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Renting vs Buying an Instrument: A Parent’s Guide

Every parent of a budding musician has the same question about instruments: “Should I buy a new one or rent?” It makes logical sense to ask about expenses associated with learning how to play an instrument. In most cases, the first impulse of parents is to rent rather than buy.

Many moms and dads get “sticker shock” when they start looking at the price of new instruments. They end up turning to rental, or “rent to own” programs in order to reduce their initial outlay of funds. The trick is that, just like shopping for a car, it often makes better economic sense to buy a used product rather than buy a new one or rent one for the short term.

Parents need not reinvent the wheel. Consider the fact that millions of people have been in your shoes and discovered the smartest way to approach the “rent vs buy” decision. Use the knowledge and experience of other parents when you set out to find a musical instrument for your child. Never attempt to “go it alone.”

Fortunately, there are all kinds of helpful resources for anyone wondering about the wisdom of buying rather than renting. Let a few common guidelines get you started. Based on what many parents of accomplished musicians say, here are some starting points for your own research into instrument prices for rentals and purchases:

  • You can always resell any instrument that you purchase
  • Rent-to-own agreements often force you to purchase at an inflated retail price
  • Buying carries risks, but most of them can be averted if you exercise precautions
  • It’s possible to rent for a few months and then decide to buy or not to buy

Having a knowledgeable instructor makes a huge difference when it comes to gauging your child’s commitment and if you need a professional set of eyes to help you inspect an instrument you’re considering.

Know Your Child

Spend time with your child during practice sessions. Speak with the instructor to gather information about how well your son or daughter is adapting to lessons and what their level of commitment seems to be. Even though no one knows your child as well as you do, music instructors have a keen sixth sense when it comes to spotting a child who is truly committed to an instrument.

Your daughter’s piano teacher, for example, has likely taught hundreds of kids her age to play and thus has a deep insight into how youngsters behave when they are ready to spend a year or more studying their instrument of choice. Always communicate with your child’s teacher.

Have several conversations with your child about how they feel toward lessons, the instrument and music in general. It’s amazing that sometimes all you need to do is ask a nine- or ten-year-old a direct question in order to get a simple, direct answer. “Do you want to stay with the piano or would you like to change to something else? You know, if you really enjoy the piano, we could buy you one so you can practice and play at home.” It’s often the case that kids are wiser than we give them credit for.

If your child seems fickle or unsure about continuing, there are several options. You can wait a few months and continue with a rented instrument or simply purchase a used one and resell it if the need arises. Below, we’ll look at all the financial options open to you as a parent, but keep in mind that you are never “locked in,” whether you rent or buy. The resale market for used instruments is active.

Become an Informed Consumer

Before buying or renting, you’ll need to read a few online articles about the general cost of instruments, how renting works, how you can resell an instrument that you buy and whether “rent-to-own” agreements make sense. It’s common for school bands to put on an “instrument night” where local sellers bring in wares for sale and rent. A good number of school bands encourage kids to rent, even when that’s not the best choice for parents. Renting can be costly, compared to buying, when contracts last more than a year.

By studying the market and spending time at high-quality music websites, you can learn a lot in a short period of time. Focus on finding out price ranges for new and used instruments, based on what your child plays, of course. For example, it only takes about an hour of online research to figure out the price range for new and used “student pianos” in your local area. Hone in on the data and make a list of what local prices are for quality pianos, both new and used versions.

In addition to purchase price, look to see what it takes to sell an instrument online. Fortunately, there are dozens of websites where you can list your for-sale item and fetch a fair price. The good news is that there are always fresh crops of music students each season when school terms begin. If you buy a used instrument and keep it in good shape, you’ll always be able to sell it later on.

Being an informed consumer, and seller, means you can choose to buy or rent without having to worry about recouping costs. Knowledge is power when it comes to the retail instrument market. Take the time to educate yourself. It’s time well spent.

Questions about what Instruments to use with Prodigies?

Why Rent?

There are lots of reasons to rent a piano, guitar, violin, trumpet or any other musical instrument. If you ask parents why they rent, their reasons will usually answer with one of the following responses:

“Renting offers very low up-front costs and we can’t afford a new instrument. Have you seen prices for new ones?”

“Our child might want to change instruments in a few months.”

“The band teacher at school suggested we try a rent-to-own program from a local music store.”

“Our child is growing fast and will probably need a new instrument within a year or two, so we don’t want to be committed to buying anything right now.”

“The rental plans offer repair and tuning services at no extra charge.”
What Rent-To-Own Plans Offer

Most rent-to-own (RTO) plans offer a decent list of extras like, as noted above, cleaning, tuning and repair. The catch is that you really are paying for these extras in the rental fee that’s charged each month. It’s just not listed out separately. Regardless, RTO plans do give you the option of worry-free practice and the ability to eventually own the instrument outright. But what is the cost of that “ownership” in the end?

Truth be told, the RTO end up charging you the full retail price, when you could probably get the very same item for about 30 percent less on the open market. If you’ve even leased an automobile with the option to buy, this arrangement has the same disadvantages. Car leasing “to own” programs typically charge you several thousand dollars more to buy the vehicle when the lease is up than you’d pay if you simply bought it initially. It’s the same with RTO music plans.

Yes, you won’t have to worry about repairs, tune-ups or cleaning, but you’ll almost always spend much more over the life of the rental contract than it would cost to purchase a new or high-quality used instrument upfront. If the initial outlay of money is an issue, many parents consider financing the purchase. Either way, RTO programs can be quite costly.

Consider Buying a Used Instrument

Again, most parents understand automobile prices and purchase arrangements, so it helps to draw another comparison here. When you need a car, you basically have three choices for acquiring one: you can buy a new one, buy a used one or lease one. People who can’t get a loan are usually shut out of the new car market due to the high cost of automobiles in general. But if they can get reasonable financing, buying new is a good way to get a car.

The second method, buying a used car, is often viewed by experts as the most economical way to acquire a vehicle. Up-front costs are lower than buying new, credit is easier to get for a lower-cost purchase, and you can always sell the car if you decide to get something else in a year or two.

Leasing almost never makes sense if the cost is a factor in your decision. That’s why RTO music plans are nearly always an inefficient use of your money.

Buying a used instrument has all the advantages of buying a high-quality used car. First, you get ownership. The instrument is yours to keep, fix, adapt, sell or give away in the future. “Giving away” an instrument is not uncommon because many families “pass down” used instruments to younger siblings and save a significant amount of money by doing so.

It often pays to finance the purchase price of a high-quality used instrument. That way, you get the advantage of ownership without having to plunk down a large amount of capital. Then, you can pay off the loan as quickly or as slowly as you desire. And yes, you’ll have to pay for cleaning, tuning and repairs, but keeping the item in top shape will help retain its value in the long run.

Buying a used instrument is often the smartest way to acquire all the advantages of ownership without the downside of having to fork over a ton of cash at the outset. Used items are readily available on the Internet and from local music stores. Plus, you can bring along an “expert” to help you make a wise buying choice.

Get Help With the Buying Process

As noted above, whether you purchase a new or used instrument, be sure to have an expert on hand to assist you. It’s pretty common for parents to pay the school’s music teacher or band leader a small stipend to help evaluate a prospective instrument for buying.

Ask your helper to look for dings, marks and imperfections that may be the result of faulty craftsmanship or damage. Most of the time, music teachers and band leaders know how to spot a good or not-so-good used instrument instantly. If you are not buying in person, ask online sellers to provide plenty of photographs and a full history of the instrument. It also makes sense to buy from reputable online music stores and retailers who deal in used instruments. Most do. That way, you’ll get at least a limited guarantee and the ability to return the item if it arrives in less than perfect shape.
Reselling Your Instrument

When you buy a used instrument, as opposed to renting or renting-to-own, you have the option to sell it whenever you wish. If your child wants to switch, loses interest in music lessons or simply outgrows what he or she is currently playing on, selling is an easy option. There are multiple online resellers who will make you an offer for a well-maintained instrument. Plus, local music stores will usually be willing to make you an immediate offer on your item if you take it to them an let them inspect it. In fact, there are plenty of ways to recoup your cost on a used instrument. That’s one of the main reasons so many parents prefer to avoid renting and opt to acquire a new or high-quality used item.

The Verdict

It might seem like a cop-out to say there is no definitive answer, but everything really depends on your choice as a parent. However, in the huge majority of cases, it makes more sense to purchase a used or new instrument than to rent one. That advice applies even when you consider a straight rental by the month or even a “rent to own” program through a reliable music store.

It’s also true that for many parents, cost is not the biggest factor. That means all the minute analysis about “renting vs buying” is not as vital as giving our child a high-quality experience as he or she ventures into the world of music and lessons. Ask any accomplished adult musician and they’ll tell you that the definitive part of their childhood was a high-quality instructor rather than a “rented” or owned instrument.

What’s the bottom line? For any child who wants to embark on the wonderful journey of musicianship, it’s crucial for parents to find a good instructor and a worthwhile instrument. Cost, while an important consideration in both of those selections, should not be the only factor used to make the decision.

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