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Smart Buying

Seven Things to Ask Before Buying Outdoor Power Equipment

Do you really need the latest and greatest tool for keeping your yard in top shape? Maybe. But before you head to the store, consider this and other questions first.

It's that time of year when the leaves are in free fall. The awnings are dusty and cluttered with cob webs. The air is crisp. Yard work beckons. Men (and some women) across the country are thinking, "I need a good leaf blower/pressure washer/snow thrower/riding mower."

Sure, most people can get by with a rake, tarp, bags and a little manual labor, says Bill Boltz, merchandising vice president for outdoor power for The Home Depot. But do you want to spend all weekend doing yard work or just a couple of hours? "That's where the power equipment comes in," he says. "It's all about saving time."

Think economics 101: Using power equipment lowers the opportunity cost of doing yard work. Less yard work means more time for doing other things, like playing with your children or watching football. The leaf blower costs more than the rake, but time is money.

Does that mean you have to spend top dollar for top-of-the-line equipment? Not necessarily. Better to spend a little more on a quality product that will last longer, says do-it-yourself expert, host of House Smarts and Ace Hardware's Helpful Hardware Man Lou Manfredini. "It's an investment you'll have for years and years."


Here are seven questions to ask yourself:

1. What do I really need? A zero-turn-radius lawn tractor with cruise control, a lumbar adjustable seat and padded steering wheel may seem like a cool way to mow your lawn. But if your yard is less than half an acre, you don't really need a $5,000-plus riding mower.

Size matters when it comes your lawn project. If you have a yard of an acre or more, you'd best consider a riding mower. The bigger your yard gets from there, the more you're a candidate for a zero-turn-radius lawn tractor, new on the market. These mowers can cut your mowing time in half, Boltz says, because they don't leave patches of grass as you turn that require making a second pass to cut. The two biggest drawbacks: They can't mulch and bag leaves (unlike other lawn tractors) and don't handle well on slopes.

Do you have a small yard that's half an acre or smaller? A push mower should be adequate, say lawn care experts. If you have just a patch of grass, you might just need an electric mower. Or why not a manual reel mower (the old-school kind without an engine at about $100.) You also probably can get buy with electric blowers, trimmers and other equipment rather than more-expensive gas models that you would need to reach areas of your lawn beyond 100 feet.


If you live in an area that gets lots of snow and want to buy a snow thrower, you should invest in a two-stage model, which can cut through more of the white stuff. A single-stage thrower is sufficient for areas of the country that don't get heavy snowfalls. Manfredini offers more tips on buying snow throwers. Also, see our slide show for our recommendations.

2. Should I go single purpose or multifunctional? Remember, you can buy one piece of equipment that will perform many duties. For example, attachment accessories for most mowers will let you mulch and bag leaves, spread fertilizer, or even dethatch or aerate your lawn. Buy the attachments, and save a bundle on separate pieces of machinery.

Many blowers also can vacuum and mulch leaves, as well as clear clippings after you trim hedges. Some come with attachments that let you clean your gutters. Always factor power into the equation. You can get a pressure washer for less than $100 that will work fine for cleaning your car, but it might not knock the grime off your aluminum siding or get ground-in dirt and oil off your driveway. That's multi-tasking.

3. How's my health? Of course you can hire a lawn service or handyman to do yard work. But for many people, working in the yard is therapeutic. They don't mind spending hours every weekend outdoors. For other people, especially older folks, they may enjoy yardwork but don't have the physical capacity to operate a push mower anymore. Bad back? You might want to spend a little more on equipment with an electric start because it won't strain you like pulling a cord to get the engine running.


Although gas-powered equipment allows you more freedom to move about your yard, it's heavier and requires more technical capabilities to mix the gas with oil, cautions Jim Erickson, director of corporate communications, member relations and public affairs for Southern States Cooperative. Electric equipment tends to be less powerful, but it is lighter and easier to use.

4. Techno or go-slow? Before shelling out big bucks for a lot of extra features, ask yourself whether these features will make the job faster, says Mike Plum, regional merchandising manager for Southern States Cooperative. Mid-range priced equipment usually will have most of the features you must have to get a job done well, he says. From there, it's what you're willing to pay for, from high-back seats to a automatic transmissions on riding mowers to anti-vibration systems for handheld power tools.

5. Can I find a better deal online? Reviews, reports and pricing information on outdoor power equipment are right at your fingertips thanks to the Internet. Check online to compare prices and get reviews at sites such as and Gather as much information before you go to the store. Once you get there, you might be able to "test drive" the equipment. Throughout the spring months, many Lowe's stores offer "hands-on" opportunities outside of stores for customers to drive riding mowers and test out the latest and greatest products, says Lowe's spokesperson Jennifer Wilson. Starting in 2007, The Home Depot also will start offering testing clinics in some markets to let customers try out equipment in its stores.

6. How's the warranty? Better brands offer better warranties. A two-year warranty is now pretty standard for name-brand equipment. Some companies, such as Toro, offer longer warranties (three to five years) on their more expensive models. Although extended warranties for equipment worth a couple of hundred dollars is probably unnecessary, you might consider getting an extended warranty for expensive riding mowers, which cover your big investment if something goes wrong.


7. Would I be better off renting this thing? If you are going to need a piece of equipment only once a year, such as an aerator to reduce the compaction of your soil, you probably are smart to rent, Boltz says. Renting also gives you a chance to try a piece of equipment before buying it. More than 1,000 Home Depot stores have tool rentals, and Lowe's has NationsRent inside many of its stores.

Finally, I want to talk to the women reading this article for just a moment. Before you say no to his request for new outdoor power equipment, consider the advice of Manfredini: "If your husband doesn't ask for a lot of things in life, let him have a power tool. It's way cheaper than a girlfriend. Plus, it'll get him to do things around the house." Enough said.