By Gregory Cheng, RPT
In my over twenty years as a piano technician, I have heard some pretty wacky claims of piano values. There are many technicians who work in their own bubble and make up prices based on their feelings, what someone told them online, or what they got out of a single book. Providing appraisals without research or dealers’ input yields inaccurate values and often gives clients a false sense of inflated or deflated values. This creates a negative domino effect between the client, dealers, and future potential clients, but beyond that, inaccurate appraisals are a danger to the career of uninformed piano technicians. Appraisals are a legal matter and can easily land technicians in court where they will be forced to prove their valuation. In this situation, “gut feelings” or statements like, “in my opinion” will not fly. Technicians who give inaccurate appraisals may be fined, sued, or held liable for the valuation discrepancy. This could occur months or years after the original report was provided.
If you are thinking of adding appraisals to your services as a piano technician, this article should give you an idea of what it takes to provide an accurate appraisal that will at least provide valid proof in court. I have been providing appraisals for many years and have proved my valuation in court and hearings with insurance agents. With my obligations and schedule, it takes me about two weeks to provide a thoroughly researched appraisal letter that is professional and proofread.
There are four different appraisal values: replacement value, retail value, wholesale value, or shell value (Steinway). Appraisals may also include repair or rebuilding estimates. Determining the value of a piano will depend on the report you provide or the result of an inspection.
Replacement value is the price of a completely new, exact same, or similar size and quality level of the valued piano. You can only get this value from a dealer resource.
Retail value is the price that the market will bear for that piano.
Wholesale value is the price of the piano in its current condition considered for resale by a rebuilder or dealer.
Shell value of a Steinway is the price of the piano should it need belly, finish, and action work. Condition and age are all factors in this value.
Repair / Rebuilding appraisal is the cost to have work done on the piano either by yourself or a third-party.
There are a few resources you need:
The Pierce Piano Atlas
The Piano Buyers Guide
Manufacturer contacts and websites
Ebay and other internet sites
The Pierce Piano Atlas is essential for determining the age of the piano and a little manufacturer’s history. It is good to note the last year of manufacturing if the manufacturer is no longer in existence.
Larry Fine does an excellent job of explaining the buying and selling process to the piano-playing public. I suggest you become familiar with pianobuyer.com and take note of these specific areas:
You should consider pianobuyer.com a resource but not the resource. You should always have multiple resources.
Dealer contacts are essential. They are the ones buying and selling pianos every day and are the only resource truly connected to the current market. They will know what will and won’t sell, and what people are willing to pay for certain pianos. They are also a good resource for getting wholesale prices, or you could find out what they might be willing to pay for that piano.
Replacement values are fairly easy to research. It is important to include the year of the valuation that you are providing. If you are providing a replacement value for a Steinway, simply find the value on the Piano Buyers guide website and call your local dealer friend to get a replacement cost. This is a straightforward process that leaves no room for argument.
When it comes to all other brands currently being manufactured, you’ll need to determine if the piano's model is still in production. If not, then research what the manufacturer’s replacement model is. Then research the price from the Piano Buyers Guide and follow up with the dealer that sells that specific brand of piano new.
If the manufacturer is no longer around it gets difficult real fast. Again, a dealer can help here by providing insight as to what a comparable quality, size, and finish piano might be.
Retail value research of the piano is much more time-intensive. Starting with the age and condition of the piano, research what Piano Buyer has about the price. Keep in mind, a piano that is in original condition and over 65 years old may not have a retail value. These pianos are considered candidates for rebuilding or replacing and typically cannot be sold without major work being done.
Once you have a value from the Piano Buyer guide, you need to follow up with internet listings of the same piano, age, model, and finish. Screenshot everything you find. Ebay and craigslist are hit or miss with information, but it is worth checking. Finally, you need to call at least three different dealers in the area and find out what they could sell the piano for. Piano dealers will have the best, most accurate information. They see everything, know what will or won’t sell, and have all the experience necessary to sell used pianos. Keep a record of the time, date, dealer, and person you spoke with regarding the piano price.
Wholesale value of a piano is generally a third of the retail price. Again, pianos of a certain age and brand may not even have a wholesale value. Here is where your dealer contacts would come in yet again. What are they willing to buy the piano for if they were looking to buy that piano? Most dealers today are not in the market to buy pianos. They will accept them as trade-ins, but a trade-in price is not the same as a wholesale price. Trade-in prices are usually regarded as a negotiation tactic. Salespeople have leeway between wholesale cost of their piano, margins, and commissions to go over or under the actual value of a trade-in, based on what the customer is purchasing. For instance, if someone is purchasing a new six-foot grand and trading in a spinet, the salesperson may give a value for a trade-in for the customer’s sake, knowing that the spinet is going into the dumpster. Keep a record of the time, date, dealer, and person you spoke with regarding getting the price.
Shell value of a Steinway is dependent mostly on market demand. Contacting a Steinway dealer will get you the best information. Other rebuilding shops and private rebuilders may be a source of information, but since the restrictions of the Steinway logo in 2019 make it nearly impossible to replace, this avenue may not be available in the near future. Again, keep a record of the time, date, dealer, and person you spoke with regarding getting the price.
Repair / Rebuilding estimates are fairly easy. If you are doing the work or taking responsibility for outsourcing the project, then it is obviously your cost. However, if you are quoting work to be done by someone else, then you need to have factual numbers provided by the entities doing the repairs or rebuilding. Keep a record of the dates the quote is valid for and provide the rebuilder’s contact information. The last thing you want is a 10-year-old quote coming out of the woodwork demanding that services be rendered for a 10-year-old price.
As you can see, appraisals are not as simple as you may have thought. By researching and recording the prices provided you by professional sales entities, you may develop a sense of value over time - but don’t let that fool you into thinking you can provide appraisals independent of outside resources. In court, your gut feeling has no chance and you will be left on the hook for the ramifications. Good recording practices with proper research that you can cite on demand is what you need to have if someone wants to contest your valuation.