Below is some additional consumer information I've put together that I hope will help you in your search for a tractor-mower.
AYP (American Yard Products) makes most of the higher-end machines for companies like Craftsman, Husqvarna, Poulan Pro, Ariens, and others. Low-end machines are generally made by MTD. The AYP models are usually feature-rich. These offer heavier-duty construction and better reliability. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend most AYP-manufactured tractors to a buyer. The Briggs and Stratton and Kohler V-Twin engines are among the best and if maintained properly will give many years of reliable operation. If you are looking for a solid used tractor, Craftsman units made by AYP are a good bet. Other fine brands include Husqvarna, Ariens, Poulan Pro, Cub Cadet, and Toro, along with selected machines from Troy-Bilt, White Outdoor, and Yard-Man.
Basically there are two manufacturers for most all homeowner tractors except for John Deere's farm equipment (its big-box store models were predominantly made by Murray and AYP, now by John Deere), Simplicity, and Snapper. AYP makes such brands as Husqvarna, Poulan Pro, Ariens, Remington, McCulloch, Weed Eater, Ryobi (early 2000s), and Craftsman (all models through 2007, YT and GT after 2007). MTD makes Bolens, MTD, MTD Pro, Troy-Bilt, White Outdoor, Yard Machines, and Yard-Man. However, they've also made residential machines to spec, using MTD’s premium chassis and parts, for various brands including highly-respected Cub Cadet and Toro! Selected Troy-Bilt machines also shared this chassis.
You can identify an MTD machine by looking at the sticker under its seat. This sticker will have MTD listed as the manufacturer along with product and serial numbers and even the date of manufacture (DOM) in month and year. Craftsman machines have ID tags in the same place but the DOM is hidden in the serial number. Although the formula for embedding the DOM has changed over the years, starting in 1994, the first 6 digits of the serial number are the DOM.
Avoid all Murray and some Scotts brand tractors. Murray went out of business and was acquired by Briggs and Stratton. Parts are hard to get. Early Scotts tractors, although owners think otherwise, were made by Murray! Some of the later Scotts units were made by AYP and then by John Deere. If you can identify one made by AYP or John Deere, it can be a good choice.
Some additional tips:
- There are three basic types of tractors:
- Lawn Tractors (referred to as LT series). These are generally entry-level machines for up to 1.5 acres.
- Yard Tractors (YT series, also certain LT (pre-2000), LTX, DLT, and DYT designations from Craftsman). These offer stronger construction, cast-iron axle, heavier duty controls and deck, bigger and stronger body, and more features. These will take selected yard attachments beyond a bagger with relative ease, such as plows, de-thatchers, spreaders, etc. These premium homeowner machines can cover up to 4-5 acres.
- Garden Tractors (GT Series). These are designed primarily for small farming (5-20 acres) and have much larger wheels and more substantial construction, along with greater pulling capacity (usually 24 HP and up). These accommodate small farming attachments and other heavier equipment. These machines are much more expensive and are overkill for a homeowner.
- There are some obvious design elements that identify the generations of tractors.
- Those with full-step-through bodies mostly date from 2000 to present. Some leading designs from Husqvarna and others date back as far as 1998.
- Those with the boxed-in transmission section between the seat and front section, which you have to straddle when seated, date roughly from 1990-1998 or prior. Some will have the more modern hood design that gives them the look of the newer models (2000-present). I refer to these as late "transitional" units with the underpinnings of the 1990-1998 generation and elements of newer styling that were produced at the end of this product cycle. Some of these may offer good performance, but they are still quite old. Newer generation models (1999-present) can be had for the same prices, especially since tractor prices have been falling over the past 10-15 years.
- Those with square-body designs (e.g., Craftsman, MTD, Toro Wheel Horse, and others) are even older and date to as far back as the late 60s! These are not worth looking at. They are outdated, hard to use, ergonomically difficult, and probably have little usable life left.
- Look for solidity. Ruggedness is found in heavier tractors so weight makes a difference. Heavier machines are indeed heavier-duty.
- Watch out for penetrating rust! Shy away from machines that have rust on the frame, engine mounts, steering mechanism, deck, or underbelly. Surface rust is visible where paint is peeling in such places as the foot pedals, outside of the deck, and near the battery. Believe it or not, surface rust is not very serious. It can be brushed off with a brass wire brush and sealed with a quality paint such as Rustoleum or automotive paint.
- Manual transmissions are very durable (simple) and easy to use especially if you have a relatively consistent surface. Under these circumstances, you'll use only one speed and throttle up. Look for a gear-driven manual.
- Automatic transmissions operate either by hand lever, allowing you to make all forward and reverse adjustments with one hand, or foot pedal, which is more like a car but more expensive. These are significantly easier to use when you have to change speeds a lot and especially if you use the tractor for plowing or other jobs that require speed changes.
- There are two kinds of automatics.
- Hydrostatic automatics are completely sealed and work like automobile transmissions. These are very reliable and last a very long time. They usually outlast the tractor! If they fail, they have to be replaced as a unit.
- CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatics use a rubber belt that is stretched across two pulleys whose distance varies to allow for changing speed. These are not always as smooth as hydrostatics, but can be an economical alternative, especially in later models. The belts will require replacement several times over the life of the machine and there may be other adjustments needed to maintain the fluidity of performance needed by the user.
- There is third type of transmission that is sometimes referred to as an automatic, particularly on older, used models. In fact, this is just a shift-on-the-fly system that allows you to select 6 or 7 “gears” along a range as you are driving. Toggling the gears and throttle at the same time allows you to adjust overall speed, but can get quite confusing. Furthermore, the gear toggle tends to get out of adjustment and can offer more issues than they're worth in minor convenience over a gear-driven manual transmission. These are categorically NOT automatics in any sense of the word. These are actually crude CVT systems.
- A cast-iron front axle is stronger and a little more desirable than formed steel.
- A well-built frame should have no bends or creases along its length. Heavier gauge steel and/or stainless or sealed metal is better than lighter, plain steel, which will rust if the paint is worn off. The sealed and stainless steel frames tend not to rust at all even when the bare metal is exposed. Older Snapper models and selected other models have stainless frames, but these aren't too common. Again, heavier is better.
- Heavy-duty decks range from 12 gauge to an even thicker 10 gauge (not very common) steel. 13 gauge and up (lighter) decks are more prone to damage and rust. These are commonly found on entry-level machines, including many from MTD.
- Anti-scalp wheels on the deck prevent the deck from bottoming and scalping turf on uneven surfaces. 2 on the rear are pretty adequate. 4 front and rear are better. 4 adjustable (up and down) wheels are best. Adding an additional long roller on the front of the deck is the absolute best, ensuring the deck doesn't get damaged approaching bad terrain and making it easier to maneuver the deck when removing or installing it on the tractor. Rollers are rarely found on decks smaller than 48-inches.
- Watch out for misleading "features". For instance, Craftsman has advertised it's "fully floating deck". But, this is really just a fancy name for a deck with NO anti-scalp wheels. The floating deck is on its least expensive machines. Frequently, there are mounts for anti-scalp wheels (usually rear only) on these "floating decks" that you can buy and install. MTD advertises its 'Fast-Attach' system. It isn't bad, but most MTDs, even those advertising the 'Fast-Attach' mount system, don't have all of the required shoulder bolts on the machine! Several bolts and clevis pins must be added. The real issue is that you to find compatible accessories to go on, since MTD has changed its mounting system over the years. Unfortunately, there aren't many made for this system. The 7-speed automatic is a misnomer for the 7-speed shift-on-the-fly transmission that is promoted by MTD.
- The most widely-available accessories and parts are for Craftsman machines. You can often buy used baggers, plows, de-thatchers, sweepers, etc. for significantly less than new for a Craftsman machine. These will also fit Husqvarna, Poulan Pro, Weed Eater, and Ariens equipment.
- Wider bodies cover most of the rear tires. These are more comfortable than narrow ones that only cover about 1/2 of the tire. The narrow ones are generally made of lighter steel. If you can bend the middle of the back lip of the body (where the name decal appears) at all, it's too light! Narrow, light-weight bodies (also known as fenders) are found primarily on entry-level MTD-made machines.
- A medium- or high-back seat will pay off in the long run.
- A single-cylinder motor generally offers more than enough power for the typical homeowner. Horsepower ratings are totally subjective. Older mowers tend to have lower horsepower ratings. Over the years, manufacturers have upped their estimates for horsepower for the exact same engines. So an older Briggs and Stratton with maybe 14 or 16.5 HP may be equivalent to one that is advertised at 17 or 18 HP today. Size (in cc displacement) is the best indicator. A 490 to 540 cc single is a pretty darned big motor.
- A V-twin (two cylinder motor) offers additional torque and power, and increases usability on hilly and tough terrain. These "premium" motors tend to run smoother and quieter than single cylinder engines although technology advancements such as Briggs and Stratton’s Anti-Vibration System (AVS) and Kohler’s Twin Cam design with Acoustically Dampened Air Induction are bringing newer single cylinders closer to V-twins in reduced vibration and noise emissions. V-twins come in larger displacements ranging from 550 to 750 cc. A 640 cc V-twin has more power than most homeowners will ever use!
- Full-pressure lubrication means there is a pump that circulates the oil in the engine. These are identifiable by the addition of a spin-on oil filter. Those without the filter do not have full-pressure. Even those without the filter are quite durable with proper oil changes.
- The main manufacturers of motors are Briggs and Stratton and Kohler. Both are very reliable and durable if properly cared for (oil changes filter changes, etc.). Tecumseh motors are good as well, but are found on lesser machines. Kawasaki and Honda motors are found on some commercial and high-end machines, but there is a significant price premium for these. Although they are reputed to be better operating engines, these can be hard to obtain parts for and repair.
- Most homeowners can maintain their equipment themselves by changing the plug(s), filters, and oil once each year.
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