How to Choose the Right Lawnmower

By: Echo Surina

When those weeds get waist-high, there's no denying it: You need to get a lawn mower.
When those weeds get waist-high, there's no denying it: You need to get a lawn mower.

If you rent your home, chances are yard care is the responsibility of your landlord or property manager. But if you own your home, you don't have it so easy.

Whether you have sprawling acres of lawn or a patch of grass, you have two options when it comes to caring for your lawn and garden: Hire help, or do it yourself. If you opt for the latter, choosing the right lawn mower will be important (unless you happen to have a generous neighbor who lets you borrow hers). We have a lot more to say about choosing the right lawn mower, but first, here are a few tips for those of you who fall outside the DIY party.


Lawn care service companies' pricing depends on a number of factors, including plot size, intensity of work required and what market you live in. Typically, the most bare, basic services cost approximately $30 per week in small towns. Trimming, raking and other add-on services will cost more. Big cities across the country are a different story. In metropolises, yards tend to be smaller and, therefore, cheaper to maintain, but labor costs more. This means professional service providers in urban areas can be more or less expensive than those in rural locales.

Shop around and compare a few companies before choosing one. Know what's included in the standard program, that program's annual cost and the type and cost of optional services available. Ohio State University's Horticulture and Crop Sciences recommends asking the following questions before hiring a lawn service company:

  • How much fertilizer is applied annually?
  • Does the company apply nitrogen fertilizers?
  • Are spray or granular fertilizers used?
  • What does the company guarantee about its service?
  • Does it provide any kind of lawn care education to the homeowner?
  • Is the lawn and garden service flexible -- and is the level of service worth the cost?

While all lawns may seem relatively the same in nature, they can have quite different needs when it comes to care. If you decide to pass on professional help and go it alone after doing all this due diligence, then this article is for you. First, you'll need to determine what features your lawn mower should have in order to keep your cultivated area looking its best. Find out on the next page.


Assessing Your Lawn Mower Needs

There are a number of important things to consider when assessing your lawn mower needs, from the type of grass you have to how often you need to mow.

Get to know your lawn and garden well, all the way down to the finest details, such as grass density, which determines your mower's blade size and rotation. But pay attention to the big picture, too. For example, look into your neighborhood's zoning laws. Sometimes, there are restrictions on noise or specific engine types.


Consider how large your lawn is. If it's too expansive and you just can't cover that much ground on foot, walk-behind lawn mowers won't work well. On the other hand, riding mowers can be too beefy to maneuver effectively on a small plot. They can also be too clunky if there are obstacles in the way like flower beds, trees or a jungle gym. You'll also want to assess your yard's terrain, too. Are there slopes and steep grades? Evaluate whether you're physically able to push a lawn mower up hills and grip it on descents. Also, think about the skills it takes to maneuver a big riding mower on this kind of difficult terrain and remember there's a danger of tipping every time you use a riding lawn mower on a hill. If you've got serious slopes and a big yard, many experts recommend using a push-behind mower for the hills and a riding lawn mower for the grassy, flatter expanses.

And finally, take your lifestyle into consideration. It may not be worth buying a lawn mower if you're moving in six months to Tucson, Ariz., where your yard will be landscaped with rocks instead of grass. Perhaps you travel a lot for business and aren't around to care for your lawn as much as it needs. In cases like this, you may want to consider hiring a professional lawn care service company.

But if you've thought about your needs and are ready to purchase a lawn mower, go to the next page to discover different kinds of walk-behind mowers and which ones can best help you keep your lawn healthy and beautiful.

Types of Push-behind Lawn Mowers

If your yard is on the small side, a push-behind mower might be just the thing.
If your yard is on the small side, a push-behind mower might be just the thing.

There are different types of push-behind lawn mowers. All come with advantages and disadvantages, which should be weighed according to your needs and budget.

A push-behind mower, also called a walk-behind mower, has an engine and takes a little muscle to maneuver, making it well-suited for small lawns that are relatively flat. Thanks to its simple design, there's little that can go wrong -- this type of lawn mower doesn't break down as often as others. Push-behind lawn mowers are available for about $150.


Another sensible option for this type of low-fuss yard is the reel mower. Since it has no engine, it's virtually problem-free, plus it's environmentally friendly, quiet and inexpensive to use and maintain. Reel mowers tend to cut closer than motorized models. Reel mowers are available between $100 and $200. Keep in mind, they're not good for expansive lawns or rolling terrain, unless you're prepared for a royal workout!

Electric mowers are also fitting for small areas but for another reason: They usually have an electric cord. Think of it like a vacuum cleaner -- plug it in, flip a switch and you're running. While electric mowers are relatively quiet and more environmentally friendly than gas mowers, they aren't equipped for deep cutting, so you have to mow more often. If yours has a cord, be careful, as mowing over it can be dangerous. You can avoid this hassle with cordless versions, which run on rechargeable batteries. Electric mowers are sold for approximately $200.

But what if your lawn is sloped or large? That's when a self-propelled mower might be in order. This kind comes with an engine, and some models have adjustable speeds that allow you to easily manage your pace if the ground is uneven. Due to safety regulations, all versions have a control level just inches away from the main handle that must be gripped for the engine to operate. Self-propelled mowers can run between $500 and $900.

Sure, self-propelled mowers can be great for large yards, but what if your lawn and garden is really massive? That's when you're ready for another level in lawn care: the riding lawn mower. Turn to the next page to learn your options.

Types of Riding Lawn Mowers

If your lawn is a half-acre or larger, you'll probably need a riding lawn mower. Riding lawn mowers have a seat, steering wheel and various controls. Besides these basic design elements, various types of riding lawn mowers are largely defined by the front cutting deck, a covering that shelters the blade. The longer the blade, the longer the deck. It logically follows that you should select a longer deck for large lawns, since the blade will also be longer and can cut more. (The riding mower is not to be confused with gardening tractors or lawn tractors, which have decks mounted in the middle, making them less maneuverable.)

You can choose between gas and electric riding lawn mowers. To run an electric one, just make sure the battery is charged before you start. Electric mowers are quieter, better for the environment and cheaper to run. On the flip side, electric riding mowers are much less efficient than gas mowers, as they expend less energy. Also, the battery dies fairly quickly, especially in wet conditions.


Whether a mower runs off of gas or electricity, top-of-the-line riding lawn mowers feature extras like cup holders, cruise control, sun shades and even CD players. And these advantages come with a price tag: Riding mowers can cost between $1,000 and $9,000.

Because they're bigger and more robust than walk-behind mowers, riding mowers are more dangerous to operate. Common problems include the mower tipping over, people getting run over by the mower or falling off from the seat, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Keep your riding lawn mower safe and in good condition with regular maintenance. Quality care includes changing the oil and filter, inspecting and replacing the spark plug, cleaning or replacing air filters and lubricating grease fittings. Run the engine long enough for it to warm up before use.

If you live in a region that gets winter weather prohibitive to lawn mowing in the winter, you will want to do some extra cleaning before storing your mower for the cold season. It should be a place protected from nasty weather, such as your basement, garage or workshop. Winter maintenance can include removing all grass clippings from the exterior, cleaning the battery and more.

Next, find out what's on the inside. Continue to learn about engines and which ones will give you the horsepower you need for exquisite lawn care.

Lawn Mower Engines

Regular care and maintenance of your lawn mower's engine will keep it running smoothly for a long time.
Regular care and maintenance of your lawn mower's engine will keep it running smoothly for a long time.

All lawn mowers have a revolving blade that evenly trims grass at a consistent height. Different kinds of lawn mower engines make this cutting function possible. Mowers with a blade that revolves around a vertical axis are called rotary mowers, and those with a blade whirling around horizontally are known as reel or cylinder mowers.

Rotary push-behind mowers typically come with a two-stroke or four-stroke internal combustion engine. Internal combustion is one way energy is generated. Here, combustion is when a chemical change happens inside a controlled chamber within the engine that results in heat, or mechanical energy. Rotary walk-behind lawn mowers are generally powered with gasoline and have engines that are two horsepower to seven horsepower.


Riding lawn mowers, on the other hand, have 13 horsepower to 30 horsepower engines because they're so much bigger and heavier. Mowers built for residential use have less power than larger commercial ones intended for cutting a lot of grass at places like golf courses or municipal parks.

Take note of whether a riding lawn mower's engine is located in the front or back. Typically, rear engines provide better visibility but the most powerful riding mowers have front engines. Base your decision on what matters to you more.

Cylindrical mowers often don't have an engine at all -- but they can. If you want to make pushing along your reel mower easier, you can attach a gas or electric engine to power it. The attached motor spins the blades while you do the walking.

Common problems affecting lawn mowers involve carburetor quality, dirty oil, unbalanced blades, loose tires and much more.

Keep your lawn mower engine operating in good condition with regular maintenance and care. After use, let the motor cool. Spray off grass and debris from the undercarriage using a hose. Always store the mower in a dry place. When putting it away for the winter, drain the fuel to prevent it from aging and corroding the engine. Run the motor until it stops.

Go to the last page to learn about lawn mower attachments that can make lawn care around the home and garden much easier for you.

Lawn Mower Attachments

Lawn mower attachments are additional tools that can be used to enhance the performance of your mower while it's in use. These add-ons include baggers that collect cut grass, snow chains for better grip in inclement weather and hitches for using all kinds of attachments. Other examples include mow aerator tread attachments -- spikes that go on riding mowers' wheels to help aerate your lawn and keep it healthy -- and stripe kits for creating a ballpark finish on lawns.

Lawn mower accessories do the same sorts of things for walk-behind mowers, but they don't always attach to the mower during use. They include grass catchers that attach to the back of the mower, plastic gas line tubes, ignition kits, starter handle and cord and much more.


So, where do you go to get lawn mower attachments or accessories?

Having an established relationship with a one-stop-shop can be much more convenient than searching around town every time you need something new for your mower. If you think you'll need attachments or accessories throughout the life of your lawn mower, it's recommended to buy your machine from a retailer or dealer that sells these add-ons.

Dealerships that have a service department are ideal if you don't want to hassle with maintaining your mower on your own. Just take your mower in, and they'll do all the work. But if getting the best pricing is more important to you, check out non-servicing dealerships, which tend to be less expensive. Generally, dealerships have a better selection of mower brands and better prices than chain stores.

If you love a good deal, purchasing a used mower may offer you the savings you're looking for. Whether you hit up garage sales, Craigslist or a store that sells pre-owned mowers, keep in mind replacement parts can be harder to find for used mowers.

Whatever kind of lawn mower you decide to buy, make sure the model you want isn't on a current recall list. If it's in good standing, you can make this purchase in good conscience. Happy mowing!

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • (March 9, 2010).
  • Groach, Jessica. "Way to Mow: Choosing the Right Lawn Mower for You." All About Lawns. Aug. 22, 2006. (March 8, 2010).
  • "How to Care for a Riding Lawn Mower." (March 8, 2010).
  • Koski, Anthony J. and John R. Street. "What to Look for in a Lawn Care Service." Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet: Horticulture and Crop Sciences." (March 8, 2010).
  • "Lawn Mowers: What to Look For." Consumer Research. April 2009. (March 8, 2010).
  • Mielziner, Charlotte et al. "Debate: Which are better, cordless electric lawn mowers or gas lawn mowers?" (March 8, 2010).
  • "Troubleshooting Your Lawn Mower." (March 9, 2010).
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Riding Lawnmowers." (March 7, 2010).
  • "What is the average cost of lawn care services in the U.S.?" (March 7, 2010).