July 26, 2011 at 8:36 PM ET
With a heat wave baking much of the country, one of the last things you want to do is haul out a lemon of a lawn mower that spends more time spewing fumes than cutting grass. A budget of less than $300 may not land you in the bright-yellow seat of a John Deere tractor, but it can buy a well-regarded Briggs & Stratton or Honda engine, and a brand name such as Toro, Black & Decker, Husqvarna, or Craftsman.
In this price range, you’ll find three basic types of mowers: gas mowers, electric mowers, and old-fashioned reel mowers. Gas-powered models — particularly self-propelled mowers — are best for buyers with large, hilly yards. Those who don’t have quite so much acreage can opt for an electric mower and avoid the noise and fumes of a maintenance-hungry gas engine. Choose a cordless model for greater range or a corded model for a lighter machine that won’t run out of juice mid-yard (although it may feel a bit like you’re vacuuming your lawn). Finally, reel mowers are making a comeback as a quiet, low-maintenance, and eco-friendly alternative. The drawback is they’re powered by elbow grease as opposed to gas or electricity, so they’re best suited to smaller yards and not-so-sweaty climates.
Lawn mowers manage grass clippings by blowing them out to the side, collecting them in a bag, or letting them fall back onto the lawn as mulch. Some models offer all three options; each has its pros and cons. Side discharge leaves clumps that that have to be raked, lest they smother patches of lawn — but it’s the best choice for tall or wet grass. Bags can get heavy and have to be emptied and replaced. There’s also the question of where to dump the clippings (a compost heap is ideal). Mulching takes care of that problem, and treats the lawn with self-made fertilizer, but can clog the mower if the grass is too long. If it’s been a while since you last mowed (be honest), you may want to opt for one of the other two methods.
Other features to consider are cutting width and height. A wider blade allows you to finish the yard in fewer passes. Multiple height settings let you to dictate the precise height of the lawn. An expert at University of Illinois Extension recommends keeping the grass around three inches or longer so it doesn’t dry out in the summer heat.
Below are Cheapism’s picks for the best inexpensive mowers.
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