What the best lawn tractor does
- Cuts, bags and mulches cleanly and evenly. When cutting, the mower should disperse clippings without clumping and not scalp the lawn or leave marks in the grass. The best bagging riding mowers will be able to fill their clipping bags to near capacity before needing to be emptied.
- Mows closely around obstacles. A close cut near landscaping elements, fence lines and other obstacles will save you time cleaning up edges with a walk-behind lawn mower or string trimmer (both of which we cover in separate reports). For properties with lots of trees and plantings, a zero-turn mower might be worth considering, although you need to consider the pros and cons of that type of riding mower.
- Offers a comfortable, intuitive ride. Controls should be easy to reach and use, the seat should be adjustable and cushioned, and the tractor should move smoothly with a minimum of jerking or excess vibration. High backed seats are preferred for comfort.
- Includes safety features. In addition to the standard safety features, riding lawn mowers' engines should shut down if the operator leaves the seat when the machine isn't in park. Most will require a special setting for reverse mowing.
Know before you go
What's your terrain like? Landscaping elements -- slopes, ditches, flower beds, ponds -- can be a challenge to keep tidy. If you have hills, especially those steeper than a 15 percent grade, select a lawn tractor that has adequate traction and stability. For properties with lots of obstacles, a zero-turn mower or a lawn tractor with a tight turning radius and reverse mowing will shorten your mowing time and reduce post-mowing cleanup; those with steering wheels rather than lever/lap bar controls will provide surer handling and easier initial use.
How big is your property? For flat lawns up to an acre, experts recommend a riding mower or a light-duty lawn tractor with a 42-inch deck. Lawns between one and two acres are best maintained by a light- or medium-duty lawn tractor with a 46-inch deck. For smaller properties, a smaller, rear-engine riding mower with a 30-inch deck might be sufficient, and these are both cheaper and easier to store than larger models.
Will you use your lawn tractor for more than just mowing? With attachments such as garden carts, front blades and snow throwers, many owners use their lawn tractors year-round. Not all models are tough enough to haul wood or plow snow, however. Zero-turn mowers, in particular, are challenged if asked to haul too much. If you plan on tasking your tractor with other chores, make sure it can handle the load and the proper attachments are available.
It's OK to ask for a demonstration. The dealer should take time to show you all the features on the lawn tractor and even demonstrate deck-height adjustments and other controls. Many owners say this instruction helps them better understand their lawn tractors and improves their mowing.
Check all fluids and settings. Even with pre-purchase inspections, plenty of owners say they need to add oil and adjust the deck before the first mow. New owners often complain of uneven mowing, and many say an easy fix is to correctly adjust the level and height of the mowing deck from its factory setting.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
Experts say lawn tractors and zero-turn mowers are among the more fix-prone products on the market. That may make springing for the extended warranty seem like a no-brainer, but it's not so simple. These service plans are a huge moneymaker for retailers, and they're subject to frequent consumer complaints. But, as ConsumerReports.org notes, while the need to repair is high, the cost of those repairs often aren't -- Paul Hope reports that respondents to the latest survey cited a median repair cost of $110.
Still, no one wants a riding mower that's always in the shop. To make that a less-frequent occurence, invest in a brand with a reputation for reliability, and don't skimp on routine maintenance. Check the strength of your manufacturer's warranty too -- two years is standard, but some companies back their riding lawn mowers for three or even four years, and certain components for even longer.