The best and worst choices among used lawn and yard tractors are:
- Craftsman LT1000 - the older ones from 2000-2005 and some from 2006-2007 are very sturdy and have the wide body now reserved for higher-end YTs ("Yard Tractors"), mostly heavy-duty decks, solid controls, and basically last forever with either a Briggs and Stratton single or twin cylinder or a Kohler single cylinder. Some even have hydrostatic automatics (the best). Almost all Craftsman tractors share accessories and parts. These are widely available in the used market. The key here is that Sears sells about 75% of all tractors sold in the US!
- Craftsman LT2000 - 2004-2006. Similar to the LT1000, but priced a bit higher, these machines have a few extra desirable features like a slightly higher seat, cast-iron front axle, a little more powerful engine, frequently with full-pressure lubrication and an oil filter, heavy-duty deck, and bigger rear tires. Note: these features also come on LT1000s depending on the model and year.
- Craftsman DLT3000 - 2004-2006. These often offer features similar to the LT2000 along with hydrostatic automatic, heavy-duty deck, better seat, and other items to distinguish it (or not) from other models. Sears kind of mixes and matches giving all kinds of designations to very similar machines.
- Any of a variety of other Craftsman tractors that feature heavier components, bigger (twin) engines, automatics, and other items that add value.
- Husqvarna LTH and YTH tractors starting with the 2000 model year. Husqvarna owns AYP who makes all of the above Craftsman tractors. However, the Husqvarna models usually have the latest design and a few more features. For instance, newer models have rolled edges on the body, i.e., a reinforced body perimeter. They tend to have better controls, finishes, and perhaps slightly better durability. If you find one for the right price, grab it.
- Recent Ariens tractors offer more for the dollar (new) and are also made by AYP.
- Snapper, John Deere, and Toro (including some by MTD) tractors are nice and can present good value. However, these brands can push up cost with expensive repairs. Single blade Snappers are extremely well-made (I had one with a 33-inch blade) and a deck that was like granite, but it was not as maneuverable at getting the yard done.
- A dirty machine is not necessarily a bad machine. It does show that the owner isn't big on caring for cosmetics, but if it has a good frame and body as well as a good-running motor and transmission, cleaning is a breeze (using Gunk foamy engine cleaner, soap and water, and even wax). You may get a good discount owing to the presentation, but you have to verify that what's underneath the grime and filth is a good working tractor.
- A recent Poulan Pro, Poulan XT (if on the bigger AYP chassis), or McCulloch (Husqvarna's mid-level brands) can present an adequate combination of good features at an attractive price since they're less expensive when new.
- Cub Cadet is another high-end brand that builds a nice, heavy, feature-laden machine. Some have Kohler engines, which are a little more desirable than Briggs & Stratton (except for Courage models). Here, as with any other premium tractor, reliability is poorer owing to the inclusion of more 'fancy components.'
Stay away from:
- Tractors built on MTD’s entry-level chassis. They tend to be less durable. They do not use the easiest and most commonly-available attachments. Many have the 7-speed "automatic" also known as "shift-on-the-fly," which is flimsy and unreliable. They're basically inferior.
- 6- or 7-speed shift-on-the-fly transmissions. All “gears” are rarely accessible, even when new, because they rely on poorly designed shift levers that easily go out of adjustment. Also, these are a little awkward to use since you're basically toggling two levers on each side of the dash to increase speed, one for the "gears" and one for the throttle. It's impractical with any attachments that require manual operation. These are actually CVT automatic transmissions with the notched toggle lever in place of a foot pedal. MTD developed this alternate transmission control (likely using the exact same CVT), to distinguish and de-content their entry-level machines from their better machines with foot-pedal CVTs. This is why this transmission is often identified as, a "manumatic" or even a "7-speed Automatic", adding more confusion for the buyer.
- Inexpensive rear engine riders (RERs) unless you have a relatively small property (1 acre or less). Generally these are not well-made. For the most part, front engine tractors offer all of the functionality of RERs with nearly comparable maneuverability. So, most mainstream RERs are no longer competitive. There are exceptions, such as riders from Simplicity (e.g., Coronet series), John Deere (RX and GX series), Snapper, and Toro. Of these, the Deere is the most difficult to maintain. The big benefits are the front visibility and increased maneuverability. For example, the Simplicity with rear twin bagger (if you can find one) is a good choice for the homeowner who has a smaller property with obstacles. This rider has a mere 12-inch turning radius. It is well-made, built on a 14-gauge deep drawn steel chassis, unusually powerful, and has all the features of a larger tractor. It is basically commercial quality, something you’re more likely to see on a golf course where fine mowing is critical.
- Tractors that have the "box" between the seat and the dash section. This is a quick way to spot an older-generation tractor that precedes 1998. These older-generation tractors are much heavier to use, have awkward controls, and have imprecise and heavy steering. Any recent, quality tractor has a step-through body.
- Scotts tractors made by Murray. Otherwise, confirm it is actually made by John Deere.
- Tractors that have any kind of bend or crack in the frame. Look at the spot adjacent to the side upright portion that supports the dash and hood. This is the most common weak spot.
- Machines that have penetrating rust. These have been ignored or stored improperly. Note: paint that is bubbling on the footrests is common owing to moisture and lack of a clean drain. Generally, this is no big deal. This can be scraped off along with any surface rust (same on the deck), brass-brushed down to the metal, and primed and spray painted with several new coats in a matter of hours, depending on the tools you use. If it's been done by the previous owner, all the better. The new finish, if done properly, will probably outlast the entire tractor!
- Machines that do not have a gradual throttle. By that I mean that the RPM rise with the application of the throttle fairly smoothly and when put all the way down, idles without stalling. This is an indicator of a clean carburetor.
- Machines that were stored with gas in them over the winter. This is an easy way to gum up your tractor. Most gas is only good for 30 days (use Stabil immediately to extend gas life). These tractors will "bark," backfire, and run unevenly. They're pretty obvious.
- Try not to be drawn in by the occasional dated-looking tractor that is likely older than it looks.
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