Don’t Get a Free Piano: Why They’re Usually the Most Expensive

May 22, 2021

In the Internet age, a quick search can reveal many pianos being offered for free. At first glance, finding a nice-looking “free” piano,  rounding up a few friends to lift it into your truck, and taking home seems like a tempting option. The reality is, however, going for a “free” piano runs a very high risk of ending up with a subpar instrument that requires costly repairs and maintenance work to get it up to an acceptable playing standard. Even worse, you could end up with an unrepairable, untunable piano that you will need to dispose of.

Throughout this post, we’ve included photos of free piano listings around our local area to give you a sense of what you can expect.

The “Shopping” Process

Whether you’re starting your free piano search on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or otherwise, the basic process for finding a free piano is about the same: browsing a few dozen listings near you, finding one that looks good, and messaging the owner to arrange a pickup. The process sounds simple enough, and for the unassuming free piano seeker, the initial ease of the process makes the free piano seem like the right decision. However, there’s quite a bit more to the process than first meets the eye.

One of the largest initial obstacles to finding a good free piano is the lack of useful information on the vast majority of the free piano postings. The typical free piano post has only a few—usually low-quality—images of the piano. Nearly half of the posts don’t mention the brand, model, or any size dimensions. Almost no posts contain serial numbers, which can be used to find out the age and manufacturing place of the piano. There are usually no pictures of the inside mechanisms—hammers, strings, action parts—which can give a good idea of the current condition of the piano. Also lacking is any description of the piano’s tone, key weighting, or other highly useful information that might justify the effort of picking the piano up or scheduling a professional move.

Without most of this useful information, you’re left in the dark as to which pianos might actually be worth the effort to consider seriously. Asking the poster for additional information can sometimes be fruitful, but you’ll find two more major pitfalls of the free piano “shopping” experience:

  1. The vast majority of people giving away free pianos know very little about pianos. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the implications of this mean they very likely cannot provide you with information about how the piano plays, feels, and sounds, if it has soundboard cracks, if it can even still be tuned, the serial number, the model, etc. They might have some additional information for you or might be willing to send you more pictures, but oftentimes this runs into the second problem.
  2. Most posters are impatient and just want the piano gone as soon as possible. Another no-brainer, as they will mostly feel since they are offering this piano for free, they shouldn’t have to “work” with you to win you over on the piano and will have little patience for your questions. One of the most common phrases you’ll find on free piano posts is some iteration of “must go ASAP”. This puts a ton of pressure on you to immediately come out to see the piano. The poster’s assumption is since you came out, you will be picking it up immediately right then and there. This makes additional recommended actions like a professional pick-up or a visit with a piano technician more difficult since the assumption is that you will pick up the piano immediately with few questions asked.

In addition to these difficulties, you will have to sort through posts coming up in searches that aren’t actually in your area, as well as the unfortunate scams that occasionally masquerade as free pianos. Often these scams are free piano posts that seem a bit too good to be true — a newer, higher quality instrument that a poster is claiming to give away when in reality they are phishing for personal information.

The lack of useful info in the description is matched by the lack of a visible piano in the picture.

You’re Getting a Free Piano – Now What?

Most pianos being offered for free online are older, lower quality pianos with little to no market value, and likely have not been properly stored, maintained, or even tuned for many years. Though this doesn’t describe every single free piano being given away, it’s important to remember: if this piano is being given away for free, it’s because it has no value to the owner. It’s reasonable to assume that if the owner doesn’t value the instrument, it hasn’t been properly taken care of.

With over 12,000 individual parts in an acoustic piano that must be in good shape and in proper alignment for a decent playing experience, it is highly likely a “free” piano will require hundreds of dollars worth of technician work to be brought to an acceptable playing standard, assuming the piano is even in a repairable state. This would be very difficult to impossible for anyone without a lot of technical knowledge about pianos to discern. Even with this work completed, there remains a high probability of expensive future repairs as the piano acclimates to a change of environment and receives regular use that it hasn’t seen in many years. Here’s a breakdown of the hidden costs for an average “free” piano:

Note: these costs are general estimates and will vary by area and by technician

Moving – While you may be considering picking up the piano yourself, this runs a high risk of injury to yourself, your friends, and the piano. Most free pianos are in a fragile state and an unprofessional move can easily cause more damage in repairs than the cost of a professional move. Your best option is paying for a professional move, costing approximately $200–$300.

Tuning – Your “free” piano most likely has not been regularly tuned in a long time. Assuming it is still capable of holding a tune (which you would not know until a technician has attempted to tune it), you’re not just looking at a single standard tuning. An older upright that has not seen regular tuning in years and has just been moved into a new home could easily require 3-4 tunings in just the first year to regain the ability to hold its tune, costing approximately $500 depending on local tuning rates. 

Cleaning – Most “free” pianos will likely have sat for decades in a home, garage, or storage unit. It would be fair to say they haven’t been worked on internally for many, many years and have accumulated a fair amount of dust and dirt. Additionally, the piano could have been negatively affected by pets or smoking during its life. This dust/grime accumulation is bad news for the 12,000 parts in a piano. It impacts the sound, playability, and is a good indicator of the overall condition of the internal parts. Another worry is the potential of pest infestation being brought into your home from your free piano. A thorough cleaning of the inside and outside of the piano by a skilled technician is recommended, which can cost somewhere from $100–$300.

Repairs – Your “free” piano will almost certainly be in need of regulation, essentially re-aligning those 12,000 mostly wooden parts in order to play consistently. There’s a good chance several parts will need to be replaced. Depending on what needs to be replaced or repaired, these costs could easily stretch from several hundred dollars of repair labor to potentially thousands if substantial parts replacements are required.

At the end of the day with all this work completed, you’re still left with a lower-quality instrument that remains highly liable to break down again within a few years. Remember: even with all the repair work possible completed, the piano is still limited by its initial construction. Most free pianos currently on the web were made between the 1950s and the 1980s. Most of them were lower quality instruments when they were initially produced. Higher quality instruments would still retain significant value and would likely not be given away freely. Thus, even after repair work, you’re left with an older, lower quality but functional instrument that you may or may not enjoy. Its true sound, feel, and quirks will not be apparent until after you’ve spent significant time playing on it. This is not to say that a “free” piano is never worth it, but your odds of finding a truly worthwhile “free” piano is much more like finding a needle in a haystack.

Although a free piano may look good from the outside, many may not have been opened up and professionally examined in years, if ever. The quality, integrity, and alignment of these internal parts decide the sound your piano produces, how well it plays, and the likelihood of expensive future repairs becoming necessary.

Sitting in a garage with the kneeboard taken off and a broken hammer, it would be easy to overlook that this piano has only 73 keys, not 88!

Free Pianos: A Final Verdict

The root of the problem with free pianos is that a piano is, at its core, an extraordinarily large, complicated musical machine that requires proper care and upkeep to keep functioning as intended. For most people, the decision to get a piano is a decision you will make only once in your lifetime. For all the effort involved in putting a piano in your home, you would hope it sounds good, plays good, and looks good. In searching for a free piano, your choices are limited to mostly older, subpar instruments with little musical or monetary value. In addition to that, you will very likely still end up spending a large sum of money to get it into an adequate playing ability. You will also have not gotten to try out the piano in any meaningful way before committing significant resources to it. There’s no telling what you’re really bringing home with you without the expertise of a professional technician and there’s plenty of risk involved.

There are situations in which a free piano might be worthwhile. It can be possible to find a solid, not-too-old piano to take home that may possibly be in good enough condition to avoid needing expensive repairs. However, even in the best of circumstances, you should still expect tuning, moving, and general maintenance costs to accrue. Usually, the best way to find out about an actually worthwhile free piano is through friends or family members giving theirs away. That way you can obtain useful information about the piano beforehand, have a chance to try the piano for yourself, and usually will not be rushed to just pick it up as soon as possible. If a free piano is the only financially viable option for you at the time, do extensive research on pianos to circumnavigate all the risks and pitfalls involved in the dubious process of free piano shopping. And remember: a free piano is never actually free.

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