Buying a musical instrument is like buying a car: You can buy a used clunker or a luxury sports car, and both will get you to work on time. With so many price points and types, how do you find a good deal?

It’s the season when elementary and middle school students start joining their first bands or orchestras. And choosing a musical instrument for your child is tough. How do you get a good deal on an instrument if you don’t know what you’re looking for? Should you buy a used piano? Rent a violin? What does your kid need to start off in the right key?

“Talk to the expert first, someone who really knows what you’ll need. And often, the teacher is the best expert,” said Kathy Judd, executive director of the Washington Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit school for students of all skill levels.

But there are other helpful hints that can save you in the short and long term. We talked to area experts about what to look for when buying instruments. Like with cars, you can always find a cheaper one — but finding one that suits your needs and budget? That’s harder. Here’s their advice for music students and parents on a budget.

Before you spend

You can afford an instrument

Don’t let price deter you from buying an instrument. There are more options than ever before. “You don’t have to spend a tremendous amount on an instrument now,” said Dan Trahey, artistic director of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids, a music-in-schools program for 600 elementary-age students in Baltimore. “Schools have rental programs for $10 or $12 a month, and used instruments are accessible.” Many public schools have instruments as a result of programs such as OrchKids, which supplies instruments to students. Before you worry about cost, talk to your child’s school and find out what’s available.


Consider the instrument

The budget-conscious parent would choose a kitten over a pony. Is there an instrument you should choose that’s relatively cheaper than others? “Go to the school first and ask what they have,” Trahey said. “If you’re on a budget, most of the schools will have the bassoon or double bass on hand, which they will loan you for very low cost.” But Trahey points out that even some of the most popular instruments such as the flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone — can be cost-effective because your child won’t outgrow it.


Size matters

If you’re child is in elementary or middle school, they’re going to grow. Make sure you’re buying or renting the right size instrument. Remember, children outgrow violins, not trumpets.


Don’t splurge too soon

You don’t need to buy your child a baby grand while she’s learning “Chopsticks.” But years later, when she’s playing Liszt, a keyboard won’t cut it. “They’re learning to make sound,” Judd said. So start with a cheaper keyboard or instrument, but know you’ll have to upgrade as your child progresses.


Ways to rent or buy


In the same vein, Judd and Trahey recommend renting instruments until your child decides whether he wants to commit to it. “With the violin, we always tell them to rent first because they’ll grow,” Judd said. Also, your child may not like his first instrument. “You want to get the instrument in the kid’s hand in third or fourth grade,” Trahey said. “They may change their instrument two or three times, so you don’t want to make a big cello purchase until they’re sure.”


Buying online

Once you’ve decided to buy, it’s important to remember that unlike cars or clothes, used instruments retain their value. Where do you buy? “We’re always looking at Craigslist and eBay, and you can always sell them back the same way you bought them,” Trahey said. But avoid an Internet retailer based in China, because it’s almost impossible to determine the quality of the instrument. If you see a promising instrument online, Judd recommends hiring an expert to go with you for an assessment. “I tell people who really don’t know about instruments to go on Craiglist and pay an expert $100 to check it out before you buy,” she said. “If you’re buying a $300 piano, pay an expert to help you assess it whether it’s a good instrument.” Also, because Washington has a transient population, you’re bound to get good deals on Craigslist if you know what you’re looking for. “With people moving so much and going overseas,” Judd said, “it’s common you can find decent instruments.”


Buying local

Judd and Trahey recommend going to a local music shop with a good reputation. “Local stores also tend to have a better selection of used instruments” than chain stores, Trahey said. Your band or orchestra instructor may recommend shops, but Judd and Trahey mentioned a few favorites:


●Music & Arts (www.musicarts.com):

The largest retail chain for orchestra and band instruments. In Maryland and Virginia.


●Baltimore Brass Co. (www.baltimorebrass.net ):

Brass and woodwinds in Catonsville, Md.


●Potter Violin Co. (www.pottersviolins.com):

Bethesda store recommended for renting violins.


●PianoCraft ( www.pianocraft.net ):

Gaithersburg piano store with expert technicians.


●Dale’s Music Co. (www.dalemusic.com):

Silver Spring location with rentals for band and orchestra.


Sheet music goes digital

Gone are the days of spending hundreds of dollars on books of sheet music. Many musicians are downloading free sheet music from imslp.org, a free public domain music library that allows users to print sheet music or download it to a Kindle or iPad. Professional musicians are shifting to digital sheet music, too — think about how much easier it is to travel without stacks of paper. If you have an iPad or Kindle, your child can use it for practice. It might save you hundreds of dollars on sheet music books.

THE BOTTOM LINE There are always deals on musical instruments, particularly if you’re buying used. But you’ll want to get an expert opinion before you purchase. Consider the age, skill level and interests of your child, and invest in what you can afford. Remember that the cheapest instrument may not inspire hours of practice. And buy one you can stand hearing.