If you are seriously curious about learning harp, then you should learn on the best-sounding instrument that you can afford to rent or buy. Why? If your harp doesn’t sound good to you, then you will not want to practice. If you don’t practice, you won’t make the kind of progress you are looking for, and you’ll give up before having given yourself and the harp a fair shot.
How to choose a harp
First, determine your budget.
If you want to have a regular teacher, then pick a teacher next. Your teacher will have their own preferences for harp brands and might even rent harps from their studio. They can give you a recommendation based on your music goals and whether or not you want to play pedal or lever.
Finally, play the harp. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to play yet. You are the person who is going to learn, so you are the person who you are going to hear playing. If you have someone else play on the harp, you will hear what they sound like, and you will hear it from where you’re standing. You need to hear what you sound like when you sit at the harp. Whoever is showing you the harp will be able to help you play it enough to get a feel for its sound.
Besides how it sounds, check how the pedals or levers feel. You should be able to easily engage them while you are playing. If it is difficult to see which lever goes to which string, if it is difficult to tell when the lever/pedal is at its stopping point, then it will be more difficult for you to use them.
The best place to play a whole slew of harps is to go to a harp conference that has an exhibit hall, and wander through the stands for all of the luthiers and shops. There will probably be more harps than you would find at a local store...but of course you have to wait for the event to occur. (The Somerset Folk Harp Festival➚ in New Jersey, near New York City, happens every year in July.)
Rent a harp
If you are looking for a teacher who provides regular lessons, ask if they also rent harps. (I do not.)
In New Jersey, Virginia Harp Center➚ in Haddonfield, near Philadelphia, allows the possibility of rent-to-own. Check their site or call for the latest prices.
If you're not in New Jersey or the Philadelphia area, then there is no better advice that I can give you than to just search the Internet for "rent a harp near [your location]." There might be more opportunities near you than you might have thought.
It is often possible to rent directly from the harp luthier, but I’m assuming you would have already played on that harp before you decided to rent it. Instead of paying for shipping, check with the shops above and see if they have it first.
Buy a used harp
Prices on used harps vary. It is important to play on the harp that you are going to buy, and it is especially important to look over a used harp for wear and tear.
Here are other places that sell used harps:
Used harps from The Harp Connection➚ (Salem, Massachusetts)
Used harps from Melody’s➚ (Cypress, Texas)
Used harps from Sylvia Woods➚ (La Crescenta, California)
Buy a new harp
The least expensive new harp is usually one with a small number of strings and no levers. For each lever you add, the price goes up. The more strings you add, the more cost. And then, of course, you add cost for quality.
All the harp stores listed above sell new harps.
You can also buy directly from the luthier, either by contacting them through their website, or by checking them out at a conference, like the Somerset Folk Harp Festival➚ in New Jersey.
Talk to your teacher about buying a new harp. It’s a big purchase.
The least expensive, decent new harp that I know of is Harpsicles➚. This very inexpensive harp is not going to sound as good as something more costly. But the most important thing is how it sounds to you. If you like it, then you will practice on it, and all will be fine.
Again, it's probably just best to use the Internet and search for "buy a harp near [your location."