Shopping for a new riding mower
Shopping for a riding mower can be as
confusing as buying a new car. First, you
have to choose the basic style you need, then
compare deck and engine sizes, transmission
choices, and power and accessory options.
And, since even the stripped-down models
can cost more than a thousand dollars, you
can’t afford to make a mistake and buy the
wrong machine for your yard.
We’ll help you navigate the various
styles and options to find
which machines are right
for your particular
lawn and budget.
And we’ll give you
some buying tips so
you can get the most bang for your buck.
Photo courtesy of ToroZero turn radius riding lawn mower
What is a ZTR?
Zero turn radius (ZTR) mowers are the newest
class of riding mowers. They’re growing in popularity
simply because they cut grass much faster
than other styles. And because they have caster
wheels in the front, they can make a 180-degree
turn and start cutting the next lap without doing a
“turn-around” maneuver. It’s like turning a grocery cart around in the middle of the aisle.
You operate the machine using two joysticks to turn and control ground speed. There’s
a slight learning curve to get the feel of the joysticks. But once you get the hang of it, you
can mow at a top speed of 7 mph. One manufacturer, Cub Cadet, has eliminated the joystick
approach and gone to a traditional steering wheel and gas pedal arrangement.
- Lowest cost of all the styles.
- Engine heat and noise are behind you, not between your legs.
- Better visibility—no engine in front of you.
- Needs less storage space.
- Fits through gates.
- Slow mowing speeds—1.5 to 4.5 mph.
- Narrower cutting width (28 in.).
- Lever-operated transmission means taking your hand off the wheel to adjust speed.
- Accessory options are very limited.
- More deck options—cutting widths 38 in.
- A hydrostatic transmission, which allows
you to control the speed by pedal, comes
standard on many models. This is also the
smoothest type of transmission.
- Cuts faster with mowing speeds of about
- Most have larger engines with pressurized
lubrication systems, which keep oil flowing on steeper slopes.
- Accepts some accessories.
- Needs larger storage space.
- Larger decks may not fit through your
- Less visibility because the engine is in
- Can’t handle ground-engaging attachments such as tillers and cultivators.
- Heavy-duty construction can handle
- Power takeoff (PTO) available on
- Largest cutting widths of all four
styles: up to 60 in.
- Powerful enough to run a snowblower
- Hydrostatic transmission, power
steering and power deck lift are usually
- Needs the most storage space.
- More limited visibility because of the
large engine in front.
- They’re heavy and harder to maneuver
in small spaces.
Measure twice, buy once
Every homeowner wants the largest machine possible to be able to finish
mowing faster. Great. But you have to store the beast somewhere, so don’t
start shopping until you figure out how much storage space you have. And,
if you have to pass through a gate or use a pathway, measure those widths
at the same time. Finally, measure the total area you plan to mow, and use
an angle gauge to measure the slope angle of your steepest hills. Those
measurements will determine the style and size of machine you can buy.
Zero Turn Radius
- Fastest mowing speed of all the styles.
- Most maneuverable; gets closer to trees
- Most fun to drive!
- Can’t use on steep hills because the casters on the deck dig into the slope.
- Only a few attachments available such as a cart or vacuum grass catcher.
- Learning to drive requires some practice.
- More expensive than comparable-size tractors.
Most riding mowers accept optional
grass catchers, vacuum systems and
carts. But if you’re buying a larger tractor
and live in snow country, consider adding
a snowblower or plow blade. They’re
expensive, but they move snow a lot faster than a stand-alone snowblower.
Dealers vs. big-box stores
When it comes time
to shop, don’t
assume big-box store
clerks don’t know
their stuff. They’re
often very knowledgeable
features of the
models they carry.
And prices at big-box
stores are often the
when they have a
sale. If you have a
truck and don’t mind
hauling the unit home
and assembling it
yourself, you can save
money by buying at a
On the flip side,
dealers usually have
more in-depth knowledge,
and they carry
an extensive selection.
So you may find
a different model
that fits your needs
better. Plus, many
dealers offer test
drives, and they usually
machines to your
home and pick them
up when they need
service. Some dealers
even take trade-ins.
And many will match other retailers’ prices.
Prioritize the tasks
Some machines can do it all. But do you really need all those capabilities? If mowing
grass is your primary objective, buy a machine dedicated to cutting grass. For example,
a less expensive RER mower may be all you need. However, if you’d rather spend your
weekends golfing and you’ve got the extra cash, check out a fast-moving ZTR machine.
The same holds true for tractors. If you’re an avid gardener, don’t automatically
assume you need a garden tractor. The implements for garden tractors are pricey. In
many cases, you’ll save money by buying a lawn tractor and a freestanding tiller. On
the other hand, if you have a large driveway and get a lot of snow, a garden tractor
fitted with a snowblower or plow blade may be worth the cost.
Back to Top
- Buy a name-brand machine with a name-brand engine. Your machine is going to
need service, and if you can’t get parts, you’re out of luck.
- More horsepower doesn’t get you faster mowing speed. It only gets you more
power. That’s important if you plan to mulch.
- Comfort is critical. If the seat isn’t comfortable or doesn’t have enough adjustments,
or the pedal locations don’t fit your build, you’ll hate the machine.
- To make life a lot easier, get a unit with power steering and a power deck lift.