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Cheap Riding Mowers Buying Guide

Each year we find the market loaded with candidates for our list of the best riding lawn mowers under $1,500. Our top two picks this time around are the Ariens 960460056 (starting at $1,399) and the Craftsman LT2500 (starting at $1,377).

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Two other cheap riding mowers worth considering are the John Deere D105 (starting at $1,499) and the Troy-Bilt Bronco 13YX78KS011 (starting at $1,199). For thrifty consumers with flat or gently rolling lawns that are relatively free of obstructions (think bushes, trees, and bird baths), one of these cheap lawn tractors should be easy to handle and yield a level cut.

Technically, a lawn tractor features an engine in the front. Other cheap riding mowers have smaller engines mounted behind or underneath the seat and cut narrower paths. In the past we recommended a rear-engine riding mower, the Weed Eater One (starting at $730), which attracts buyers with ultra-low prices. However, too many complaints about its performance, quality, and reliability have surfaced in recent reviews. Consumer products experts criticize rear-engine machines in general, concluding that unless you need a mower that can navigate tight spaces, a heftier lawn tractor will generally be more comfortable, stable, and durable and fall into the same price range.

Not surprisingly, there are differences between cheap lawn tractors and higher-priced models. Inexpensive riding lawn mowers usually run on one-cylinder engines and are designed primarily to mow grass, although most can also tow small carts, snow throwers, sprayers, and the like. Consumers also have to pay extra for bagging attachments and mulching kits with the cheaper models, it may be a challenge to find parts and/or service, and longevity may be limited to several hundred hours of use. More expensive models, including heavy-duty garden tractors, feature more powerful engines, more advanced engineering, better build quality, and more features (e.g., a meter that clocks how many hours you've run the mower, a large gas tank, four-wheel steering, a longer warranty).

As you start to shop, consider some important specifics. Are you comfortable with a clutch system that requires you to manually change gears to get a few pre-set speeds, or do you prefer an automatic transmission that lets you set your own speed within a given range? Then there's the width of the cutting deck, which affects how many passes you'll have to make; 42 inches is common for cheap lawn tractors, but we found cutting decks as narrow as 26 inches and as wide as 46 inches. (Keep in mind that a wider deck makes a lawn tractor larger and harder to store.) The turning radius affects how large an area is left uncut as you turn the mower in the opposite direction. Stability and traction on inclines is critical if your lawn is dotted with small hills and dales. Will you need to mow in reverse? Not all cheap riding mowers have that capability. Finally, be sure that servicing is readily available and replacement parts easy to find.

The market for the best riding mowers is dominated by a few large players, such as John Deere, Craftsman, Husqvarna, Ariens, Troy-Bilt, and Poulan, and some produce and sell under several brand names (Yard Machines and Bolens, for example, are owned by MTD). Because of such sibling relationships, you may not see much difference between models as you shop. Big-box retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's, and Sears carry cheap riding mowers, and you can also buy many models online. Note that vendors tend to specialize in certain brands (e.g., Sears in Craftsman). There are also private-label store brands, but we've found more than the usual number of reports from consumers about broken transmissions, loose belts, and poorly engineered parts with these budget lawn tractors, so our list includes well-known brand names only.

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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