There is nothing you can't buy on the internet these days. Nothing. The convenience of never having to leave your couch to make a purchase is powerful. For many items, buying sight unseen makes perfect sense. For others, not so much. Clothing is at the top of the list when it comes to most common online purchases. Where do pianos fit into the equation?
The answer is not as simple as it would seem. But let's assume for the moment that we are not talking about digital pianos, only acoustic or "real" pianos and that you actually care how the piano performs. We are also assuming that the piano is some distance from you so that you cannot see it before buy it. If you meet these criteria, I believe the answer is NO; you should never buy a piano on the internet. Let me try to explain why.
A piano is a very individual and personal thing. People have widely differing tastes. What sounds good to you might not sound good to me or anyone else. Piano actions vary as much in their feel as the sound does. I have more than once had pianos in my store that sounded so bad to me that I thought I could never possibly sell it. And yet.....along came the right person. Every time. How can you possibly expect to determine how a piano sounds or feels if you can't play it with your own fingers and hear it with your own ears?
Let’s also consider how a seller describes an item as compared to how a buyer views it. If both the seller and the buyer were asked to give a description of the same item, it's unlikely that you could tell that they were describing the same thing. I once had a gentleman try to sell me his older Steinway vertical piano which was in "like new" condition. He went on and on about it on the phone. It sounded fantastic! When I arrived to examine it, I discovered that one end of the piano had been on fire! It was charcoal! He told me he didn't thank that it mattered. I asked him what his reaction would be if he walked into my store to buy a piano and I showed him one that had been on fire. Would he consider that a determining factor in the purchase? He reluctantly agreed that it would. I had a hard time finding appropriate wording to let him know that I was not interested. His opinion of his piano was a little different than mine.
I could, but won't, go into all of the potential pitfalls that could arise with this type of transaction. Let me repeat for you what a manufacturer's rep told me years ago. If you see a piano for sale on Ebay or Craig's List, the first thing you can be certain of is that potential buyers who live close enough to go and see it would not buy it. That’s a very telling statement when you think about it. So why wouldn’t they buy it? Maybe it's as simple as the price being too high. Likely not, since a bit of negotiating can usually fix that. Maybe it sounded dreadful or played poorly. Whatever the reason, let's think about that for a minute. Nearby buyers, upon viewing the ad either decided without even going to see it that it was not worth their time OR, more likely, after they had gone to see and play it, they made the fully informed choice to walk away. Now the seller is hoping that someone who is not able to make a fully informed decision will buy it. That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.
One television or coffee maker is exactly like the next one of the same model. They are commodities. A musical instrument is such a personal choice that it should not be made without all the information you can possibly garner. Play the piano you might want to purchase. Pay a respected piano technician to examine it and give you a report. Buying from a reputable piano store can also be a wise choice. It may seem like you pay more, but always consider one important word when you are buying privately. Recourse. If I buy a piano from my neighbor's cousin's friend’s uncle, what is my recourse when the piano tuner comes to tune it and tells me that it is untunable? If you buy from a reputable store, since they are an established business that relies on their reputation in the community they will be obligated to make it right. Peace of mind can be worth a lot. A reputable store will usually include a warranty, even on used pianos. They will arrange professional delivery. They will be able to provide tuning and any other after sales service. Often, when you add up the cost of those items, the private sale "steal of a deal" is not so good after all. Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as saying “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” There is nothing you can't buy on the internet these days. Nothing. The convenience of never having to leave your couch to make a purchase is attractive. For many items, buying sight unseen makes perfect sense. For others, not so much. Clothing is at the top of the list when it comes to most common online purchases. Where do pianos fit into the equation?
I'll end this blog with one last anecdote. A tuning client of mine went the internet route for a piano twice. I had been tuning his small, but nice Petrof grand piano for some time. When I arrived one day to tune, I discovered a shiny black Bösendorfer in its place. He had purchased it on Ebay from a "broker" in England and had it FedExed to the US. I got down to the business of tuning it and with great relief was able to tell him that the piano was indeed a very nice instrument. I also cautioned him strongly that he had been a bit lucky and that if he ever decided to do something like this again that I would be happy to talk to him first. Several years later, when I showed up to tune the Bösendorfer, I found a Hamburg Steinway model C in its place. He had traded the Bösendorfer on the Steinway to someone he found on-line. This time he was not so lucky. By the time I was done adding up the large numbers on the repair estimate I prepared, his bill totaled almost $10,000. The seller refused to stand behind it saying everything was fine when the piano left his place. What could my client do? Nothing, other than pay me to repair it. He learned a very expensive lesson.