you don’t.

Keep your piano well-padded to prevent scratches. Make sure you have enough manpower, and that said manpower is appropriately dressed, with closed-toed shoes. (If you're moving a grand piano,  for example, have at least three strong adults on hand—one to lift each "side.") Follow proper lifting procedure (use your legs, not your back), and for heaven's sake, be careful.

Like the old saying goes: You can't play a piano with a broken back. (Well, if it's not an old saying, it should be.)

But really, moving the instrument yourself is a bad idea. Without real piano-moving experience and know-how, hiring a mover is your best and safest bet. Pianos weigh hundreds of pounds, are large and unwieldy, and unless you live next to a frat house, it might be difficult to find enough friends willing to break their backs for some free pizza and / or beer. There are simply too many opportunities to injure yourself, your helpers, the piano, or your home. So talk to the estate sale company to arrange professional pickup of the piano at a time convenient for both of you. There are people who have successfully moved a piano without professional assistance, but if this is something you’re hoping to bring into your home and actively play, it will be worth the extra cost.

Which is another topic we should bring up: there are costs to this instrument beyond the sale price. Moving costs, of course, but once you get it home, there’s still work to be done.

“Tuning and cleaning would be the first two things,” Cappelli said. Depending on how frequently the piano was played in its past life, multiple tunings may be required in order to get the instrument into its best working order.

Next is regulation, which adjusts the mechanical aspects of the piano that may have been affected by wear, tear, and age. It ensures correct parts alignment, and that the timing is correct on all the moving parts, Cappelli said. “A lot of times pianos develop friction, which increases the heaviness or the feel of the keys, and the repetition.”

All this initial maintenance is in addition to the regular tunings—usually two to four per year, depending on amount of use—a piano needs. “It’s very typical to spend several hundred dollars to get tuned, cleaned, and regulated,” Cappelli said.

But care and maintenance is all a part of piano ownership, and finding a well-loved and affordable one at an estate sale is a great way to offset other costs. And it will surely be worth it. Your children will practice daily without complaint. They will grow to be prodigies, receiving music scholarships to the colleges of their choice. You’ll host grand New Year’s Eve parties, and with the annual and enthusiastic encouragement of all your guests, you’ll casually slink on top of the piano with a glass of champagne in hand, and beguile everyone with a sultry rendition of “My Funny Valentine” even though it’s, you know, New Year’s Eve. It will be endearing when you do it.

All this will happen. I’m sure of it. Just make sure you pick out the right piano, and not necessarily the first one you come across.

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