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.
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.
Two mowers that look alike can have very different price tags. The model on the left, for example, costs $2,300 more than the one on the right. So what do you get when you spend more on a tractor? Count on a larger cutting deck with “gauge wheels” that reduce “scalping” when the tractor hits a low spot. And the loaded models have a power deck lift (as opposed to a manual lever lift). Most high-end models come with power steering, and some even include a tilt-wheel feature for added comfort.
The hydrostatic transmissions on some expensive models are “input sensitive.” So you get much better pedal control and fewer “jerky movements” when operating at very low speeds around garden edges and trees.
Many high-end models are equipped with more powerful V-twin engines that produce more torque at lower rpm and reduce vibration and noise. These models usually have larger gas tanks, so you refill less often. And they have more comfortable seats.
Rear engine riding (RER) mowers are designed to do only one job—cut grass. They usually cost less than a comparable-size lawn tractor. So they’re popular with homeowners who just want to cut grass and spend less on the machine. RER machines have declined in popularity over the past few years as homeowners have migrated to ZTR mowers.
Photo courtesy of Snapper
- 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.
Lawn tractors are the most popular of all riding mowers. They’re great for cutting large lawns and for light-duty gardening jobs. Most entry-level models are equipped with a 38-in. cutting deck, while the more expensive versions can cut up to 54 in. Most are powerful enough to run an optional grass collection system or tow a garden cart loaded with supplies. However, lawn tractors aren’t designed to accept large attachments or do heavy-duty work.
Photo courtesy of Husqvarna
- More deck options—cutting widths 38 in. and up.
- 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 5.2 mph.
- 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 gates.
- Less visibility because the engine is in front.
- Can’t handle ground-engaging attachments such as tillers and cultivators.
Garden tractors are built on heavy steel frames and have larger engines. So they can accept wider cutting decks (up to 60 in.) than a lawn tractor. And, they’re powerful enough to handle attachments like tillers, cultivators, plow blades and snowblowers. Many are equipped with power takeoff (PTO) to run a pump or even a generator. But be prepared to dig deep—they’re expensive.
Photo courtesy of Craftsman
- Heavy-duty construction can handle any job.
- Power takeoff (PTO) available on some models.
- Largest cutting widths of all four styles: up to 60 in.
- Powerful enough to run a snowblower or tiller.
- Hydrostatic transmission, power steering and power deck lift are usually standard.
- 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.
ZTR mowers are designed to cut mowing time in half. They move faster (up to 7 mph). And because they can turn on a dime, they save the time otherwise required to circle around to cut the next row. Because they’re more maneuverable, you can cut right up to trees and garden edging. That almost eliminates the need to trim with a weed trimmer. If you just want to cut grass, and do it in the shortest time possible, check out a ZTR mower.
Photo courtesy of Kubota
- Fastest mowing speed of all the styles.
- Most maneuverable; gets closer to trees and gardens.
- 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.
When it comes time to shop, don’t assume big-box store clerks don’t know their stuff. They’re often very knowledgeable about the features of the models they carry. And prices at big-box stores are often the lowest, especially 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 large retailer.
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 deliver the 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.
- 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.