It’s not which mower is best, it’s which mower is best for you!
Updated : Feb 2015 By Paul Sikkema.
Choosing a riding mower or tractor is not only about price, it’s what you want to do with the mower and what is the best value for you. Many of you research you mower based on price only without first determining exactly what you want to do with your mower. Because of that you sometimes end up with a tractor that doesn’t last or does not meet your expectations. This article is going to help you decide which type of riding mower you need and then help you find the one that fits you the best at the best possible price.
If you look at my reviews I will give you a Value/Cost Rating for each tractor/mower. This is my opinion of the value/cost/usefulness of the machine for mowing your yard, hauling things, and other factors that will help you decide which is best for you. My terminology will be slightly different than the individual brands terms, but hopefully my opinion will make things a little less confusing for you.
My Value/Cost Rating:
Rider:($900 to $1800) Small decks usually 28 to 38 inches. These mow lawns, get through tight spaces well. Great for 1/2 Acre Lawns. Under the right conditions these mowers will mow around 3/4 acre an hour. Light hauling, No snow removal. If you have gates to go through or areas of your landscaping that are close together these mowers may be right for you.
Lawn Tractors:($950 – $1500) Look like tractors but are designed to mow lawns and little else. The Lawn Tractor designation is slightly ambiguous. For Craftsman this is specifically means their economy line, for other brands it means different things. I will use this designation to mean the least expensive tractors. They are designed to only mow flat lawns less than 2 acres, Light Yard Care, Light Hauling, no or very light Snow Removal, Basic- Good Engines. Common deck sizes are 42 to 46 inches. Under the right conditions these mowers will mow around 1.5 acres an hour. But you can also get lawn tractors with 48 to 54 inch decks. If you just want to ride instead of walk this is your best choice. MANY OF THESE WILL NOT MOW IN REVERSE. They are best used with Light Duty Attachments like a SMALL yard cart, lawn sweeper or fertilizer spreader. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual these mowers will last you 3 to 10 years. If you are rough on your equipment, leave it outside, or don’t maintain it these mowers will not last for you. If you have slopes I suggest you do not buy a lawn tractor. The engines and tractors themselves are not designed for extended mowing on slopes.
Yard Tractors: ($1300 – $2500) Again Craftsman specifically has a group of tractors that fit this class (YT3000, YT4000, Yt4500) but I will also use this classification to differentiate the other brands from low quality lawn tractor to higher quality lawn tractors. These are the typical mowers that most people buy for their suburban yards. I get accused of being partial to Craftsman because I feel that for 80% of you reading this blog with 2 acres or less – this series of tractors is the best value on the market and will be the best for you and your lawn. (Trust me, I’m not partial to Craftsman) They represent a great value for the price and can do most things you want to do around your 1/2 to 2 acre yard. Under the right conditions these mowers will mow around 2 acres an hour. They have more features and durability than the lower priced lawn tractors like 6 inch turning radius, cast iron front axles and oil pump lube engines. Deck sizes range from 42 to 54 inches. Designed to Mow Flat or Hilly Lawns, Yard Care, Medium Hauling, and Snow Removal. Accepts Medium Duty Attachments. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual these mowers will last you 5 to 15 years. If you are rough on your equipment, leave it outside, or don’t maintain it these mowers will not last that long for you.
Articulated Riders: These mowers are very maneuverable and may be a better solution for your yard than a zero turn. They can handle snow blades, snow blowers, and have a choice of side-discharge or highly efficient mulching decks. There is even a 4-wheel drive model.
Light Garden Tractors: ($2100-$3500) Light garden tractors are simply a lawn tractor with large wheels. They do not have the heavy duty transmissions of a garden tractor but ride a lot smoother than a lawn tractor with small tires. I personally feel this category was developed as a marketing tactic to make you think you are getting more for less money. If you want a tractor with large tires like your old Ingersol Rand but never use it for ground engaging work look at these models.
Premium Lawn Tractors ($2800-$5000) It gets very hard to explain the difference between a premium lawn tractor and a yard tractor. These tractors generally have the same engines and transmissions as yard tractors, but tractors like the John Deere 300 series have specific features that set them apart from the rest of the pack. Optional 4 wheel steering, infinite deck height controls, heavy-duty frames.
Garden Tractors:($2500-$6000) Garden Tractors usually have 24 to 28 hp vertical shaft engines, heavy duty transmissions and you can mount a Sleeve Hitch to pull ground engaging attachments. Most of these tractors have frames that are heavier than the Yard Tractors but do not have differential locks or traction control. Designed Mow Large Lawns (2-5 acres), Climbs Hills Well, Heavy Yard Care, Heavy Hauling, Snow Removal, Garden Work, Better Engines. Accepts Heavy Ground Engaging Duty Attachments. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual these mowers will last you many years.
Estate Tractors:($5000-$12,000) If you think you need a garden tractor seriously look at these before you buy one. These tractors still have vertical shaft motors and belt driven transmissions like all the Lawn, Yard, and Garden tractors but have heavy duty components and “creature” features you can’t find on the lower priced machines. The heaviest frames. These tractors will accept a slip scoop and are heavy enough to actually make the extra cost worth your investment. Real Power Steering, Heavy-duty transmissions with differential lock and traction control. Hydraulic Lift for deck and sleeve hitch. If you are mowing more than 5 acres or 2 acres and a huge garden these are the tractors for you. Will usually mow your lawn faster than the residential zero-turn mowers. Mow The Largest Lawns, Climbs Hills Best, Heavy Yard Care, Heavy Hauling, Heavy Snow Removal, Garden Work, Move Dirt, Power Steering, Differential Lock, Big Vertical Shaft Engines. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual this may be the last mower you have to buy.
Sub-Compact:($6000-12,000) This class overlaps the estate tractors and compact tractor classes. They are heavy duty machines as compared to the lawn, yard, and garden classes, but the small dimensions work well on 1-2 acre lawns. Most of these have Integral (Cast) Frames, Better Gas or Diesel Engines (usually horizontal shaft), 4-Wheel Drive, Will Mow Flat or Hilly Lawns, Yard Care, Medium Hauling, Snow Removal. Accept Ground Engaging 3-Point Duty Attachments. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual this may be the last mower you have to buy.
Compact: ($8000-$25,000) These are more light duty farm tractors than lawn mowers. Compared to the rest of these tractors these workhorses will handle any task around your acreage. These are great for horse farms because you can mow lawn in morning and move compost in the afternoon all right from your seat. These will handle bucket loaders, 6 foot snow blowers, 6 foot mower decks, and a hundred or so other attachments that fit on the front, middle and rear of the tractor. These tractors are all patterned off the Grand-daddy, the NAA Ford. If maintained properly according to the owner’s manual you will be able to give this mower to your grandchildren years from now.
Residential Zero-Turn: ($2000-$4000) Flat lawns, no slopes, no farm ditches. Forward speed comparable to Yard Tractors (2 to 4 mph) but more maneuverable. You can mow your lawn 30% faster than with a lawn tractor. These are the zero-turns that Consumer Reports doesn’t like. They have problems turning on slopes and hanging on side-hills. Most only accept a bagger but pulling a yard cart is not recommended.
Landowner Zero-Turn: ($4000-$10,000) Flat Lawns, Slight Slopes, Forward Mowing Speed Faster than Yard Tractors (4 to 8 mph). If I had 2 – 6 acres to mow and didn’t want to really do anything else but mow, this is usually the best choice for homeowner. Most of these are fairly stable on slopes and you can mow about the same ditches as you can with a Yard Tractor. These mowers will easily mow 50% faster than a Lawn Tractor. Better machines have big tires, big front casters, welded decks and 24 hp or larger motors. The Husqvarana pictured is one of my favorite mowers.
Commercial Zero-Turn: ($6000-$16,000) Any Lawn, Most Slopes, Very High Cutting Speeds (over 8 mph). If you see a landscaper who is making money they will have these and standons. The mowing companies put more hours on one of these in a week than you mow in a year. Extremely durable mowers with features like cast iron hydro’s, suspension seats, commercial grade engines. Be very careful buying used ones. They can be very expensive to repair and a lot of the landscapers will not trade them in until they are basically wore out. If you are mowing more than 5 acres, consider these to get the job done quickly and beautifully.
Stand On: ($6000-$10,000) The most productive mowers on the market today. Designed to mow lawn and mow it well at very high cutting speeds (up to 13 mph). Most of these will handle steep slopes well. Extremely maneuverable and can cut your mowing time from hours to minutes. And Yes, they are actually more comfortable to ride on for extended durations than sit-down riders. Put me on the one in the picture and I will out-mow any other single deck mower on the market. Not designed for attachments.
Racing Mowers: ($1500-$5million) No, you can’t mow lawn or pull anything with it, but it will beat your neighbor’s 4-wheeler! The three popular types are NLMRA (Nascar Style lawnmower racing) Land Speed Record attempts (87 mph!), and English (They use reel mowers)
Slope Mowers: ($10,000-$80,000) Even if you can’t walk on it, these mowers can do the job. Unless you own a dam you probably don’t need one of these! (Yes, the new models are radio controlled)