Try this home lawn-mowing business to earn cash and work anywhere while enjoying the great outdoors.
Earn extra money with your own home lawn-mowing business.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/CHRISTIAN DELBERT
This part-time lawn-mowing business lets you be outdoors all day.
There aren't many part-time jobs that'll allow you to  work outdoors,  meet people,  provide a much-needed service,  set your own hours, and  earn up to $10 an hour when you do decide to work. This one will, though . . . and you can operate the service successfully almost anywhere that people live on this continent.
Several years ago — when my teenage son, Stan, and I moved to Alden's Walden (our cabin in the wilds of northwestern New Jersey) — the two of us stumbled onto a nifty moneymaking activity that nearly anybody can use to earn a substantial income just about anywhere. I'm talking about mowing grass.
Actually, young Stan is the one who got us started in this lucrative line of work. After fixing up an old 18 inch rotary push mower and earning enough money with it to buy a new Sears pusher mower, Stan persuaded me to buy a repairable riding-tractor-type grass cutter from a junk dealer for $75. Shortly after that, Number One Son sweet-talked me into spending $1,400 I didn't have for a John Deere Model 110 tractor with a 36 inch mower. We clipped grass with the JD-110 as partners for one season, then traded it in on a $2,100 JD-140H3 with hydraulics and a 48 inch-wide cut. Three May-to-October seasons of part-time work later, Stan and I tallied up our gross income . . . and found that we'd earned no less than $8,000!
We can't guarantee, of course, that you'll do as well with your own "mow for dough" operation. But then again, there's no reason why — given the information contained in this article and a few hundred dollars' worth of equipment — you can't do as well as Stan and I did . . . if not better!
No matter how large — or small — a mowing operation you intend to have, you'll need  a whipstick or scythe for cutting down extra-tall weeds,  hand clippers for close work around steps, trees, etc.,  a grass rake,  a basket,  a gas can,  oil,  spare blades for your mower, and  hand tools for fix-ups. It also pays to carry an axe and a bucksaw wherever you go, since you never know when you'll find a downed tree or tree limbs on the lawn you're about to clip. (This has happened to us more than once.)
About mowers: For most residential lawn-cutting jobs, an 18 inch walking mower (either a "push" rotary or a self-propelled machine) will suffice. A machine larger than 18 inch will cut faster than a smaller model, but will be awkward to use around shrubbery. Remember, too, that self-propelled mowers — while easier on the legs than push-type machines — are slow, and can be difficult to back up (especially when you're backing up uphill), since they're a good deal heavier than non-propelled mowers. (Note: Be sure to carry a grass-catcher bag for those occasions when grass removal is required by the customer.)
Jobs involving up to several acres of lawn require a riding tractor with a 36 inch or 48 inch cut, in addition to a walking mower and the equipment listed above. Since tractor prices vary a great deal, you should shop around before buying. In general, one of the rigs with a handlift and gearshift costs considerably less than one with "the works" (hydraulic controls, power steering, etc.). Figure on paying $800 to $2,000 for a gearshift tractor with a 36 inch mower, $2,500 to $3,000 for one with a 48 inch swath, and about $4,000 for a machine that'll cut a path 60 inches wide.
For truly vast expanses of verdure (and for brush-shredding assignments) you'll need special heavy-duty equipment . . . at least a 20-horsepower tractor with a 60 inch rotary mower (or gang reel mowers) for lawns, and a sickle bar if you intend to cut hay.
In addition, for heavily weeded areas and/or shredding jobs you should consider a bush hog. Most five-to eight-foot "hogs" have rotary blades, although some feature a hammermill action that cuts by whirling short chains studded with knives or chisels. The biggest bush hogs (and they come as large as 12 feet across and wider) can only be pulled by very powerful tractors and are quite expensive. I doubt, however, that you'll need to start with anything larger than, say, a $375 four-foot bush hog.
When buying lawn-care equipment, it pays to do some homework first, before putting any money down. Check Consumer Reports , look into the reputations of local dealers, and ask people who've bought lawn tractors what their experience has been. As with cars, some tractors are remarkably trouble-free, while others smack of yellow citrus fruit. (Our first John Deere was great . . . only one problem in 200 hours of mowing. The second machine had 37 breakdowns in two seasons.) Nearby service is essential, so try to purchase your rig reasonably close to home.
All of the tractors I've used (and that includes a good many makes and models) have had their problems, so I can't recommend any one or two or three brands in particular. I will say this, though: The more automatic a tractor is, the more likely (in my experience) you are to have trouble. Get a machine that's simple to operate and easy to take apart and repair, and you'll be dollars ahead in the long run.
Obviously, you're going to need a good set of wheels forgetting yourself and your equipment to and from your jobs. When we started out, Stan and I carried our push mowers and the $75 riding tractor in my Jeep Commando. Later, I made a utility trailer that — along with two oak planks for loading and a combination of chains, load binders (chain tighteners), and nylon ropes (with which we secured everything to the trailer) — proved more than adequate for hauling our JD-110.
The JD-140, however, was too wide for the utility trailer and wouldn't fit in a 49 inch wide pickup truck bed, so I bought a tilttop snowmobile trailer for $250 and used it to transport the tractor. Talk about easy loading: All we did was tip the rear end of the trailer down, drive up in the JD, crashland to a level attitude, and tie everything down with chains, load binders, and ropes as before. (There are better — but far more expensive — tilt-top trailers with hydraulic restraints that let the load down gently, but I never saw the need to buy one.)
We were always super-conscientious about tying our tractor securely to the trailer, and we recommend that you be — if anything — over-cautious too. One local JD owner thought that just setting the brakes of his tractor was all the precaution he needed to take to keep it on his trailer. And it was . . . until the day it bounced off on the highway and got squashed.
If you do transport your rig on a trailer (homemade or otherwise), be sure to check with your local motor vehicle agency about roadability requirements. Here in New Jersey, a trailer is required to have all the lights a car has: tail lights, brake lights, and turn signals. Also, a standard hitch and safety chains must be used . . . and the trailer must be licensed. Find out what the trailer laws are where you live, and abide by them.
Also, check your insurance. Does it provide liability coverage while the trailer is being towed? Does your tractor have fire, theft, and hull coverage?
A final word of advice: Always carry a come-along (hand winch) and chains so that you can load a dead tractor with muscle power if you have to in an emergency.
You'll need to establish some sort of fee schedule before you begin your first job. Start by inquiring about the prevailing charges for lawn-mowing in your locality. When I bought our first John Deere tractor, I asked the dealer what the going rate was and he "thought it might be" $7.00 an hour. We asked that and got it easily. The second year, we bought a bigger JD and raised our charges to $8.00 an hour. The year after that, our price went to $10 an hour (to cover higher gasoline, labor, and other costs). If this seems steep, just remember that the fee included two operators working two machines (a tractor and a trimming mower) at once.
Many customers — the ones who see an hourly rate as an invitation to a slow drag — prefer a contract (or "lump sum") price to a by-the-hour charge. My advice is to figure on the high side if a firm price must be given in advance. Consider every possible factor in your estimate: roughness of terrain, grass height, amount of moisture (which can slow you down), the number of trees and shrubs to cut around, how much hand trimming will be required to finish the job, etc. And don't just guess at the size of a green . . . pace if off. (It helps to remember that an acre is a square measuring approximately 210 feet on a side.) If you don't take all these factors into account (and remain unflinchingly realistic in your estimate), you may well end up losing your jeans.
Of course, in the final analysis, there's only one way to get a feel for how long it'll take you to mow a given amount of lawn, and that's to practice mowing. I strongly recommend you do so.
When you're finally ready to launch your service, you've got to make your existence known. Leave word at garages, lawn equipment dealers, feed stores, general stores, and the post office. Place an ad in the local paper. ("Large lawns mowed" was our tag line.) Visit, write, or phone nearby institutions that have large lawns. Advise your local radio station. And by all means tell your neighbors and friends. (Word of mouth advertising is the best kind.)
I landed our biggest job simply by doing a little investigating. One day — as I was passing through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area — I noticed several large, thoroughly overgrown lawns surrounding some homes and estates that the Park Service had taken over. I sought out the appropriate official and asked if we could mow the pasture-like expanses of grass. Our timing must've been perfect, because (much to our gratification) the answer was "yes".
No big lawns in your area? Other opportunities exist. At our former homestead, I used my Allis-Chalmers "C" tractor and a six-foot sickle bar to do contract cutting of hay. (I've also made money clipping brush and high weeds with an A-C tractor fitted with an eight-foot bush hog.) And, after the regular mowing season was over (October, in this area) Stan and I found we could still rig a shield over the exit chute of our mower and get work mulching the leaves on lawns.
The opportunities are there. All you have to do is seek them out.
Some customers pay cash upon completion. Others — including the National Park Service — prefer to be billed monthly. A few others, alas, never pay up at all.
Most of the people we dealt with were honest and agreeable, I'm glad to say, but we did have a couple of "cuss-tomers". One was a fast-talking "big operator" who said he wanted his place manicured and never mind the cost. He paid for the first two mowings, then — when the bills for the third and fourth jobs were sent — skipped town. Another guy was very apologetic and kept explaining that his "foundation grants weren't coming through". He, too, moved away and left us holding the grass-bag.
What can you do about customers that rip you off? Ideally, you should always have all your clients sign written agreements in advance. That way, if polite persistence doesn't get you your money you can take non-payers to small claims court and win a judgment against them. We made the mistake, in the beginning, of not requiring customers to sign a work order . . . and — as a result — we had nothing on which to base a small claims action.
Naturally, once you find out who your past-due customers are—and there'll probably always be a few—you should drop'em like a hot exhaust pipe!
Sad to say, you will have to keep accounts in this (as in any) business, both for your own future information and for the benefit of the Internal Revenue Service. I recommend that you keep a pad and pencil in your tow vehicle and take down dates, towing mileages, working hours, and expenditures as they occur. (You'll be glad you did when income tax time rolls around . . . or whenever you feel the need to compute your profits/losses.) Likewise, save all receipts (your expenses are deductible) and be sure to take depreciation on equipment when it comes to filling out Schedule C of Form 1040.
Since accounting is not my forte, I get a tax lawyer to do our returns. The peace of mind — to me — is worth the expense . . . and anyway, the expense is deductible.
Now that Stanley and I have become experienced grass-cutters, we're convinced that the "mow for dough" business has a lot going for it. For instance: You can get started with a minimum of equipment (equipment you probably already have anyway ) . . . you get to work outdoors and meet people . . . you can put in as many — or as few — hours as you want . . . and the pay is pretty decent. As I said earlier, Stan and I took home $8,000 in three seasons of part-time work . . . and man, that ain't hay!
 Level the mower on a flat surface. Then — using a block of wood of the appropriate thickness—check the height of the blades above the mowing surface. (We use a cutting height of 2 inches most of the time and 3 inches during the late summer and/or dry weather.)
 Sharpen blades daily. Use a good bench grinder, and touch up the cutting edges from the top only. (When mounting the blades, make sure the "fan" portion is on top.)
 Check belt tension.
 Checkpoints and plug(s).
 Grease your machine and check its oil.
 Change the oil in your tractor if more than 20 working hours have elapsed since the last oil change.
 Check your machine's air cleaner. (Pay particular attention to this item when dandelion puffs, pollen, or dust are in the air.)
 Use a safety chute to keep the mower from shooting stones at people or windows.
 If exhaust fumes bother you, rig up a short exhaust elbow that will blow the fumes forward, down, and away from you.
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