To find the best riding mowers and lawn tractors for homeowners on a budget, we turned first to the professionals. Consumer Reports reviews and tests more riding mowers than any other credible expert. Other sources we consulted include Popular Mechanics and Top Ten Reviews, as well as the respected enthusiast site Today's Mower, among others. To see what consumers had to say about how these mowers fared in real-world usage, we pored through hundreds of owner reviews posted with manufacturers' and on retailers' sites, including Home Depot, Lowe's, Mowers Direct, and Amazon. While the mowers in our lineup may have fewer frills, a bit less power, and perhaps shorter lifespans than pricier models, we found that consumers are quite satisfied overall with our affordable picks.
To determine which type of riding mower will best suit your specific needs, there are a few things to know. The terms "riding mower" and "lawn tractor" are often used interchangeably, but the primary distinction concerns the placement of the engine: under or behind the seat in a riding mower and mounted in front of the seat in a lawn tractor.
- Rear-engine riding mowers are best suited for relatively flat yards not much larger than an acre. Their decks are comparatively small, often 30 inches or so, and they usually have a single cutting blade. Their more compact size makes them easier to navigate in tight spaces and means they'll need less room for storage. While their engines are peppy enough to cut grass — 10 to 14 horsepower is common on lower-priced models — they don't have the strength or build to do any real hauling or pull any but the lightest attachments, like a seed and fertilizer spreader.
- Lawn tractors, which can tackle larger properties up to two acres with bumps and slopes, have a significantly wider cutting radius — usually from 42 to 48 inches — and two blades to work with. They're heavier than riding mowers, which helps with traction, and their more powerful, 15- to 26-hp engines make them better able to deal with bumps and slopes. These workhorses are also capable of hauling heavier attachments like dump carts and trailers. Many sport automatic transmissions or use hydrostatic (hydraulic-driven) transmissions, as opposed to the manual shift drives common on many riding mowers, which keeps them moving at a steady clip and makes for easier maneuvering around obstacles.
- Zero-turn riding mowers are more expensive, starting at around $2,500. They have rear-mounted engines as powerful as those found on lawn tractors and cutting decks that are similarly wide. Guided with a two-lever steering unit, their rear wheels can spin forward and backward independently, allowing the mower to turn 360 degrees "on a dime" (the turn radius is literally 0 inches) and maneuver close to obstacles. They're best suited for lawns of up to two acres with a lot of trees and landscaping or tighter, fenced corners. Like cheaper riding mowers, however, ZTR mowers aren't designed for hilly terrain or to haul attachments.
Note: Residents of California must buy lawn mowers that comply with standards set by the California Air Resources Board. With the exception of the Cub Cadet CC30H, our top picks come in versions that are CARB-compliant.