If there is only one piece of advice we can give you, it is this:
Have a technician inspect a used piano before you decide to purchase it!!
You wouldn’t buy a used car without having a mechanic look under the bonnet, would you?
Pianos age the way houses or people do. When they are 80, 90 or 100 years old they always need a great deal of work, the cost of which will exceed the price of many new or newer entry level pianos: if a piano is going to be enjoyed inexpensively, then a newer instrument is a better candidate. If money is still a problem, then consider trying a digital piano.
Most people buying old pianos focus primarily on the sound, forgetting all about the complex mechanical system controlled by the eighty-eight keys. This mechanism wears out and replacement components are expensive. The older the piano, the more probable it is that the machine is very worn, resulting in “touch” that is noisy and very inconsistent.
Any piano buying decision is a blend of three components: a good long-term musical instrument, a piece of furniture you like or can accept, and an amount of money you are comfortable with spending. You may give up some of one component to get more of another, but remember a piano is something you must live with for a long time; it is important to be comfortable with it musically, financially, and cosmetically.
Most people pay too much for old pianos; the as-is value of old pianos is actually quite low. Unfortunately however, a naive buyer may see new pianos for £3,000 and think an old piano for £800 is a bargain. In reality they will probably pay £600 too much, particularly if it requires thousands of pounds worth of work.
Do not think that pianos age like violins and guitars. Unlike violins and guitars, the strings in a piano create literally tons of stress which takes its toll on soundboards, bridges, and pin-blocks, aging a piano far more quickly than other strung instruments. Also, there is nothing between your fingers and the strings of a violin or guitar, but when you play a piano, you express yourself through a very complicated machine which like any machine wears out as it is used.
Many parents think any old piano will do for their children starting out. If these parents knew as much about pianos as they do bicycles they would realize that their children were about to go on a bike with flat tires, a bent frame, and twisted wheels.
If you find an older piano, which is in fact in good condition for its age, bear in mind that even if you have been very lucky and found an instrument in excellent condition, it would cost at least £400-£700 to put it in a similar condition to one you’ll find at a reputable dealer or a piano technician’s collection. Unfortunately most older pianos require far more expensive repair.
If a piano passes a common sense test – i.e: the price is right and it does not seem to have been abused – then you might leave a deposit subject to approval by a technician.
Many advertisements in the paper which appear to be private people selling pianos are really dealers, and they are usually selling dubious pianos with inadequate work performed. Remember they’ve already deceived you once with a misleading ad. Some ads are from technicians who independently rebuild or refurbish pianos at their own private workshop. Since they don’t have the pressures of operating costs and overhead like a retail store does, their prices can be very competitive compared to dealers. The amount of actual “rebuilding” and replacement with new parts, however, can vary considerably from one technician to another, or one piano to another. Once again, if you like the piano’s look, sound and feel, bring a technician to inspect its structural and mechanical condition before you decide to buy it.
If you fall in love with the cabinet charm and craftsmanship of an older piano, then it is something like falling in love with a beautiful turn-of-the-century home. The cost of restoration is certainly worthwhile, but it will make the home (piano) far more expensive than most new or newer homes (pianos). It is true that many old pianos were wonderfully made, and happily their technology has not evolved in a hundred years, so components are still readily available, and in the hands of a rebuilder an old piano can be made new again.