I just spent a couple of days reading the complaints about lawn mowerson ConsumerAffairs.com, and frankly, I'm fuming. So let me rant a bit and then I'll get down to business on what you can do to protect yourself when shelling out the big bucks for a fancy new lawn mower

Between Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears and the major manufacturers of all types of mowers -- self-propelled, push, riding and tractor-style -- there is no clear-cut way to know if you are getting what you pay for.

I recently bought a Toro from Home Depot, which has performed fine when I remember to put gas in it. But even running fine, a small stone took a big chunk out of the blade. Only a $20 replacement, but an inconvenience. I can't imagine the frustration owners who paid over $1000 for a riding mower must feel when shortly after their purchase, they find out:

1. The store doesn't carry replacement parts.
2. The manufacturer sold a discontinued reconditioned model and has no parts.
3. You have to physically haul the monster to a repair shop.
4. The warranty is useless and doesn't protect you at all from defects or offer any recourse.

Personally, I'd like to throttle the large "home improvement" stores sales associates on a regular basis, but I know their working conditions, and it's really not their fault. They are told what to say by Corporate, who, as in the case of appliances (see "They Don't Make Things The Way They Used To"), has bought the cheapest machine, shined it up and set the price for maximum profit.

Much like appliances that live up only to half their life expectancy, many machines and tools sold at the large chain stores are being made with outsourced materials while others are returns that have been re-painted, spiffed up and sold as new.

Globalization is a two-sided sword -- on one hand, it saves companies money so they can offer their products at competitive prices. On the other hand, the savings don't often get passed on to the consumer, and we end up with a cheap imitation of the original machine. So how do you know what you're getting? Would you knowingly buy a reconditioned machine for $1,200? Probably not.

Here are a few steps you might consider to avoid the lawn mower blues:

1. Hire a lawn service and save yourself the hassle and aggravation.

2. Look for a good, working USED one in your local paper - you'll save a ton of money as the seller is probably going to buy that bright green machine new at the local store and pay way too much for it. And if it breaks down after a year, donate it. You haven't spent that much on it, and now you know how it performs.

3. Browse the ConsumerAffairs.com Lawn & Garden section to see which models collect the most complaints.

4. Call several lawn services in the area and ask what machines they use and why, and where do they get them serviced? Talk to the guys at the lawn mower repair shop and see what they recommend.

What Kind?

How do you figure out just how much mower you really need? (This is not a car competition, gentlemen).

• For small yards that are level (not hilly or uneven), a push mower may be your best bet. However if you have any health problems (or exceptionally weak arms), you may want to look into the electric or even gas-powered mowers.

• For medium size yards (over 1/3 acre to 1/2 acre), self-propelled is the way to go.

• For yards larger than 1/2 acre, riding mowers are your best bet.

Assuming you buy a power mower of some kind, you can choose from gas or electric. Electric mowers are much quieter, much lighter and much kinder to the environment. The battery-powered variety are OK for smaller yards that aren't too dense. If you have a big yard or very dense grass, an battery mower may not be for you.

Most gas-powered mowers are now four-cycle, meaning you do not mix oil with the gasoline. Two-cycle engines are cheaper and many would say they're more reliable, but four-cycle engines pollute less. Be sure you know which kind you have. You will ruin your engine if you add oil to the gas in your four-cycle engine instead of putting it in the "add oil here" spout and you will ruin your two-cycle engine if you don't add oil to the gas.

Also consider:

1. Budget considerations. Bigger isn't better, if you have a smaller lawn or you're planning on moving in a year, you don't need to spend $2,000 on a riding mower.

2. Mulch or not to mulch? A good mulching mower makes leaves disappear in the Fall and that's a good thing! It also eliminates bagging your grass clippings. Bagging is a pain, and what do you do with the clippings? Throw them in the woods? That's not nice.

3. Layout of your yard. If it's hilly or very uneven, you will need a mower with some power behind it, so get a self-propelled mower with 5 or more horsepower.

4. Closely examine each option. Options can affect the price greatly. For instance, automatic transmissions can cost as much as $700 more than a clutch model.

5. Generally the bigger the engine the better it can cut denser material. If your lawn is dense you may want to consider a big engine. Riding lawn mowers can range anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 or more. BUT you have to take into consideration whether or not you can maintain it, or would need to take it to a shop for problems - which now appear practically built-in.

Where to Buy

So, you've done your side-by-side comparisons, checked for recalled machines, picked out the mower you want, and are ready to buy. Where do you go? The chain stores or the dealers?

I suggest you first pick three models to consider and go to the manufacturer's website. There is usually a "Find a Distributor" link. Go there and call at least 3 distributors in your area. Why? Because this is what you are going to do next:

Call or visit the distributor and ask question after question after question, including:

1. Price
2. Is it new or reconditioned?
3. Warranty and extended warranties;
4. Availability of parts;
5. Repair services - on-site at your home, at the dealer or a retail repair shop?
6. Return policy - this is critical. Many people get a lemon and no matter who they take it to, it cannot be repaired. Will they take it back and give you a new one?

These questions can also be asked at the chain stores - most of the people that work there won't know the answers, but whatever they tell you, WRITE IT DOWN, get their name, date the note, and keep it, not that it will necessarily do you any good.

Following these steps can help to get the best machine for your needs and budget. But remember, they don't make anything like they did in your grandmother's day. Don't expect perfection and don't assume that spending more gets you the best machine.

Buy the simplest machine you can get by with. Everyone needs to walk more, so a good-quality self-propelled mower is probably better for you. It's certainly cheaper than a much more expensive riding mower or garden tractor.

Also, smaller and simpler machines are easier to be repair. You can probably do it yourself with a little practice. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. You can change the oil, replace the filter, put in a new spark plug and even replace the blade with little more than a wrench and a screwdriver.

Expect to do some legwork, but in the long run, you'll be better off for having done it. You be happily mowing to your heart's content, and making your neighbors jealous -- which is, after all, the whole purpose behind a great lawn!