Lawn tractors are a convenient way to keep your lawn under control.
Lawn tractors are ideal if you have a large yard or simply want a more comfortable way to cut your grass than a push mower or even a self-propelled mower can provide. Also called riding lawn mowers, lawn tractors cut way down on mowing time and keep you from breaking a sweat. If you're in search of a more traditional push or self-propelled mower, check out our lawn mower report. To put the finishing touches on your yard work, see which string trimmers are best.
Picking a lawn tractor
The first thing to consider when shopping for a riding mower is the size of your property. Lawn tractors meant for lighter duty can typically handle regular mowing for lawns up to 2 acres. Though their engines aren't as powerful as more expensive lawn tractors, they are more versatile, tackling jobs such as mulching and bagging, and some can haul small carts or accommodate other useful attachments. These riding mowers are often smaller and quieter than larger tractors, but they may be slower and less precise too.
If you have more acreage or want to take on jobs such as hauling wood or plowing snow, a lawn tractor for medium or heavy-duty jobs might be a better pick. These riding mowers boast tougher frames, two-cylinder engines and reliable performance. They'll cost more upfront, but can save you money in the long run because of their longer life spans.
A riding mower isn't the ideal solution for every lawn or situation, however. Whether you pick a light- or heavy-duty riding tractor, all require a fair amount of storage space in your shed or garage, so beware if space is tight. Lawn tractors also require more routine maintenance, guzzle more gas and spit out more exhaust than push mowers or electric mowers. Homeowners with a lot of hills and landscaping also need to choose even more carefully; some riding lawn mowers can handle these tasks, others aren't quite as adept as a regular lawn mower -- and it can be downright dangerous to use a riding mower on steeper slopes. Finally, if your property is on the small side -- a half acre or under -- a riding tractor might simply be overkill, making a self-propelled mower or even a basic push mower the less expensive, more practical choice.
Zero-turn mowers make cutting around obstacles a breeze. A zero-turn mower looks different from a typical lawn tractor. The engine is in the back, leaving the front deck wide open for extra legroom and visibility. Most use a twin lever/lap bar system to control direction, which imposes a bit of a learning curve when operating a zero-turn mower for the first time, though owners say it's one that can be quickly overcome -- at least with better-designed models. More recently, zero-turn mowers with standard steering wheels have been introduced, and experts such as Paul Sikkema of TodaysMower.com say that they "eliminate most of the problems with residential zero-turns."
True to their name, zero-turn mowers are extremely maneuverable if you have a lot of elaborate landscaping, but experts don't recommend them for yards with lots of hills or dips because they lack the traction and stability of a traditional lawn tractor. Zero-turn mowers can bag clippings and pick up leaves, but they typically aren't suited for hauling heavy garden carts or using attachments such as fertilizers, sprayers and snowplows. They're also pricier, in general, than typical lawn tractors.
The cheapest riding mowers get the job done without a lot of extras. If you simply want a clean-cut lawn, there are a few riding mowers that can mow, mulch and bag at a cost of around $1,000. These lawn tractors are best for smaller yards of up to an acre. Some are more compact, which means storage might be easier, and they may have narrower cutting decks that can fit through standard gates. Most cheap riding mowers lack the standard features of larger lawn tractors such as an automatic transmission, cruise control or headlights. Many aren't built for hauling. They might also not be quite as well built as pricier models, and warranties may be shorter. But if all you want to do is to cut your lawn in a shorter amount of time, these budget riding mowers might be right for you.
Make safety a priority. Most riding lawn mowers have similar safety systems, including mechanisms that shut off the engine if you leave the seat while the mower isn't in park. But there is much more to mower safety, particularly when it comes to cutting grass on slopes. Be sure to read your lawn tractor's manual for safe-operating practices. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) also offers a guide. Finally, check for recalls -- several mowers have been the subject of recalls for reasons including fire risks and laceration hazards in recent years. The CPSC also has the latest information regarding lawn tractor recalls.
To find the very best lawn tractors, our editors have analyzed the best available expert and customer reviews. We examine factors such as performance, ease of use and safety in making our selections. The results are our picks for the best riding mowers and zero turn mowers available, as well as some budget-friendly lawn tractors and alternate choices that are worth considering.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Riding Lawn Mowers | Best Zero-Turn Mowers | Cheap Riding Lawn Mowers | Buying Guide | Our Sources