There may be no more difficult questions to answer than "What's this piano worth?" Usually the person asking this question is on the other end of a telephone line and can't remember the brand name of the instrument. A piano's value is almost entirely based on condition. In order to get an accurate valuation, you MUST have an expert come and look at it. Over the years when I have been pressed to "at least give me a ball-park idea of what it's worth?", I have always answered that it's somewhere between $0 and a lot. Always keep in mind that something is only worth what someone will pay for it. Let's split piano valuation in half along the most common dividing line. Are you looking to buy or are you looking to sell?
If you are looking to buy, a piano that is being sold privately by the owner should be priced considerably lower than if you are looking at the same instrument at a reputable dealer. That sounds a bit odd doesn't it? Let me explain. When you buy from a private individual, there will be none of the value added items that come along with buying from a dealer. The buyer will usually have to pay the piano mover or do it themselves; there will be no warranty; you will have to hire and pay your own tuner when it is delivered; there will be no trade in guarantee; and you will have no realistic recourse if something goes wrong with the deal and you feel you've been taken. All of these things can add up to quite a bit of value. Yes, you will pay more, but you'll get more. Not to say that that is the only way to go. There are private deals to be had, but in my own professional experience, they are a bit few and far between. I estimate that I purchased about 10% of the used pianos that people wanted to sell me. Sometimes the owners were overly optimistic about the selling price, but more often the piano was not worth the combined total of what they were asking and my cost to make it salable. My thought as a dealer was always that I had to be able to stand behind what I sold, so even if the piano was free, I often turned it down. Be careful. Get help from an expert.
If you're on the other end of the spectrum and wanting to sell your piano, things are a bit different. Be realistic. I'm pretty sure that everyone who has ever asked me to buy their piano has told me that it's in perfect condition, both mechanically and aesthetically, and it has beautiful tone. "After all, my grandmother was a concert pianist." My best estimates are that approximately 93.4% of grandmothers who ever lived were concert pianists. Look at your piano with the eyes of a buyer, not a seller. Are there any scratches? Chipped keytops? I was once offered a Steinway vertical that was, of course, in perfect condition. When I arrived at the home and examined the piano I found that the treble side of the piano was charcoal. It had been on fire! When I mentioned it to the seller, he said he didn't think it would matter. I asked him whether it would matter to him if he was in my store to buy a piano. He grudgingly admitted that it would.
If you call a dealer to buy your piano, be sure to understand that they will not be paying retail for it. They are in the business of buying and selling to make a profit, so they will pay a wholesale price minus any repair costs. It will be quick and easy if they decide to buy it but you will not get top dollar. Selling privately also brings with it the fact that you may have to have strangers come into your home. In this day and age many people are not comfortable with that prospect, for good reason. This may make what a dealer offers you more acceptable too. If you do call a dealer, make sure you have as much information for them as you can. Know the make, model, height (upright) or length (grand), serial number, finish, service history, and whatever else you can. A good way to start is to take some pictures and email them to the dealer.
Another part of being realistic is acknowledging that, contrary to popular opinion, pianos do not last forever.If you have either a tiny little spinet or a gigantic old upright from the turn of the last century, it's not worth much. Take whatever you can get. If you inherit a Steinway grand on the other hand, consult a professional you can trust because it is worth significant money.
If you decide to sell privately, go to as many piano stores as you can and gather some data based on what they are selling similar instruments for. You will have to price yours below theirs so it's good to know what they are listed at. If you have a piano you'd like to sell down the road, make sure you have a piano technician in regularly to provide routine piano maintenance and care.
If you only take one thing away from this blog, make it this: Find a professional you can trust and take advantage of their knowledge and experience.