Should I Rent or Buy a Beginner Violin or Viola?

5 times when it may be better to rent than buy

Of course, there are more questions besides just this one; but we’ll come to those in their good time.

To go ahead and answer the question of whether renting or buying a beginner violin or viola is better for you, “It depends.” I know, shocking, right?

In most cases, the answer is to go ahead and buy a beginner instrument because there are a number of reasonably-priced, reliable beginner violins and violas out there where rental can get expensive quickly. There are 5 cases where starting off with renting makes sense; but, even there, the answer is still going to change to “buy” pretty quickly. If renting a beginner violin or viola is the right path for you starting out, renting is still a very short-term prospect– 3 to 6 months, a year tops, depending on the amount you are paying.

So when do you start with buying a beginner instrument and when do you start with renting? That is what we will address in the next section.

When to Buy or Rent a Beginner Violin/Viola

Peruse the lists below. If one or more of the items under “Buy” is true for you and none of the items under “Rent” applies, then you are a ‘go’ for buying. If one or more of the items under “Rent” are true for you and they are really significant to you, then you may want to go ahead and start off with renting.

Table of Contents

Of course, there are more questions besides just this one; but we’ll come to those in their good time.

To go ahead and answer the question of whether renting or buying a beginner violin or viola is better for you, “It depends.” I know, shocking, right?

In most cases, the answer is to go ahead and buy a beginner instrument. There are a number of reasonably-priced, reliable beginner instruments where rental can get expensive quickly. There are 5 cases where starting off with renting makes sense; but, even there, the answer is still going to change to “buy” pretty quickly. If renting a beginner violin or viola is the right path for you starting out, renting is still a very short-term prospect– 3 to 6 months, a year tops, depending on the amount you are paying.

So when do you start with buying a beginner instrument and when do you start with renting? That is what we will address in the next section.

Table of Contents

When to Buy or Rent a Beginner Violin/Viola

Peruse the lists below. If one or more of the items under “Buy” is true for you and none of the items under “Rent” applies, then you are a ‘go’ for buying. If one or more of the items under “Rent” are true for you and they are really significant to you, then you may want to go ahead and start off with renting.

When to Rent a Beginner Violin/Viola

  1. You really don’t know whether you or your kid will stick with it longer than a few months
  2. Your child is 3 to 6 years old, needing 1/32nd, 1/16th, 1/10th or 1/8th size violin.
  3. Your child needs a smaller size but will move up in size in the next 6 months or so.
  4. You really have no idea what you are getting into and you just want some ‘peace of mind’ in this process
  5. You are really just going in for an experience and know you are not committed long-term

When to Buy a Beginner Violin/Viola

  1. Your child just made a year-long commitment to orchestra
  2. You know you have an option on a beginner instrument in the $240-$400 range that is ready to be played (hint: everyone does)
  3. You have the kind of savvy that you know you will be able to easily re-sell the instrument if things don’t work out

5 Reasons to Rent a Beginner Instrument

1. “You really don’t know whether you or your kid will stick with it longer than a few months”

This is the number one reason to start off renting; but, even with this as a reason to rent, renting a beginner violin or viola may still not be the best fit for you. If you have a line on a decent beginner violin for $200-$400 and feel good about re-selling it, then buying may still be the best way to start (and, as we will see, everyone has access to just such an instrument). It all depends on just how tenuous this ‘I want to learn the violin’ thing actually is for you or your kid. If you do go this route, only plan on renting 3 to 6 months before moving to buy. If you or your child are still playing or practicing at that point, it’s likely it will continue.

2. “Your child is 3 to 6 years old, needing a 1/32nd, 1/16th, 1/10th or 1/8th size violin”

This is easily the number two reason to start off renting a beginner violin or viola. Children who start very young and are working through sizes 1/32 to 1/8 (generally ages 3 to 6) may or may not be at a particular size for more than 6 months due to their faster rate of growth during these years. You could try buying and selling instruments as often as your child needs the next size up and you might save money on the process. However, it may not be worth the extra effort required to go through that process. Renting is smart because rental programs usually make it free and easy to up-size as the child grows. If you are in this realm, plan to buy when your child hits 1/4 size.

3. “Your child needs a smaller size but will move up in size in the next 6 months or so”

This could apply to the situation above, but is especially true for children working through the larger ‘child sizes’, 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4  for violins and 12″ to 14″ for violas. These beginner violins and violas tend to be in a kids’ hands for 1 to 3 years, depending on when they get the instrument, their pace of growth, and how tall they will ultimately end up being. For this reason, owning at each of these levels is really the way to go unless they are going to size up in 6 months.

Why 6 months for rental? As you can see from the table below, Shar Music only costs $18/$24 per month (violin/viola) to rent from. After 6 months, that’s $100-150, a reasonable amount to let go of just to get your child’s feet off the ground with their first beginner violin or viola. If the instrument takes and they will be playing it for the foreseeable future, their next violin or viola is good to buy. Whether with Shar or someone else, most rental companies offer credit towards the purchase of an instrument if you have been renting with them, which helps. For buying, I have a guide for how much to spend here and how to buy here.

4. “You really have no idea what you are getting into and you just want some ‘peace of mind’ in this process”

As I’ve studied rental companies options, I’ve come to appreciate that this is one of the biggest things they are marketing in their rental programs. We, culturally, tend to view violins as ‘precious’, ‘delicate’, ‘complicated’ and, therefore, ‘scary’. While some violins are precious and others certainly are delicate, the one you or your child will be getting isn’t, I promise you. You can buy with all the same ‘peace of mind’ and convenience of rental but without the financial loss. But, still, rental is there if you need it.

5. “You really are just going in for an experience and know you are not committed long-term”

Let’s wrap this up by stepping back to the last reason I gave for when to rent a violin or viola: You know you are not committed. This is more for adults. Sometimes we just want to… try it out. Have the experience. See what it is like to play this or that instrument (musicians are like that, sometimes). The advantage here is that, if you use companies like Antoni Strad or Shar that allow you to rent higher quality instruments, you can spend up a little bit and have a better experience for your time and money, if you want to.

3 Reasons to Buy a Beginner Instrument

1. “Your child has just made a year-long commitment to orchestra”

You can buy a Shar Franz Hoffman Amadeus violin for $240 and their Amadeus viola for $290. Both can be re-sold for around $200 and $250, respectively, costing your $40 for the year if your child decides to drop orchestra after year one. If you rented for that 9 or 10 month period and your child drops orchestra, then you would be taking a loss of between $180 and $450 for the violin or $240 to $450 for the viola. Both renting and buying then re-selling have time costs to them, with the main added time-cost for re-selling being making the listing and working with prospective buyers – 30 minutes to an hour, tops. Unless you are extremely busy and fairly high net-worth, the money saved is going to be worth the little bit of extra time spent. Other low-cost options include the Bunnel Pupil ($250 new) or surfing the used violin and viola market (great for fractional violins and small violas).

2. “You know you have an option on a beginner instrument in the $240-$400 range that is ready to be played”

The truth is, you always have a line on reliable beginner instruments in this price range. All major online retailers sell beginner violins and violas from the low 200’s and up while the secondhand market for smaller instruments can be a very cheap way to get a decent beginner instrument. So where do I get this price range from? Well, take a look at the table here (mobile users may want to rotate their phones to landscape orientation (a.k.a. “sideways”)).

CompanyMonthly3 Months6 Months1 Year
Shar Music$18/$24*$54/$72$108/$144$216/$288
Antonio Strad$28/$33$84/$99$168/$198$336/$396
Music & Arts - Student$35/$35$105$210$420
Music & Arts - Non-Student$45/$45$135$270$540
*Violin price/Viola price

Let’s look at the cheapest rental company on the market, Shar Music, in the first row there. If you are going to rent, Shar is the best company to rent from aside from your local violin shop. They have a very generous rate, respectable instruments, and a standard rental credit system and buyout option. Yet, renting long-term when you don’t need to still ends up costing you. For example, you can do a buyout at 6 months on the violin or viola you are renting. When you do this, however, it ends up costing you $324 or $432 for the violin or viola you were renting where a new one costs $280 and $350, respectively (not shown in table), overpaying by $40 to $70. And that assumes you buyout as soon as you can, at 6 months. If you buyout after a year, the total cost will be $378 and $504, respectively.

The other option with Shar is to apply your rental credit towards the purchase of a nicer violin or viola than what you were renting. Because you get to apply 100% of your rental payments (not including tax) to the purchase, this path can actually allow you to walk away not having wasted one penny. However, there is a catch. Your rental equity can only cover up to 1/2 of the cost of the nicer instrument. This is a total non-issue if you have been renting for 3 to 6 months. However, once you have been renting for a year, in order to make full use of your rental credit, you have to buy the nicest beginner violin they sell, the Maestro ($470). In other words, if you have been renting long-term with Shar, you either are trapped into buying a much nicer instrument than you might have preferred or you have to take a loss on some portion of what you paid while renting.

This might make it sound like Shar’s rental program is a bad deal. In fact, theirs is the best among the 3 online rental options. Music & Arts is the worst (and should be avoided like political discussions at family gatherings).

Which is why I say buy “if you have a line on a $240-$400 instrument.” If this becomes a long-term (year or more) thing for you or your child, you won’t have over-spent and you won’t have lost any money due to nebulous ‘rental credit’ rules. This is especially true if you are starting off with a fractional violin (1/4-3/4) or smaller viola (12-14″) as these instruments are temporary, anyways. Yes, you will be buying a new instrument every few years until your child reaches full size; but you will also be free to sell the previous instrument and recover some or all of its value. All three of the companies above sell violins and violas from the low 200’s and up while the secondhand market is a buyer’s paradise for smaller instruments (1/32-3/4 violins and violas <15″). More on buying here.

3. “You have the kind of savvy that you know you will be able to easily re-sell the instrument if things don’t work out”

This is another one where, really, everyone can do it. Just be sure to take a picture of the label inside the violin or viola as well as the receipt for the purchase (minus any personal details), then post to Facebook, Craigslist, or wherever else you feel is a good place to list an instrument in your area. Include the size, make and model in the listing title, and don’t meet anyone in any dark alleyways.

Buying Your Beginner Violin or Viola is Usually the Best Way to Go

By now, you are probably sold on buying a beginner violin or viola for you or your child. Just to recap, buying from the outset is more likely to save you money over renting. This is especially true if you stick to a $240 to $400 first instrument; if you are buying for a kid who needs less than a full-size violin or 15″ viola; or your kid has made a year-long commitment to orchestra and won’t need to up-size during the year.

So what is the best way to go about buying one? And how much should you spend? Well, you can read about that here (how much to spend) and here (how to buy).

If you have determined you need to rent first, read here for my guide on how to do that and not get badly burned.

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