Updated Jul 26, 2022 3:41 PM
The best riding lawn mower is a powerful, durable machine that makes cutting grass as effortless as possible. Lawn equipment has come a long way since the days of a sickle and elbow grease. Modern riding mowers cram the power of a farm tractor and the maneuverability of an ATV into one fun-to-ride, easy-to-control tool.
If you’ve never bought a riding mower, or are upgrading and replacing an old mower, you will be surprised and potentially overwhelmed with today’s options. Front engine? Rear engine? Do you need the best riding lawn mower for hills or zero-turn agility? And what about the transmission? Where do you start? And how do you know if you’re getting the right size mower with all the features you need or the best riding lawn mower for the money? That’s why we’re here: to take the mystery out of this lawn care equipment and find the best riding lawn mowers for every yard, lawn, and field.
Five important things to consider for picking the best riding lawn mowers
The best riding lawn mower is the one that efficiently mows your specific patch of grass because not all lawns are created equal. Even in your own neighborhood, one type of mower works best for one yard and another riding mower works best for the house next door. The right mower in the right hands can greatly speed up the grass-cutting process.
Before you rush out and buy the most expensive mower on display, however, take a close look at your own yard. Take measurements of the area that needs mowing (your property minus the footprint of your house, driveway, decking, landscaping, etc.), so you know how big an area you will maintain. As a general rule, riding lawn mowers work best on yards larger than one-half acre (anything less can be mowed more effectively with a gas-powered, walk-behind mower).
Also, know what type of terrain you will drive over, and know the difference between the types of lawn mowers. A ride-on lawn mower is an investment, so you want a machine that lasts. These are motorcycles with blades; understanding and respecting the engine and cutting mechanism is important to making sure your riding mower keeps going season after season. Regular maintenance will be required, but there are riding mowers that are easier to care for than others.
Safety and comfort are also important factors to consider when browsing any lawn or garden tool. Lumbar support and armrests on a riding lawn mower can reduce sore muscles and eliminate next-day chore hangovers. And comfortable steering not only helps your arms and legs, but also gives you greater control to chop grass in eye-catching patterns. Arm yourself with the knowledge (and our handle selections below) and you’ll find the best riding lawn mower for your property.
Calculate what you need to find a riding mower for small yards
The key to finding the best riding lawn mower is to get the right amount of power with the most effective cutting deck. If your yard is smaller than two acres, don’t waste money on horsepower you don’t need and cut widths too large to work in small areas.
There are four types of ride-on mowers to choose from: riding mower, lawn tractor, garden tractor, and zero-turn mower. While they all cut grass, they do so in different ways. A riding mower with a rear-mounted engine will be the least expensive option, but also the slowest and weakest. Riding mowers are the smallest of the bunch and have a maximum cut width of 30 inches. That’s a plus for small lawns (anything up to an acre).
A lawn tractor, however, is what most people envision when they think of a “riding mower.” Lawn tractors have the engine in the front, the cutting deck is between the front and rear wheels and they can be modified to do more than just cut grass. Garden tractors are bigger, more powerful, more versatile versions of a lawn tractor. And zero-turn mowers have a rear-mounted engine with their unique push bar steering to sharply maneuver around any obstacle.
If you have a yard too large for a push mower, yet smaller than an acre, a riding mower or small lawn tractor is the most efficient grass chopper to get. If you want horsepower and functionality, go for the lawn tractor. A lawn tractor can do more than cut grass and has the power to drive on any lawn.
If you have a smaller yard, this Toro lawn tractor is the versatile lawn slicer to keep your grass in check quickly. While riding mowers can be smaller, the smaller models are slower and feel underpowered. If you want a ride-on mower with strength and speed, go straight to a lawn tractor instead of a riding mower. It’s a great riding lawn mower for yards up to two acres. It’s not a huge, monstrous machine but still gives you plenty of cutting power. The steering is smooth and responsive. Plus it can be easily stored and maintained. For backyards, front yards, and small sidelots, the Toro riding lawn mower is the perfect fit.
Tackle tough inclines with the best riding lawn mower for hills
The best riding mowers are fierce vehicles with the handling of a car. But not all mowers can be the best riding lawn mower for hills. If a yard has a wide variety of inclines and valleys, trying to mow it can be frustrating and dangerous. Even small hills can be a hassle. Zero-turn mowers are notoriously horrible on hills, and low-powered riding mowers lack the strength needed to mow up and along a sloped lawn. A garden tractor with powerful maneuverability is the only ride-on mower that can safely keep your entire yard in order, even on hills.
Garden tractors are bigger than lawn tractors, making them better for yards larger than three acres. But these beasts can be more complicated. To make the larger tractors easy to control, it may use a hydrostatic transmission, which provides better speed and steering but can be more expensive to maintain and repair.
Still, the difference between a manual transmission and a hydrostatic transmission can be felt immediately as you simply, safely drive the mower up and along hills. With greater control comes tighter turns and quick maneuvering around the terrain. A high-quality hydrostatic garden tractor gives you commercial-grade cutting power in a user-friendly package, making it the best riding lawn mower for hills.
Best for hills: Husqvarna TS 354XD 54-inch Garden Tractor
Husqvarna riding lawn mowers are some of the best on the market, including for hills. And the Husqvarna Garden Tractor is the mighty lawn mowing tool used by professional landscapers and backyard amateurs alike. The hydrostatic transmission makes the ride feel smooth and comfortable, even up and along hills. Its three strong blades, housed in the 54-inch cutting deck, can chew through anything in its path. And a 24 hp engine gives you the oomph needed to safely traverse inclines and wet surfaces. If you’re tasked lawn maintenance of a space larger than three acres, you need a garden tractor made of durable, dependable materials, and this Husqvarna lawn mower checks all the necessary boxes as the best riding mower for hills.
Zero-turn riding mowers cut the largest lawn with a twist
The benefits of a zero-turn riding lawn mower are clear: maneuverability and speed. These powerful lawn mowers can zip around trees, rocks, decks, pools, fences, or anything else that dots your landscape. They shift from forward to reverse in a snap and are ideal for making intricate patterns on the lawn. And the quick speed and wide cutting deck make them perfect for large lawns, fields, and anywhere else grass needs to be taught a lesson.
For lawns larger than four acres, you want a cutting deck wider than 54 inches. Generally speaking, a 54-inch cutting deck on a riding mower traveling at medium speed can cut four acres in an hour. Besides a large cutting width, you also want good horsepower to efficiently travel across the yard. A mower with 25 hp will provide enough muscle for large yards and fields. You can go higher, but most consumer models are between 11 hp to 25 hp. Anything above that may be too much muscle for one home.
The agility comes from the unique steering of a zero-turn riding mower. The left and right push-bar accelerators control each rear wheel independently. Push both forward and you move forward. Pull them back and you slow down and move in reverse. Push one bar forward and you spin around the stationary wheel. It may sound complicated, and there is a mild learning curve to mastering the mechanism, but your brain will pick up the steering and turning will be reflexive with just a few minutes of practice. Of course, take it slow at first and do not try to make sharp turns until you feel comfortable, and always be careful on hills. The weight distribution of zero-turn mowers can make inclines difficult to cut.
The rear-mounted engine gives operators a great view of what’s ahead. And zero-turn mowers are often faster than other ride-on mowers. While they may look intimidating and the steering is not like a car, zero-turn mowers are some of the best tools for cutting grass in big areas and tight corners.
Best zero-turn: Husqvarna MZ61 61-inch Zero-Turn Riding Tractor
The best riding lawn mower must have what it takes, and then some. The power of the Husqvarna MZ61 riding mower is obvious: its substantial Briggs & Stratton Endurance Series 27 hp 810cc V-Twin engine is more powerful than most consumer riding mowers. All that power helps the 61-inch cutting deck mow through a four-acre lawn in less than an hour. The zero-turn steering allows for quick, smooth pivots making the heavy-duty steel frame feel light and nimble. It’s easy to use, after reading the instructions and taking it out for a few test cuts. For any lawn that creeps past the three-acre mark, the Husqvarna riding mower is the best beast to tame the suburban jungle.
Here’s the best budget riding lawn mower you can get
If the prices for ride-on lawn mowers give you sticker shock, rest a little easier knowing great and inexpensive riding mowers are out there. While you won’t be able to find anything useful for less than $1,000, once you reach the $1,500 ballpark you can find decent models that get the job done.
Between riding mowers, lawn tractors, and zero-turn mowers, the traditional riding mower will be the cheapest option. The main tradeoff for the lower price is cutting width, horsepower, and speed. The less expensive riding mowers have a 30-inch cutting deck (as opposed to the 50-inch decks of lawn tractors). These tiny grass gobblers are better for those with less than an acre of ground to mow. In fact, if your yard is smaller than an acre, smaller is better. Anything larger than a 30-inch riding mower is overkill.
A small, inexpensive riding mower performs only one task: cuts grass. They can’t plow sow, haul lumber, or turn on a dime. They are little more than a standard walk-behind mower with a chair, but the low price makes up for the lack of functions.
Best budget: Troy Bilt 30-inch 382cc Riding Lawn Mower
The 30-inch cutting deck of the Troy Bilt riding mower makes it the best riding mower for yards smaller than one acre, and the best riding lawn mower for the money. It’s a small riding lawn mower that’s easy to store and maintain. And the 382cc single-cylinder Troy Bilt engine is powerful enough to chew up and spit out just about any lawn. Maneuvering around trees and along fences is fluid and comfortable, thanks to the Soft Touch steering wheel. While not as versatile as a lawn tractor, you can add mulching attachments to help keep the yard looking sharp. For anyone with a smaller yard, who doesn’t need a monstrous machine, the simple yet effective Troy Bilt riding lawn mower is the perfect fit.
Q: How long does a riding lawn mower last?
A riding lawn mower should last anywhere between five and 10 years. But the years don’t matter as much as the hours of use. Consumer riding mowers are made to last about 300 hours. If you have a two-acre lawn, you may spend 60 hours a year using the mower and the mower will last five years. This varies based on where you live, rainfall, type of grass, type of terrain, etc., so it’s only to give you a rough idea. Make your mower last longer with routine maintenance and storing it properly during the off-season.
Q: What is the best riding lawn mower for one acre?
The Troy-Bilt TB30 (mentioned above) is the best riding lawn mower with just enough power to tackle one acre of grass, and the best riding lawn mower for the money if on a budget. For any yard larger than an acre, invest in a lawn tractor, like the 42-inch Craftsman riding lawn mower (mentioned above). It will be fast and efficient. More expensive models and zero-turn mowers won’t be as helpful or efficient on smaller yards, so spending more is not always the best answer. And for anything smaller than one-half acre, a walk-behind mower is the most effective.
Q: When is the best month to buy a riding lawn mower?
The best month to buy a riding mower is April or August. Shoppers are most likely to find the model they want in spring, at the start of the mowing season. The prices won’t be the lowest, but availability is at the highest. Look for good sales during the summer, especially around Labor Day. At that point, many home goods stores are looking to clear floor space for fall/winter products. Options will be somewhat limited, but you can still find the make and model you’re looking for or something comparable. The cheapest of the cheap riding lawn mowers can be found in the fall, but who knows what stores will have left. And most stores don’t even sell riding mowers in the winter. While it’s not an exact science, stick to the months that begin with the letter A when shopping for a riding mower.
The final word on finishing chores in comfort with the best riding lawn mowers
Finding an effective, efficient ride-on mower isn’t too difficult once you know what to look for. Understanding the difference between a riding mower, lawn tractor, garden tractor, and zero-turn mower will make you a smart shopper. To inform your lawn equipment decision, think about your lawn: How big is it? How many obstacles are in the way? Are there any hills? Using the wrong mower will make hot days doing yard work in the sun seem endless, but the best riding lawn mower will give you enough time to relax and enjoy the season…before you need to break out the snowblower.