Best Cheap Riding Mowers
- Published on
- By Elizabeth Sheer
If you have a lawn larger than about one-third of an acre, a conventional walk-behind mower probably isn't going to cut it (pardon the pun). A cheap riding mower or lawn tractor can make mowing easier and keep costs down. Our research indicates that many consumers appreciate the value pricing of the best riding mowers under $1,500 and are quite satisfied with the performance of the models we recommend, despite some minor shortcomings.
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). 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.
Riding Mower Reviews
According to the riding mower reviews we read, consumers put great weight on the value-to-performance ratio. Quite a few users comment that the best cheap models do what they're meant to -- that is, mow moderate-size expanses of lawn unmarred by too many boulders and stumps or steeply sloped terrain; make clean edges and produce a level cut; climb up and move down small hills with relative ease; haul a cart or snow thrower; and start up without balking.
Consumers recognize they're not paying top dollar (and thankfully so) and indicate their willingness to tolerate some slippage here and loose belts there, because at budget prices, who can complain? They get cranky, however, when assaulted by major problems such as brand-new mowers that won't start or parts that constantly fail and replacement parts that cost near as much as the mower itself. Here's how lawn tractor reviews sum up the performance of each model on our list.
Handling.Riding mower reviews from consumers and advice from outlets such as the National Gardening Association suggest that ease of handling depends in part on the right match between machine and lawn. For example, in reviews of the Weed Eater One (starting at $730) on the Walmart website, users report that this lightweight riding mower is the right size for yards up to an acre and manages slight inclines, bumps, and dips. However, some riding mower reviews caution that the Weed Eater One struggles on hills, especially when the grass is wet, and others note it's not the best buy for yards with lots of rough spots.
For larger yards and/or terrain with steeper slopes, reviewers lean toward bigger, heavier, and more powerful lawn tractors like the Craftsman LT2500 (starting at $1,377) and John Deere D105 (starting at $1,499). In lawn tractor reviews on the Sears website, several reviewers praise the Craftsman LT2500 for moving easily up and down small hills. The Troy-Bilt Bronco 13YX78KS011 (starting at $1,199) is sized for a 1- to 2-acre yard and is pronounced fine for hilly terrain -- one user comments that the mower is so powerful, it takes some getting used to. At the same time, consumers who have posted reviews on the Lowe's website note that it's easy to navigate around flowerbeds on this tractor. The Ariens 960460056 (starting at $1,399) is another mower that's right-sized and right-powered for yards up to 2 acres. In riding mower reviews on the Home Depot site, users say this model handles rough terrain and hills with ease.
Cutting Performance.For the most part, users are satisfied with the way their lawns turn out after mowing with the models we picked, according to lawn tractor reviews. Barring any mechanical or handling problems, reviewers say, you get a well-mowed lawn in less than half the time it takes with a walk-behind mower.
Riding mower reviews at Home Depot report that the Ariens 960460056 cuts evenly and quickly, even if the grass is high. Users of the Craftsman LT2500 echo this assessment in lawn tractor reviews on the Sears website, saying the mower cuts cleanly and makes the job look like it was professionally done. Users who have posted reviews of the John Deere D105 at Lowe's like the way it handles and mention that it's easy to use, even for people who have never owned a riding mower. Comments about the cutting talents of the Troy-Bilt Bronco in lawn tractors reviews at Lowe's are generally positive and often note how little time it takes to finish the job. Users even like the Weed Eater One for delivering even trim and close cuts around edges, according to riding mower reviews on the Walmart website. A rear-engine model we like better, the Troy-Bilt TB30R (starting at $1,000), makes lawns look as well-groomed as golf courses, according to expert and user reviewers posting at Mowers Direct, an online dealer.
Rear-Engine Riding Mowers vs. Lawn Tractors
Rear-Engine Riding Mowers.For a yard of one-half to 1 acre with even terrain, a rear-engine riding mower may make a good and affordable choice. Models with rear-mounted engines behind or underneath the seat afford excellent visibility and are easy to maneuver but don't do well on inclines and are generally less powerful than lawn tractors with front-mounted engines. The compact, lightweight Weed Eater One, for example, has a 190cc engine and resembles a single-user golf cart without the hood. Customers who have posted reviews on the Troy-Bilt website like the company's TB30R Neighborhood Rider, which has a 340cc engine, specifically because of its size, saying it's ideal for a smaller yard. They appreciate that this small riding lawn mower maneuvers easily through gates and fits well in the garage.
Lawn Tractors, Garden Tractors.For yards of 1 to 5 acres, a larger, more powerful lawn tractor is the best option for frugal consumers. Lawn tractors such as the Ariens 960460056, Craftsman LT2500, Troy-Bilt Bronco 13YX78KS011, and John Deere D105 feature front-mounted engines that range from about 13.5 to 22 horsepower. Because of their engine size, heft (well over 400 pounds), and center of gravity, lawn tractors have the stability to handle large and hilly areas and can haul small attachments such as carts, snow throwers, and sprayers. Moreover, they hold at least 1.5 gallons of gasoline, so they can cover more territory before needing a refill. The tank capacity on the John Deere D105 is 2.4 gallons and the Ariens 960460056 holds 2.5 gallons. Compare those models with the Weed Eater One, whose tank holds only about one-third of a gallon. A few leaps up in price and power will put you in garden tractors territory, but these models with front-mounted engines, large wheels, high clearance, and heavy-duty hauling capabilities are way beyond our price range.
ZTR Mowers.The turning radius is the minimum size U-turn that a riding mower can make. A tighter radius makes it easier to maneuver the machine and leaves less grass uncut. A typical turning radius for a lawn tractor is 16 or 18 inches. The Weed Eater One riding mower has a much wider 31-inch turning radius. If you go way upscale in price and technology, you can find a zero-turn-radius mower. Thanks to individually controlled rear wheels (one can spin forward as the other spins backward), so-called ZTR mowers turn 360 degrees "on a dime" and maneuver easily around obstacles. Like their cheaper counterparts, these rear-engine riding mowers are challenged by hills and aren't designed for hauling attachments. ZTR mowers sit well outside the Cheapism niche, starting at around $2,500. Relatively new Craftsman lawn tractors with Turn Tight technology provide an in-between option, boasting a turning radius of 6 inches.
Cutting Deck.The width of the deck on a riding mower determines how wide a path it can cut. The wider the path, the fewer times you'll need to go back and forth across the lawn. On the flip side, though, a wider cutting deck may be more difficult to maneuver around obstacles. Rear-engine riding mowers generally sport decks in the 25- to 38-inch range; the Weed Eater One cuts a slim 26-inch path and the Troy-Bilt TB30R has a cutting deck 30 inches wide. Among cheap lawn tractors, deck size typically ranges between 38 and 46 inches. The 42-inch paths of the Troy-Bilt Bronco and John Deere D105 sit in the mid-range, while the Craftsman LT2500 and Ariens 960460056 cut the widest swath: 46 inches.
Lawn tractors generally feature two cutting blades; rear-engine riding mowers like the Weed Eater One have just one. The cutting height on riding mowers starts at 1.5 inches and tops out at 4 inches, but the number of cutting positions varies by model. The John Deere D105, for example, gives you a choice of 13 cutting heights compared with 10 for the Ariens 960460056 and five for the Weed Eater One, Troy-Bilt Bronco, and Craftsman LT2500.
Anti-scalping wheels (or rollers) placed under the deck help produce an even cut on uneven terrain. The John Deere D105, Craftsman LT2500, and Troy-Bilt Bronco include two anti-scalping wheels and the Ariens 960460056 boasts four.
Most, if not all, cheap riding mowers discharge grass clippings out to the side. If you prefer to bag or mulch the clippings, the necessary accessories (a bag or a mulching kit) must be purchased separately, sometimes to the tune of several hundred dollars, depending on the make and model.
Riding Mower Transmissions, Reliability
Riding Mower Transmissions and Speed.You won't set any land-speed records with a riding lawn mower, but these practical machines do move along at a good clip. Among our top picks, the John Deere D105 and Craftsman LT2500 narrowly win the race with a maximum speed of 5.5 mph, followed by the Ariens 960460056 and Troy-Bilt Bronco at 5.2 mph. The smaller Weed Eater One rear-engine riding mower pokes along at a maximum 3.8 mph. These top speeds are meant for transport, not for cutting, so you'll need to slow down to mow and edge.
Depending on the type of transmission in your cheap riding mower, you'll have more or less control over the speed. Riding mowers with manual transmissions, such as the Troy-Bilt TB30R, have pre-set speeds (six in this case) and require the user to manually change the speed. The Weed Eater One uses a friction drive transmission, similar to what you might find on a snow blower, with only three speeds. The lawn tractors we recommend have automatic or hydrostatic transmissions that don't require manual shifting and perform much like a car, enabling a continuum of speeds up to the maximum. In reviews of the John Deere D105 at Lowe's, some users say the pedal that controls the speed is a bit of a challenge to master, but others declare the automatic transmission remarkably easy to operate -- just put it into gear and mow. On the Sears website, several reviewers praise the hydrostatic transmission on the highly maneuverable Craftsman LT2500. That model, along with the Ariens 960460056 and the Weed Eater One, even offers cruise control for long, uninterrupted stretches of mowing. Note, however, that a hydrostatic lawn tractor transmission eats up more fuel and requires fastidious maintenance, although it does give you more control and makes turning easier.
All cheap riding mowers move in reverse and, for safety reasons, require more than the mere flick of a switch (e.g., a key to lock into a special setting) to do so. Among the models on our list, top reverse speeds vary from 1 mph (Weed Eater One) to 5.5 mph (Craftsman LT2500). If sections of your lawn are too narrow for turning around but wider than the cutting deck, you'll probably want a riding mower that not only moves but also mows in reverse. Among the models we researched, the Ariens 960460056, Troy-Bilt TB30R, and Weed Eater One satisfy this requirement.
Electric start is standard on these riding mowers. Even the cheap Weed Eater One features electric start but also includes a pull-start as insurance in case the battery isn't sufficiently charged.
Riding Mower Maintenance.All riding lawn mowers need maintenance, be it replacing worn-out belts, sharpening blades, or cleaning the deck after each use. It's important to service the unit regularly (according to the owner's manual) to help it last longer. Wash-out ports on the John Deere D105, Craftsman LT2500, and Ariens 960460056 make it easy to clean grass clippings out of the deck -- just attach a hose and spray -- and garner cheers from users. Before you buy, make sure replacement parts are readily available, either online or at a nearby retailer. In reviews on the Walmart website, several Weed Eater One owners gripe about the need to buy parts and obtain service from a warranty repair center or authorized dealer, only to discover that the providers don't handle this particular model. By contrast, owners of the John Deere D105 comment on the Home Depot website that there are plenty of John Deere dealerships that can service their machines.
Durability and Warranty.Cheap riding lawn mowers usually come with a limited two-year warranty. Ariens also offers buyers one set of blades a year at no cost for the life of the lawn tractor, a bonus that appeals to many consumer reviewers. These warranties may come in handy, as most of the models we researched were panned in at least some reviews for a range of minor, and some major, problems. The Weed Eater One, in particular, takes some hits from users who gripe about broken starters, failing batteries, tires that must be inflated before each outing, and plastic parts that crack.
Although it's criticized more than others we researched, this cheap riding mower isn't alone in garnering negative press. A Home Depot customer who bought the John Deere D105 carps on the retailer's website about a plastic hood hinge that really needs to be protected by a steel front bumper available at an added cost. The one negative review of the Craftsman LT2500 on the Sears website so far notes a poorly designed gas tank and flimsy plastic parts but still gives the lawn tractor a three-star rating out of five. The Troy-Bilt Bronco garners complaints at Lowe's about rusted-out parts, stripped gears, and broken blades, but these are outweighed by the number of users who have been able to rely on the mower long-term. One Bronco owner who posted a review on the Lowe's website has been using the machine to mow a 3-acre lawn for eight years and counting. There are hardly any negative mentions of the Ariens 960460056 online. The handful of complaints on the Home Depot website concern machines that were non-functional out of the crate. Generally, for this crop of budget lawn tractors, the pros outnumber the cons.