“There’s a free piano on Craigslist.com – I can find someone to help move it and have a free instrument!”
Slow down a minute. I admire the enthusiasm, especially since you having a piano can only help my business. I also have no motive for talking you out of getting a deal on a piano as I’m not yet involved with piano sales. Some day…
Pianos are (almost) never free. I’m not counting tuning as an initial cost because that is standard maintenance.
Why is the current owner getting rid of the piano? Even if it’s simply to clear space, moving and/or down-sizing, the owner doesn’t value the piano for its usefulness. You don’t want to bring home something so large that you’re stuck having to dispose of. This doesn’t disqualify their piano from being an instrument you should value, but it is a consideration to keep in mind while looking.
Also, don’t discount a piano because it’s older. Some of my customers have 100+ year old instruments which have been well cared for and are in better playing condition than pianos built in the last 20 years.
Onto the potential piano pitfalls [did you like the alliteration?]:
After 20+ years of use the action should be regulated. Because pianos are mostly wood, the rise an fall of humidity over extended periods of time cause numerous problems, even if the piano is not played. The wood around screws and flange pins expands and shrinks with moisture variation, the effect of this is that parts come loose and cause: sticking keys, clicking, miss-hitting hammers, and truncated dynamic spectrum. Many technicians stave off a full regulation during their routine tunings. Even so, there are screws that cannot be adjusted without removing the action from the piano.
Something you can check by opening the lid and inspecting the striking point of the hammer – are there lines etched in the felt? If there are reshaping can often remedy the issue. Having lines like that means the notes won’t be as responsive or clear sounding. This is an example of worn hammers which could either be replaced or reshaped.
Regulation and voicing(shaping) without new parts should cost you between $200-500. All labor and typically not an ‘in-home’ service. The action is removed for 1-2 weeks of working time.
The keys are easy to visually inspect and make a decision on the cosmetics but it is important they function properly. The key height and distance they travel when pressed need to be uniform as well as stable in their pivoting motion. If the keys look like this, you’ll probably need work
Work involving the keys ranges in price from around $200 to over $1,000 depending on what you need.
Barring stability and structural problems, you now have an instrument to play. Unless you find something exceptional, stability and structure repairs are too much of a investment for most searching for a ‘free’ piano (low estimates start @ $2,000 going up to $30,000).
How can you ensure you get a good deal? Hire a technician to inspect your prospect. Most of us can’t perform this service for free, but some will credit the inspection fee towards any repairs you’ll need. I always recommend setting aside a minimum of $700 for acquiring a used piano to at least get the instrument tuned and functioning. If you have some left over, great, but at least you aren’t sitting with a malfunctioning piano.