First of all, why not find a nice digital piano. No need to tune it. Potentially fewer mechanical problems. It makes a small footprint in your tiny apartment. These are all actually good reasons to choose a digital piano ! Whats’ the down side ? My answer is completely subjective. I want to play an instrument that lives and breathes.
The acoustic piano has thousands of moving parts. Most are made of wood and felt. There is a little metal in there too. When all of these parts are working well with each other the result is magic. You can feel the vibration of the instrument when your finger presses a key. The mechanism responds to soft and loud playing. It is alive !
A piano can have idiosyncrasies, yes . But that can be a good thing ! The tone of some pianos can glow, others can sound bold and clear. The “action” (the keys and moving parts inside) of some pianos can feel light and agile, while others can have an agreeably substantial feel. Some pianos have a singing tone, others are more percussive. Every one is unique.
Where can I find one of these fabulous machines ? Craigslist is full of free, or almost free pianos. That sounds so good ! It is, if your expectations are low, or you will have money left in the budget to fix the piano. Be willing to spend some money, or at least spend some time looking. We get what we pay for, and what we wait for. If you can put some money aside for a good piano you will enjoy it more, play it more, and if your plan to perform at Carnegie Hall fizzles, you are more likely to recoup your investment.
Upright or Grand ? This can be an easy choice if your apartment is small. If your budget is also small, remember that your piano dollars can go a bit further with an upright. There are three main sizes of upright piano. The smallest is the Spinet, the Console is next, and the Full Upright is the largest. I personally prefer the taller upright pianos. Because of their larger sound-board and longer bass strings they can sound better than their smaller cousins. You may have your heart set on a Grand. There can be some good reasons for this preference. The action of a grand differs from an upright action. When the grand action is working properly it can give you quit a bit of control. A large grand will also do a great job of filling a room with sound.
You should like the way your piano looks. Even if you play for six hours a day the piano will still spend the remaining 10 hours of your waking day being furniture. You should also like the way it smells, sounds, and feels when you play it. Remember that every thing about sitting down at the piano has the possibility of being a rewarding aesthetic experience.
When you have hunted down a good candidate consider having a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) assess the piano. That person will be able to give you more perspective on the piano’s present mechanical condition and what to expect from it in the coming years. Some conditions or problems can be improved and some problems are “built in”. Let the RPT help you gain that perspective.
RPTs can also help you find a piano. We sometimes know of customers that are selling. Sometimes we are selling pianos. Look at new pianos also. At the moment Santa Barbara does not have a Piano store, but there are piano stores to our south. A well prepared new piano can be inspiring. Yes, the cost is more . But if you choose well the trade off is in enjoying an instrument that may need less mechanical maintenance as the years pass.