Buying a piano in 2014

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I spent yesterday looking at pianos–12 hours of looking in fact. Here in Atlanta, we have lots of dealers and we hit them all. The brands we played were Schimmel, Kawai (including their elite line Shigero), Steinway, Boston, Yamaha, Bosendorfer, Seiler, and Estonia. We played a lot of the cheaper brands too (Baldwin, Hailun, Knabe, Young Chang) but we were not interested so I won’t discuss them here.

Up front, I should say that I own a 7′ Seiler, a handmade German piano. Most of you have never heard of Seiler because few are sold in the US. I fell in love with it when I played it and got a great deal and went ahead and bought it even though I knew that its lack of name recognition might cause problems if I ever needed to sell it. Seiler is a top ten piano in the world though and my model now lists for about $120,000 and has a street price of about $70,000 (I paid a fraction of that about 12 years ago and even though I have used mine a ton, could still sell it for at least what I paid for it.)

I tell you that because it will help you understand a bit about how I see pianos. I want quality rather than a popular name. Let everyone else rave about Yamaha and Kawai but unless you buy their upper end (Shigero Kawai or the CF Yamaha concert grand), you are not getting an elite piano. You are just getting a very good piano and you are paying an elite piano price because of the brand recognition. I will say this again: I am not knocking the C-7 or the RX-7 because they are very good pianos. They are just not elite pianos. They are like buying a Honda (which I drive by the way) rather than a Lexus.

Here is something else very different about how I judge pianos. I play them soft. Most of the time, I use the soft pedal and see what I feel when I play them very soft. I am playing so softly usually that while playing, I can carry on a conversation using a normal voice with the dealer who always seems compelled to bore me with useless facts about the history of the piano I am playing. If he gets especially boring, I play a bit louder. But the true test of a big piano is not in how loud it can get; it is in how it sounds soft and how much control you have when playing soft.

My favorite pianos are elite European pianos (like Schimmel and Seiler) and Steinway. Again, I don’t care if it is a well known brand in the US or not. I just want quality.

So we were buying a piano yesterday not for me but for a friend for his church. He has a good budget for the piano (actually an amount that I thought was great) but it was still far from the list prices on quality pianos in the size he needs (auditorium seats 800 so he needs 7′ or better).  Suggested dealer prices on all the good brands I mention above for a 7′ grand are $65,000 and up and he was authorized to spend an amount considerably below that.

Here is something you need to know about shopping for pianos: the price tags mean nothing really. Usually there is a MSRP that is grossly inflated. There is also a dealer price that is 30% less maybe. So for example, you might see a price tag on a piano that shows a MSRP price of $100,000 and a dealer price of $70,000. After dickering a bit, the dealer starts reducing and tries to make you think you have a good deal at maybe $62,000.

The truth is that if the dealer is asking $70,000 for a piano, he will possibly sell it for in the range of half of that. No joke. When you are buying a piano and serious about buying it, don’t let a dealer work down a few thousand dollars at a time from some absurd price. Just throw your own absurdly low number at him and let him deal with it. I have watched this happen many times: you may be amazed that he just takes it.

So basically the day went like this: we looked at great pianos and got absurd prices. We countered with what we could pay. And in every case, the price plummeted. In fact, out of four dealers that had pianos we would have considered buying, only one did not almost immediately agree to our price and even he still dropped to a point that was almost where we needed to be.

In my mind, there are a few basic negotiating tips you have to remember. First of all, it is important to find the first piano you would possibly consider buying and negotiate the right price. You can then use that as leverage with the other dealers. For example, you can go to a Yamaha dealer and say something like this: “I know you want $45K for that C-5 but the Kawai dealer will sell me the RX-5 for $25K and I cannot justify paying so much more for a piano I like about the same. If you match their price, I may buy yours.” At this point, you will have to listen to about 20 minutes of spin about why Yamaha is sooo much better than Kawai but if you stand your ground, the price will usually drop.

Secondly, don’t fall in love with a piano too quickly and if you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t let the dealer know you have fallen in love. Be noncommittal at all costs. Once you have a deal, go ahead and rave about the piano; they will appreciate that. After all they want to make you happy too for the most part. Dealers are people too; even if the piano business can sometimes get slimy, there are many great dealers.

And by the way, I really want to emphasize this. I am not advocating taking advantage of dealers. They have a tough job in this economy and they deserve to make a living too. I am only advocating for you getting a fair price. The truth is that if the dealer is willing to sell the piano at a lower price, that is his choice so you are not really taking advantage anyway. Sleep easy!

So anyway, at the end of yesterday, we have four possible pianos at about the same price. They were a Yamaha C-7, a Kawai RX-7, a Schimmel 7′ concert grand and a 9′ Estonia grand. The Estonia is a European brand sort of like my Seiler–great handmade piano but no name recognition in the US so they cannot get premium prices. It is a great, great piano. It was side by side with a $200,000 9′ Bosendorfer and I liked the Estonia better. And the price was right–because it has been in service a while as a leased instrument for concerts, it is not completely new (though still in perfect shape). Consequently, it is a fraction of the normal street price and in general, the kind of deal I got when I bought my Seiler. I also liked the fact that the dealer is my favorite in town by a wide margin. I don’t trust all the dealers in town for sure but I trust this one a lot.

So we bought it. A world class piano under budget. Mission accomplished.