Real Estate

October 29, 2007

Real estate downturn has piano sales hitting sour note

Kyle Barker hasn't had to move many pianos lately. But for someone who depends on selling pianos and other instruments for a living, that's a bad thing.

Barker, owner of Barker's Music in Modesto and Stockton, said his sales evoke a sad tune lately, and the fallout in real estate should get a partial composing credit for that.

"I think 2005 was one of the best years I've ever had," said Barker, 60, who has been in business since 1969 in Modesto. "There were new homes being sold, and then there was appreciation of older homes that people kept cashing out."

That year, Barker said, he sold 19 pianos that were each worth $24,000 or more. Housing prices peaked that year in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, then began a downward drift that shows no signs of stopping.

The effects have been felt by store owners such as Barker, who has sold only three pianos this year priced at $24,000 or more.

Traditional upright pianos have seen slower sales nationwide, Barker said, but the situation seems particularly dire in this region. He noted that a piano store in Sacramento recently closed, and another store in Tracy has reduced its size. He believes it's all tied to real estate.

"You can't pull back fast enough," he said. This downturn is worse than in the early 1990s or early 1980s, when two other real estate downturns hit California. Costs, such as freight, have gone up in recent years, but Barker said he's resisted raising prices to make up for that.

He said he saw months ago that people were buying fewer pianos, but he's persevered.

"I'm the eternal optimist," Barker said, adding that he's doing more musical performances to help make up the shortfall. "I carried some of the bigger pianos when sales were good, and I've continued to carry them after the slowdown."

-- Ben van der Meer

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