The most important rule in making your selection is to match the mower to the user and the yard. Mismatches are the number one reason for consumer dissatisfaction, poor performance, and personal injury.
There are four key aspects of a riding mower that you should consider: size of the frame or body, type of transmission, size of engine, and width of the cutting deck.
Frame Size – try it on. Proper fit is a safety issue. Sit on the mower to make sure you can get on and off easily, reach the controls, and drive comfortably. People of average height and weight can use almost any size of riding mower, but those who are extra tall or a little hefty should not try to use the smallest-frame models. If your knees are in your face you will be extremely uncomfortable and your legs will be in the way of reaching the controls.
Transmission – manual or automatic? This is a convenience, maintenance, and cost issue. Like in a car, automatic transmissions are easier to operate. People unaccustomed to depressing a clutch before manually shifting gears may find an automatic less complicated. Children under age 16 don’t always understand the importance of clutching before shifting, so if they will be operating the mower an automatic transmission may save expensive repair bills. In the hands of an experienced operator, however, a manual transmission will perform just as well and will reduce the overall cost by about $200.
Engine Size and Type – where the money goes. The size and type of engine is the primary determinant of the cost of the mower. All of today’s engines have more than enough horsepower to cut the grass. People used 8 horsepower riding mowers for decades, and now they typically range from 15 to 25 or even higher. Bigger is not necessarily better unless you have a steeply sloping property or just want neighborhood bragging rights. Engines are either single cylinder or twin (two) cylinder. Single-cylinder engines perform just fine, but they are relatively loud and have more vibration, both of which can be fatiguing for the operator. Twin cylinder engines run much more quietly and smoothly, but cost a few hundred dollars more.
Deck Width – the key measurement. Decks range from 38 to about 50 inches. Consider width in three ways. First, do you have any gates that will limit the width of mower that will fit through them? Most residential gates are about 48 inches. Second, do you have adequate storage space? The door width of a storage shed or the space available in the garage may limit the width of your mower. Third, how much grass will you be cutting? Decks of about 42 inches are generally adequate for up to 2 acres. For larger areas a wider deck will help save time.
For larger estates a zero-radius mower may make sense. They cost about twice as much as a conventional riding mower, but they travel at twice the speed and have wider cutting paths so they can save a lot of time. From an entertainment standpoint, they are way more fun. From a financial standpoint, you might be better off with a couple of goats instead.
The overall value of your mower will be determined primarily by how long it lasts. If it gets stolen it wasn’t a very good buy at any price. So record the serial number to aide in recovery if necessary and store the mower in a locked space to reduce the risk of theft.
Beyond that, preventive maintenance is your best investment. Check the oil level every time you use the mower. An engine that seizes from too little oil is an oversized paperweight. Change the oil, oil filter, air filter, fuel filter and spark plug according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Periodically changing blades, belts and the battery are about the only other maintenance needs, and most homeowners can learn to perform these tasks.
If you can’t or don’t wish to perform the routine maintenance yourself, consider purchasing your new riding mower from a local dealer that can provide the service you will need.
Beware the extended warranties and protection agreements most big-box retailers will try to sell you. If you perform the routine maintenance you are not likely to need them. If you have no intention of doing the maintenance, or if a rare but catastrophic event like engine or transmission failure would be an extreme financial hardship, then for some it might be worthwhile yet expensive insurance.
In sum, the more thought you put into the selection of your new riding lawnmower the happier you will be.