Making A Key Decision How to buy your first piano--and one to last a lifetime
By James E. Reynolds

(MONEY Magazine) – There are many reasons to succumb to the magical spell of a piano. Perhaps you've never been able to resist breaking into "Chopsticks" when you pass by a keyboard. Maybe you've decided your kids are ready for that familiar rite of passage: piano lessons. Or you simply want to enhance the grandeur of your living room with an instrument that any visitor would love to play.

Whatever your motive, you're not alone. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, sales of new pianos have rebounded from a two-decade slump. Last year, Americans bought some 90,000 new acoustic pianos, up 14% from a year earlier. Add the even greater number of used pianos bought and sold and the thousands passed down within families, and the number of households that acquired a piano last year comes to approximately 2 million.

But buying a piano can be a mystifying experience. Unless you're an accomplished musician who can take every model for a tuneful test drive, the rows of polished pianos in a dealer's showroom basically look alike, regardless of price or quality. Let's face it, most of us don't know much about pianos beyond the fact that they have 88 keys (which, by the way, are usually made of plastic, not ivory and ebony wood). So how can someone with a tin ear pick out a piano that sings? And how much do you have to pay for a well-constructed instrument that with standard care, such as twice-a-year tunings, will last long enough for your children's children to enjoy?

The first step, says Larry Fine, author of the piano-buying bible The Piano Book (800-545-2022), is to ask yourself some questions. First, who will play the piano--and how well? If you're buying a piano for your child's lessons, spend enough (a minimum of $3,000 for an upright, $8,000 for a grand) to get a quality instrument, but not so much that you'll kick yourself if your kid quits. A weak-sounding, out-of-tune piano can be as discouraging to the novice player as the prospect of mastering an E-flat major scale.

If you're buying for an accomplished player, the next question should be: What type of music does he or she play? If it's jazz, you might prefer a piano from a Japanese manufacturer such as Yamaha or Kawai. The sound of their pianos is considered brighter or crisper than the lush, romantic tones produced by an American- or Western European-made piano. Classical musicians generally prefer the latter.

Next, how much space do you have? This influences the size piano you can get--and in the piano world, size does matter. Generally, the longer the strings, the better the sound and the more capable the piano is of conveying nuanced playing.

The final questions are related: How long do you want the piano to last, and what's your price limit? As the workmanship improves (generally with more parts crafted by hand) and the materials get finer (higher-grade spruce for the soundboard, for example), the price rises. One consolation is that a high-quality piano that's well maintained will last for generations and retain much of its value.

Armed with the answers to those questions, you're ready to head to your local piano dealer, where you should aim to bargain the price down to about 20% below what the retailer is asking (except on a Steinway, where markups are small).

An upright deal

If you're buying a starter piano for a youngster, you'll probably want to keep the price between $3,000 and $7,000. If so, stick with an upright. Why? David Abell, owner of David L. Abell Fine Pianos in Los Angeles, puts it succinctly: "You can't get bubkes for $5,000 in the grand-piano world."

Uprights are so named because their inner workings run perpendicular to the floor, forming the back of the piano. Those include the strings and the soundboard, the slightly crowned piece of wood that is connected to the strings by a harplike iron plate and amplifies their vibrations into the sound you hear. Uprights come in four sizes: spinet (36 inches to 39 inches tall), console (40 inches to 43 inches), studio (43 inches to 47 inches) and full upright (47 inches to 52 inches). The smaller the piano, the shorter the strings and the less capable the instrument is of producing full-bodied tones, especially in the lower registers. Hence, our experts say that a spinet is seldom worth buying unless you are desperately limited for space.

For a well-made upright in this price range, stick with a model from Yamaha, Kawai, the Korean manufacturer Young Chang or the Elkhart, Ind.-based Charles R. Walter. The Walter 1520 consoles, which sell for about $7,000, are particularly prized for their warm sound. This American manufacturer also takes buyers' decorating considerations into account by offering a variety of styles and veneers from cherry to mahogany.

Among studios, the Kawai UST 7 ($6,070 list price) is a well-built option, says Fine. Unlike the decorative Walters, this piano has a plainer look. Yet its musical quality and sturdiness make it a school favorite. Piano tuners, on the other hand, love the Yamaha U1, a full upright that sells for $7,200 or more. The design gives workers easy access to the inside for faster tunings. You'll love the grandlike sound the longer strings produce. Yamaha also makes some of the highest-quality low-end uprights, the M450 series consoles, which sell for about $3,600.

If you don't like the brighter tone produced by an Asian-made piano, a store technician can adjust the sound for free--by softening the felt on the hammers, for instance--before you take delivery.

A grand experiment

If your heart is set on a grand, prepare to dig deep into your pockets. At a minimum, you'll have to spend nearly $10,000 for a well-crafted model. (You could drop $75,000 on a top-of-the-line instrument.) What you get for this hefty price tag is a better tone than an upright produces. Not only are the strings longer, but the open lid lets the sound better fill a room. Plus, a grand's horizontal orientation makes the "action," which is the intricate mechanism connecting the keys to the hammers that strike the strings, more responsive to your touch.

As with verticals, grand pianos come in a variety of sizes: baby (4 1/2 feet to 5 1/2 feet in length), medium (5 1/2 feet to 7 1/2 feet) and concert (7 1/2 feet to 9 1/2 feet). Grands selling for $10,000 to $25,000 are available from Japanese, Korean, American, German and, most recently, Eastern European manufacturers.

One satisfactory grand for less than 10 grand is from the Young Chang PG series, designed for the Korean manufacturer by former Steinway engineer Joseph Pramberger. At just under five feet long, the PG 150 baby grand, which sells for $9,500, will fit neatly in the corner of any room. Fine recommends that you have the dealer adjust the somewhat uneven tone before delivery.

The Czech manufacturer Petrof makes the V model, a five-foot, three-inch-long baby grand that lists for $17,200. According to Fine, this Petrof has a "lush, romantic sound not usually found in pianos at this price." Because the Petrof's keys are especially firm, a casual player may want to ask the dealer to lighten the action to make the keys more responsive.

Approaching the $20,000 mark, Yamaha, Kawai and Baldwin, a longtime U.S. manufacturer, make fine grands. The Baldwin six-foot-long R model ($24,000; satin ebony finish) is a particularly good buy, especially because of its sturdiness and strong resale value.

Of course, if money is no object and performance and craftsmanship are your foremost criteria, head for a Steinway dealer (call 800-345-5086 for the nearest one). These world-class pianos retain more of their value than any other American piano, making them comparable to those made by the great European manufacturers Bosendorfer and Bechstein. Why is a Steinway Model L, a five-foot, 10 1/2-inch-long medium grand, worth $39,400? All 12,000 parts have been handcrafted by skilled artisans using the finest materials, such as hard-rock maple for the casing and top-grade spruce for the soundboard.

A classical revival

All those lapsed piano students in the world keep the used-piano marketplace well stocked, and buying a secondhand piano is a great way to get a higher-quality instrument than you might otherwise be able to afford. The same dealers who sell new pianos often have a selection of overhauled used ones.

You'll find three degrees of restoration. A repaired piano has had some parts replaced, but it's basically in original condition, good or bad. A reconditioned piano has been cleaned from top to bottom, but few parts have been replaced. The most extensive overhaul is rebuilding, which can cost from $5,000 to $15,000 and involves replacing the strings, the pin block (the solid wood anchor beneath the tuning pins) and the soundboard.

If you want to buy a used piano directly from the seller, hire a piano technician to examine your find first. "A technician can dismantle a piano and judge not only whether the instrument is sound mechanically but also whether it has musical integrity," says Peter Moffitt, a technician and composer in Brooklyn. You'll pay between $50 and $75 an hour for a pro to examine your prospect, which should take about an hour. To find a local technician, call or surf to the Piano Technicians Guild (816-753-7747; www.ptg.org).

If you do stumble on a gem, your savings can be substantial. One afternoon in September, Moffitt examined an early- 1970s Yamaha baby grand selling for $7,500 (as opposed to the $10,000-plus needed for a new one) and gave it high marks. With a deal like that, your kid can start training to become the next Thelonious Monk or Van Cliburn. And you can learn to play other songs besides "Chopsticks."