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A lawn mower can be a necessary home appliance for many homeowners, but those who have larger lawns to upkeep may find that push lawn mowers just don’t cut it. Experts recommend using riding lawn mowers for larger lawns since they have more powerful engines better equipped to efficiently handle bigger patches of grass. And as the name suggests, they’re designed so you can ride on top of them while you mow the lawn, which can come in handy when there’s a lot of land to tackle.
“Unlike any other type of lawnmower, the riding ones let you just sit and steer instead of pushing a manually propelled type or walking behind a self-propelled type,” said Bryan McKenzie, a landscape designer and co-founder of Bumper Crop Times. “The riding type is much more cumbersome as it includes a larger motor and a full-sized seat, but it allows you to mow large areas significantly faster without any back fatigue — all you need is good sunscreen.”
A riding lawn mower is typically a major investment: The average cost is anywhere between $1,000 to upwards of $3,500, according to David Steckel, a home expert at Thumbtack. This means finding the right one can be crucial, especially with so many choices on the market. To help you get started, we consulted landscaping and gardening experts to explain the difference between a riding lawn mower and other types of mowers and what to look for when shopping for one, plus rounded up their recommendations to shop.
What are riding lawn mowers, exactly?
Riding lawn mowers are usually quicker and easier to use than push or self-propelled lawn mowers due to their large engines and wider mowing decks, which can cut a larger area of grass in one pass. The ability to ride the mower around can also be “crucial for homeowners who experience any back issues and can’t walk behind an average lawn mower without fatigue,” said McKenzie.
Experts said that shoppers with more than three-fourths of an acre of yard would benefit from a riding lawn mower since they can significantly cut down on mowing time. However, “if your yard is less than a half an acre, a riding lawn mower can make mowing your lawn more tedious than it needs to be because of the size of the machine in comparison to the yard,” said Steckel. At that point, it’s easier (and much cheaper) to use a push or self-propelled lawn mower — these types of mowers also turn the lawn mowing process into an opportunity for exercise and physical activity.
There are three main types of riding lawn mowers to consider: traditional lawn tractors, zero turning radius (ZTR) mowers and rear engine riding mowers.
Lawn tractors are gas-powered machines with a front mounted engine and a steering wheel for easy maneuvering — you simply sit on top and steer while the machine cuts the grass. “This is the most common and price-effective type of riding lawn mower,” said Steckel. They also usually have a wide turn radius, making them a good option for big lawns with slopes and hills.
ZTR mowers have a rear engine and feature a better turning radius than lawn tractors. “They can turn on a dime and are usually faster and more precise than other riding mower options,” said Steckel. Instead of a steering wheel, these mowers typically have a pair of levers that control which way the machine turns (although some newer models feature the familiar wheel). According to Michael Hill, a garden and landscape expert at Garden Guidepost, this option is best “if you have a lawn that has sharp edges, architectural design or you need to get close to obstacles.” Alongside its maneuverability and mobility, ZTR mowers are also lighter and offer higher maximum speeds.
Rear engine mowers have an engine in the back right below the seat. They’re more compact for easier storage and are usually cheaper than the other types of riding mowers. However, they tend to have smaller mowing decks (around 30 inches wide compared to at least 40 inches for other types of riding lawn mowers) and don’t tend to cut as well or as quickly as other riding mowers. “Typically if you have a lawn that is not huge but isn't small enough to use manual or push mowers, then this is the best option,” said Hill. These mowers can sometimes be electric — electric mowers use battery power instead of gas and are typically quieter.
Best riding lawn mowers in 2021
To help you decide which riding lawn mower is best for you, we consulted experts on their recommended picks.
This Cub Cadet riding lawn mower features a 50-inch-wide cutter, a steel frame and a 23H twin-engine by Kawasaki. It’s “made for large yards that include lots of uneven spots and obstacles — due to responsive zero-turn steering, a low center of gravity and large tenacious wheels, it can trim almost anywhere,” said McKenzie. It also features dual hydrostatic transmissions that let the mower accelerate up to 7.5 mph forward and up to 3.5 mph in reverse. McKenzie noted that Cub Cadet also makes an electric version of this model that features “the same performance as the gas-powered version along with all the benefits of an electric unit.”
This electric riding mower from RYOBI is an “eco-friendly, relatively quiet and efficient riding lawn mower,” according to McKenzie. It offers a 38-inch cutting width and a battery that has up to 2 hours of run time for cutting up to 2 acres of lawn per charge, according to the brand. “You can charge it up from any 120V outlet and enjoy great performance without any daunting gas engine maintenance,” McKenzie said. This mower also equips LED headlights, a USB phone charger and cruise control features for added efficiency. However, it doesn’t have a zero turn radius, meaning it may be harder to maneuver around sharp edges or obstacles in your yard.
If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly solution, this compact option from Troy-Bilt is less than $1,500 and doesn’t sacrifice efficiency, according to McKenzie. He noted the 30-inch deck is “quite enough for the vast majority of medium American yards, while the 382-cc engine delivers just enough speed to finish the work faster than you expect from a small buddy like this.” It does have a manual transmission, which the brand calls Shift-on-the-Go transmission, that allows you to change speeds without clutching or stopping.
Hill recommended this option from Husqvarna due to its super-wide mowing deck. “At 61 inches wide, this zero-turn lawn mower can clear more than an acre of tall grass in fewer passes,” he said. The brand claims this mower’s large cutting width can cover up to 4.2 acres per hour, which can be efficient for large lawns. For comfort, this mower features a high-back seat with armrests and foam-padded levers with hand grips. It also has easy access points for maintenance: The oil and filters, battery and hydraulic drive system are all within reach, and includes an hour meter that reminds you when to service your mower.
This zero-turn mower has a large 50-inch cutting width and can be a good selection for yards up to 4 acres, according to the brand. It features Toro’s Smart Speed Technology, which lets you control your mowing speed in three modes: up to 7 mph while mowing, 5.5 mph in tow mode and 4 mph in trim mode. “It's a powerful warrior that will satisfy the mowing, towing, and trimming needs of most professional users,” said McKenzie. This mower also equips a built-in cup holder for drinks, shock-absorbing dampeners that make rides smoother and a step-through front end that makes it easier to get on and off of the mower while you pick up debris or move obstacles out of the way.
What to consider when shopping for a riding lawn mower
Since riding lawn mowers can largely vary in size and function, it’s important to consider which features work best for your lawn before splurging.
As we reported in our guide to lawn mowers, the cutting width of a lawn mower measures the size of the strip the machine can cut in a single pass — the wider the cutting width is, the less time it’ll take to mow your lawn. Ideal cutting width varies from 30 inches to 42 inches for 1 acre of grass to at least 60 inches for 5 acres of grass, according to McKenzie. The width also correlates to the number of blades within the cutting deck: Smaller tractors can have one blade, while typical lawn tractors and ZTR mowers usually have two or three blades.
Though a wider cutting width can speed up the mowing process, McKenzie noted that it can also limit a machine’s mobility. He added that in some cases, “you’ll need an extra small self-propelled lawn mower to finish narrow spaces and slopes that are too steep for your glossy ride.”
Gas versus electric mower
Many riding lawn mowers are gas-powered, meaning they require gasoline to operate. Others, meanwhile, are electric and use a battery-powered motor that needs to be charged. Though gas riding mowers are more durable and typically better suited for large lawns, Hill cautioned that they’re usually much louder than their electric counterparts and are less eco-friendly since they emit fumes.
Electric riding mowers can be cheaper and easier to maintain since they don’t require purchasing or changing out the engine oil, among other upkeep requirements. However, electric riding mowers do have their downfalls: Their functionality is limited to the amount of time they can be used in a single charge — if you have several acres of land (or simply forget to charge the battery), the power may not be enough to cut your entire lawn in one sitting.
The type of transmission on your riding lawn mower can determine the machine’s speed and dictate how it handles different backyard conditions, including mud and inclines. Manual transmission provides a set number of speeds — you select the one you want by using a lever and clutch. These are primarily found in older lawn tractors — similar to older cars — and can be useful for people who are accustomed to using a gear stick or can’t control speeds as easily with the pedal.
Hydrostatic transmission, also known as automatic transmission, is the default type for most riding lawn mowers and lets you shift gears automatically by pressing down on the pedal. This type tends to last longer — according to Mckenzie, it “requires the least maintenance and [has] the smoothest performance.”
Terrain and yard size
As experts noted, the size of your lawn will determine whether you should invest in a riding lawn mower — it’s usually not worth it for homeowners with less than half an acre. However, the type of terrain can also affect how the mower is used. A lawn tractor will work well on any relatively flat lawn and on landscapes with a lot of uneven sectors, especially if it features a steering wheel that provides more control. If you have a relatively flat yard with obstacles like rocks and gravel, meanwhile, “a ZTR will probably show better results as it can turn 360 degrees on a small spot and pivot at sharp angles,” said McKenzie.
Your riding mower should also have an engine that matches the size of the yard, experts told us. Since lawn tractors are usually the largest type, they can provide “enough power to quickly treat 2 acres to 5 or more acres,” said McKenzie. For smaller areas, you can use a lightweight single-cylinder engine ZTR, which is usually more affordable. Two-cylinder engines — called V-twin engines — in ZTRs are more powerful than single-cylinder engines and provide less vibration, making them quieter and more comfortable. Riding mowers with V-twin engines are recommended “for large yards with 2-5 or more acres,” said McKenzie.