You Can Earn Extra Cash With a Lawn-Mowing Business

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/CHRISTIAN DELBERT
Earn extra money with your own home lawn-mowing business.

This part-time lawn-mowing business lets you be outdoors all day.

Start a Lawn-Mowing Business

There aren’t many part-time jobs that’ll allow you
to [1] work outdoors, [2] meet people, [3] provide a
much-needed service, [4] set your own hours, and [5] 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!

The Mowing Equipment You’ll Need

No matter how large — or small — a mowing operation
you intend to have, you’ll need [1] a whipstick or scythe
for cutting down extra-tall weeds, [2] hand clippers for
close work around steps, trees, etc., [3] a grass rake, [4]
a basket, [5] a gas can, [6] oil, [7] spare blades for your
mower, and [8] 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.

Transportation for Your Mowing Business

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.

Setting Your Mowing Business Rates

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.

How to Generate Mowing Business

When you’re finally ready to launch your service, you’ve
got to make yourexistence 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.

Home Business Bill Collections

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!

Small Business Accounting and Taxes

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.

A Rewarding Small Business Job

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!

Pre-Mowing Checklist

[1] 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.)

[2] 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.)

[3] Check belt tension.

[4] Checkpoints and plug(s).

[5] Grease your machine and check its oil.

[6] Change the oil in your tractor if more than 20 working
hours have elapsed since the last oil change.

[7] Check your machine’s air cleaner. (Pay particular
attention to this item when dandelion puffs, pollen, or
dust are in the air.)

[8] Use a safety chute to keep the mower from shooting
stones at people or windows.

[9] If exhaust fumes bother you, rig up a short exhaust
elbow that will blow the fumes forward, down, and away from
you.