BRAKE PAD AND ROTOR REPLACEMENT COST: SHOULD YOU CHANGE THEM AT THE SAME TIME?

Your car will be unable to stop unless your brakes are in good working order. Your brakes keep your car under control, whenever you need to slow down for a turn, pull into a parking spot, or come to a quick stop when a child or animal unexpectedly runs into the road.

There are many moving parts within your braking system. To work correctly, all of these parts must be properly maintained, and must also be repaired or replaced when worn. Knowing more about your braking system can help your car to run better and last longer.

Join us for an insider’s view of the parts that make up your braking system, how they work, what makes them wear out, signs that you should have them replaced, how long they should last, what replacement costs, the replacement process (both at a shop or doing it yourself), and finally, some tips on how to extend the life of the parts in your braking system.

What are the parts of your braking system and what do they do?

Car brake disk and calipersThere are many different parts that make up the braking system on your car. Each one is important, and they all must work together properly to ensure that your car comes to a secure, complete stop, every time you need it to.

The parts of your braking system that are most susceptible to wear are located on each of your wheels. These are the parts that are directly responsible for slowing down and stopping your vehicle. Let’s look at them first:

Brake pads

Brake pads are a key component of disc brakes, which are found on the front wheels of just about every modern car, as well as on the rear wheels of most vehicles. Your brake pads are the parts of your braking system that wear the fastest – because they are designed to. The brake pads are made of friction material, which slows down your vehicle when the pads are pushed against the brake rotors, which happens each time that you apply the brakes.

Each time you use the brakes, a little bit of the friction material on the brake pads is worn away. Over time, the friction material will wear down to the point where there is a minimal amount left. This is when you will need to replace your old worn brake pads with fresh new ones. Some cars will alert you to this fact, either with a high-pitched squealing noise, or by illuminating a dashboard warning light.

Brake rotors

Brake rotors are flat, smooth steel or steel/iron blend discs that rotate with each wheel that has a disc brake on it. The flat surfaces on the rotors are where the brake pads apply their pressure to stop or slow down your vehicle when the brakes are applied. As the brake pads clamp against the rotors, the rotors rotate more slowly, slowing down each wheel and the car.

Your brake rotors will also wear over time, because the friction and the heat created by the pressure of the brake pads can wear away the metal on the surface of the rotors. Excessive heat, created by severe and frequent usage of the brakes, can also warp the rotors, causing vibrations and wobbling when the brakes are applied. When this happens, the rotors can be either machined to restore their flat surfaces, or they can be replaced.

Brake calipers

Brake calipers are the components that hold your brake pads in proper alignment, as the brake rotor spins between them. The hydraulic pressure from your foot on the brake pedal goes into the calipers, where it pushes a piston that squeezes the brake pads into contact with the rotors, slowing or stopping your car.

Your brake calipers will normally last a long time, and do not wear out like the brake pads or the rotors can. Occasionally, the calipers may need to be serviced if the pistons stop working smoothly and accurately, or if a hydraulic fluid leak develops.

Brake drums and shoes

There are many vehicles on the road that use rear drum brakes. These vehicles include older vehicles, lower-cost vehicles, and heavy-duty trucks. Drum brakes cost less to produce. They are mostly found on the rear wheels, where they don’t have to work as hard as the front disc brakes, which do most of the work when your car needs to stop. One reason that your front brakes work harder is because most cars have more weight on the front end. Another is because of weight transfer during braking, which shifts most of your vehicle’s braking load forward, where the front brakes must handle it.

Instead of having pads that are pushed against a rotor, drum brakes use shoes made of friction material. The brake shoes are hydraulically pushed against the inside surfaces of the brake drums. Because of this lighter-duty scenario, drum brakes on the rear wheels typically experience little wear. They rarely need maintenance, and the brake shoes last a long time between replacement cycles. Drum brakes do not perform nearly as well as disc brakes during extreme braking, which is why discs have taken over all front-wheel braking duties, as well as a majority of current rear-wheel braking systems.

The other parts of your braking system are equally important, even though they are not subjected to nearly as much heat, stress, and wear as the parts nearest to the wheels:

Your braking system has it rough

These components spend their lives in hostile environments, whether it’s next to the engine or underneath the vehicle. Under the hood, they are exposed to heat, cold, and leakage from various fluids. Under your car, they have rain, snow, ice, salt, road debris, and the stress of stopping your car to contend with. Any wear or damage can adversely affect the performance of your braking system – and your safety!

How do disc brakes and drum brakes work?

The braking system in your car is a hydraulic system. Whenever you apply the brakes, it transmits the pressure of your foot on the brake pedal into the master cylinder, amplified by the brake booster, and sent through lines filled with hydraulic fluid, to the brake calipers (for disc brakes) or brake shoes (for drum brakes).

From there, the disc brake calipers channel the hydraulic pressure to activate the pistons that clamp the brake pads against the spinning rotors, causing the rotors and the wheels to slow down or stop. With rear drum brakes, the brake shoes are pressed against the inside edges of the rotating brake drums, to produce the same effect. The pressure of the friction material produces heat, which is then dissipated through the metal brake components, with additional cooling provided by the airstream that is flowing around and through the wheels. Many disc brake rotors have “vented” construction, which more efficiently draws the braking heat away from the hot rotors.

Your braking system works by converting the kinetic energy of your car’s motion into heat. The harder you press on the brake pedal, the faster you will slow down or stop, and the more heat your brakes will produce. When you remove your foot from the brake pedal, the pads or shoes retract, the components have a chance to cool down, and should be ready for the next time they are needed.

Factors that determine wear and tear

There are many different factors that can affect how well your braking system holds up, and how long its components last before needing repairs or replacement:

  • The type of driver that you are
  • The kind of car that you drive
  • The type of transmission that your car has
  • The kinds of driving that you do
  • The type of brake pads that you use
  • How good your brake maintenance program is

Let’s go into some detail on how each of these factors can affect your braking system’s quality of life.

The type of driver that you are

Do you enjoy accelerating quickly from a stop, then braking hard and fast for the next red light? If you do, your brakes will wear at a rapid rate. The harder you are on your brakes, the faster they will wear out, with the additional possibility of warped rotors from the high levels of heat that can build up from these practices.

What type of driving style will prolong the life of your brake pads and other components? Try accelerating smoothly and gently when the light turns green, then coasting to a gradual stop with a light touch on the brakes when the next light changes to red.

The kind of car that you drive
The type of transmission that your car has
The kinds of driving that you do
The type of brake pads that you use
How good your brake maintenance program is

Keep reading to find out what the warning signs of bad brakes are, so you can keep your braking system in good condition and avoid a potential tragedy.

Common signs that you should you have your brakes replaced

Your braking system has many ways of letting you know that it’s time to repair or replace the parts that are wearing out or malfunctioning. These warning signs can be picked up by several of your senses, if you are attuned to what they are trying to tell you. Let’s start with symptoms that you can hear, then continue on to those you can feel, and those you can see.

Noises made by your brakes

When your brake pads wear out, you may hear a grinding or growling noise when applying the brakes. This can indicate that you have totally worn through all of the friction material on your brake pads, leaving nothing but the metal backing to provide stopping power – which it won’t. Get your car to your mechanic immediately, before you are unable to stop at all. Driving with this grinding condition will also quickly destroy your brake rotors, which will double or triple your repair costs. Fix it now!

Another noise you may hear coming from your brakes is a squealing or screeching sound. This sound is usually made by a special sensor built into your car’s brake pads. It is designed to reveal itself when your brake pads wear down to the point where they need to be replaced. This intentionally annoying noise is a signal to have your pads replaced as soon as possible, before they are totally worn away. Make an appointment to have your brakes serviced promptly.

Vibrations produced by your brakes

You may be driving down the road and feel a vibration or pulsation when you use the brakes. You may feel this through the brake pedal, the steering wheel, or both. The source of these vibrations is usually your brake rotors, which have likely become warped. Because they have suffered heat damage and no longer have a smooth, flat surface, the rotors are unable to provide the consistent and effective braking response you have come to expect. Your mechanic can fix this by either refinishing or replacing your rotors. In some instances, this issue can be caused by worn components in the suspension, and is repairable.

Visual signals that can alert you to brake problems

Some cars have a low brake pad warning light on the dashboard. It lights up when a sensor built into your brake pads is revealed by pad wear, and then completes the circuit. Similar to the sensor described above that makes a “replace me now” noise, this light is your signal to replace your brake pads right away, before they are completely gone.

Other visible signs of braking problems can be seen on your brake rotors, which you can usually see through the openings in your wheels. If you can see circular grooves that have been cut or etched into the normally smooth surface, this can be a sign of pads worn down to bare metal. You might also see discoloration or hot spots, which are also signs of pad and rotor issues that need to be addressed.

Other signs that your brakes have a problem

In the absence of any of the above-mentioned symptoms, there can be other signs that your braking system needs attention. They include:

  • Puddles of dark fluid on the ground under your car, indicating a brake fluid leak
  • It takes much more effort on the brake pedal to stop your car
  • Your car needs more distance to stop safely
  • Your car pulls to one side when you stop
  • Your pedal sinks toward the floor when you apply the brakes
  • Your ABS or brake warning light comes on

If you experience any of these warning signs, call your mechanic immediately, and don’t drive your car until it has been fixed.

How often should you replace your brakes? How long do they last?

To recap the points made in earlier sections, the lifespan of your brake parts depends largely on these factors:

  1. How hard you are on your brakes (gentle or aggressive brake use?)
  2. How hard your car is on your brakes (lighter or heavier vehicle?)
  3. How hard your driving environment is on your brakes (stop-and-go traffic or wide-open spaces?)
  4. How good your brake pads are (high quality pads or el cheapo?)
  5. How well you take care of your brakes (do you replace worn pads before other parts get damaged?)
  6. Where your brakes are located (fronts wear faster than rears, need replacement sooner)

The lifespan of brake pads

The range of lifespans for your brake pads depend on so many variables, so it is very broad. A heavy vehicle in severe service conditions in a metropolitan area, dealing with constant stop-and-go traffic, and with a driver who always goes heavy on the brake pedal, might only get 10,000 miles on a set of front brake pads. At the other extreme is the small, light car that lives on the Great Plains of the American Midwest, where traffic is light, and large distances are covered between occasional applications of the brakes. The front brake pads on this vehicle could easily last 70,000 miles or more.

Most cars will fall somewhere in between. Because of this, going by mileage alone does not work. Most vehicle maintenance plans will include a check for brake pad wear during scheduled service appointments, with pad replacement done when needed. All pads on the same end of the car (front or rear) should be replaced at the same time.

Do you drive a hybrid or a battery electric vehicle?

If so, your brake pads will last a very long time, because electrified vehicles have what’s called a regenerative braking system. This converts the car’s braking energy into electrical power, which is fed back into your vehicle’s battery to extend its range. The mechanical drag of the regenerative braking system slows your car down, eliminating much of your normal brake usage. Your brake pads and conventional braking system are used only when they are needed, for extra stopping power.

The lifespan of brake rotors

Brake rotors will wear out eventually, but with proper care and maintenance they should last through several changes of brake pads. The exact length of time that this represents is also dependent on the six factors listed above.

Another problem that can befall your rotors is warping, caused by excessive heat buildup from heavy or aggressive braking. While the rotors on some cars are thick enough to allow them to be machined down to a new flat surface if damaged or warped, many vehicles now use lighter, thinner rotors to reduce weight and improve fuel economy. These may not have enough metal thickness to allow for the machining process, and they will need to be replaced with new rotors. Even if machining is possible, replacement may be more cost-effective. Ask your mechanic for more details. As with brake pads, both rotors on the same end of the car should be replaced together.

Do you have to replace your brake pads and rotors at the same time?

Once again, it depends. Here is a basic rule of thumb for replacing your pads and rotors:

  • If your brake pads need replacing and your rotors are in good condition, replace only your brake pads.
  • If your rotors need replacing, replace both your brake pads and your rotors.

This is because rotors will last much longer than brake pads, under normal use. As long as you replace your brake pads before they wear too far and destroy your rotors, your rotors will outlast your pads by a large margin.

What does it cost to replace my brakes?

The cost of replacing your brakes can vary widely, based on factors like:

There can be a very wide price spread for a brake repair job

Keeping all this in mind, the average cost of a brake repair job can range from as little as $100 for a simple front brake pad replacement done by an independent shop on a small, mass-market car, to well over $1,000 for extensive brake repairs on a luxury-brand vehicle at the dealer. For exotic cars, the sky is the limit, wherever you go!

Pick a shop you are comfortable with

If you have a local mechanic or repair shop that you have a good relationship with, this is probably a good way to go for your brake repair job. Get an estimate in advance, so you know what the job will cost you. Your friends or family may also be able to suggest a good shop to use.

If you don’t have any local connections, do some research online for shops in your area. Check customer reviews on Yelp and similar sites. Make a shortlist of reputable shops that seem to do good work, then call them for price estimates and scheduling availability. Ask each shop about the warranty on their work. If a shop won’t quote you a price, has no warranty, or has a bad attitude, strike it off the list. Set up an appointment with the shop of your choice to have your car’s brakes repaired.

What to expect when you have your brakes replaced

Once you take your car to the repair shop of your choice for brake repairs, the diagnostic process begins. A road test may come first, so that the mechanic can experience the symptoms that led you to bring it in. After returning to the shop, the mechanic will remove the wheels to expose the brakes. A visual inspection comes next, which helps the mechanic to see what needs to be repaired or replaced. This can include:

  • Brake pads that are worn
  • Brake rotors that are worn, damaged or warped
  • Brake calipers that don’t work properly
  • Brake fluid leaks
  • Brake fluid that needs to be changed

The mechanic will also open the hood and check your braking system’s other parts, such as the master cylinder, the brake booster, the brake hoses and lines, and the fluid level in the brake fluid reservoir. This will provide the mechanic with a good overall picture of your braking system’s condition.

Once that the mechanic does this, a precise estimate of what your car needs to restore its braking performance will be produced. If this varies from what you were originally quoted for the job, you should be contacted by the shop with updated information.

Once that you give the go-ahead for the work to be done (if necessary), the mechanic will perform the brake work needed. Once that the work has been completed, your car will be road-tested for proper brake operation, after which you will be notified that it is ready for pickup. You’re back on the road!

How long should it take to have your brakes replaced?

Like so many other questions about brake repair, this one also has a wide range of answers. The length of time that it will take to repair your brakes depends on all of these factors:

  • How busy the repair shop is
  • How complex your particular car is to work on
  • How much rust there is on the parts of your braking system
  • Whether your rotors and calipers need repairs or replacement
  • Whether the parts are readily available
  • How many mechanics are sick or absent

Most normal pad or pad-and-rotor replacement jobs should be completed the same day. More complicated jobs can take longer. Ask the shop for an estimate on when the job will be completed when you first make the appointment, and again when you drop off your car. Call the shop an hour or two before the promised completion time, to be sure that everything is on track. Request that the shop give you a call as soon as your car is ready. Do not show up at the shop without receiving that call.

How to replace your own brakes

Right up front, it is important to understand that replacing your own brakes is more complicated than it may first appear. Let us count the ways:

  1. Your brakes live next to your wheels in a very hostile environment, exposed to dirt, rain, ice, snow, sand, and whatever else gets thrown at them. It’s also a tight space to work in.
  2. This cramped, wet and dirty neighborhood is a rapid breeding ground for rust, which can make the parts of your braking system extremely difficult to disassemble.
  3. A seemingly simple pad change can become hopelessly complicated if the rotors and the calipers also need to be repaired or replaced.
  4. You may not have the specialized tools required for some of the necessary tasks.
  5. There can be much more to a proper brake repair than simply replacing parts. If you aren’t skilled in diagnosing and fine-tuning the system, you may not solve your braking problem.
  6. You only have one chance to do a correct brake repair. If your brakes don’t work after you fix them, the consequences could be disastrous.

This is why most brake jobs are done by professional mechanics. But if you have sufficient brake system experience to feel confident about tackling this procedure, or you know someone with that experience who can assist you, go for it. We also suggest that you seek out some online video tutorials, so that you can see for yourself what’s involved, before you get started. Here’s a list of supplies and tools you may need:

Supplies:
Brake pads
Brake rotors (if needed)
Brake fluid (in unopened containers)
Brake grease
Brake cleaner
Brake caliper lubricant
Brake hardware (if needed)
WD-40
Zip ties or heavy wire

Tools:
Standard hand tools
Torque wrench
Breaker bar
Allen wrenches
Star wrenches
Caliper spreader or C-clamp

Replacing your brake pads

If the only braking-related problem your car has is worn brake pads, this is a fairly straightforward procedure. You will be most likely to be doing this to your front brakes, which wear much faster than the rears. Start with one wheel at a time, completing the process on one before moving to the other:

  1. Loosen the lug nuts or bolts on one wheel.
  2. Jack up or raise the car so that the wheel is off the ground. If you don’t have access to a lift, use jack stands and wheel chocks to secure your vehicle.
  3. Remove the nuts, bolts, and the wheel, placing them away from the work area.
  4. Unbolt and move the caliper so that you have access to the brake pads. Use a zip tie or piece of wire to hang it from the suspension – do not let it hang from its brake line!
  5. Disassemble any hardware used to retain the pads in position (use the right tools for this).
  6. Remove the old pads.
  7. Install the new pads, securing them with the hardware (use new hardware if needed).
  8. Lubricate the mechanism with fresh grease as required.
  9. Remove the cap from the brake fluid reservoir.
  10. Push on the pads to retract the pistons, which have extended as the old pads have worn.
  11. Reassemble the caliper and tighten it into position. Torque the bolts to the manufacturer’s specs.
  12. Add brake fluid to the “Full” mark if necessary. Screw the fluid reservoir cap back on.
  13. Reattach and tighten the wheel.
  14. Lower the car and re-jack it on the other side if necessary.
  15. Repeat the process on the other side.
  16. Break in your new brakes by making at least 5 gentle stops at low speeds, before driving off. The brakes should feel normal – if not, don’t drive on them until you have checked out the system.

This is the more cost-effective, “quick and dirty” way to change your brake pads, and is especially suitable for older, higher-mileage cars with an uncertain future lifespan. This method bypasses the bleeding out of brake fluid in the calipers that may have become dirty or contaminated as the pads wore out. If you would like to have the bleeding done, and it is beyond your experience level, take your car to a professional repair shop.

Replacing your brake pads and brake rotors

This procedure requires a much greater skill and experience level. It may also take some brute force, if there is any serious rust on the parts involved. Dealing with pads and rotors requires more precision, plus an intimate knowledge of the interactions of all the parts in your braking system. For more detail, you can find videos online. If you feel up to it, here’s how it goes:

  1. Loosen the lug nuts or bolts on one wheel.
  2. Jack up or raise the car so that the wheel is off the ground. If you don’t have access to a lift, use jack stands and wheel chocks to secure your vehicle.
  3. Remove the nuts, bolts, and the wheel, placing them away from the work area.
  4. Push on your brake pedal at least twenty times. This will release the built-up pressure in your braking system.
  5. Unbolt and remove the caliper so that you have access to the brake pads. Use a zip tie or piece of wire to hang it from the suspension – do not let it hang from its brake line!
  6. Disassemble any hardware used to retain the pads in position (use the right tools for this).
  7. Remove the old brake pads.
  8. Remove the old brake rotor.
  9. Install the new rotor. Remove any oily or greasy residue for optimal braking performance.
  10. Install new brake pads, securing them with the hardware (use new hardware if needed).
  11. Reinstall the caliper on the rotor. Torque the bolts to the manufacturer’s specs.
  12. Check the brake fluid level in your brake fluid reservoir. Push on your brake pedal to verify that it feels normal. Add fluid and bleed the system if necessary.
  13. Repeat the process on the other side.
  14. Lower the car to the ground.
  15. Test your brakes thoroughly before driving away, by slowly pushing the brake pedal several times to restore the proper feel.
  16. Break in your new brakes by making at least 5 gentle stops at low speeds, before driving off. The brakes should feel normal – if not, don’t drive on them until you have checked out the system.

Tips to extend lives of your brake pads and rotors

While your brakes will eventually wear out, there are some practical life-extension strategies that smart drivers can use to get lots more miles between pad and rotor replacements. The more of them that you can put into practice, within the limits of safe driving practices, the longer your brake components will last:

Don’t brake so hard

The harder you apply the brakes, the more peak heat is put into your braking system, and the faster the brake parts will wear. Tactics like looking far down the road at the traffic flow, letting your car slow down by easing up on the accelerator, and starting to brake sooner, will extend the lifespan of your brakes.

Don’t brake from high speeds

If you are driving, for example, on an interstate highway and you need to take the next exit, don’t go barreling down the ramp at the interstate speed limit. Move over into the exit lane well before the exit, ease up on the gas to slow down, and brake gently as you exit the highway.

Don’t brake at the last second

This practice puts a huge amount of heat and stress into your braking system, shortening the life of components. Observe the traffic as you approach, let the car coast to slow down if practical, and apply the brakes gently and gradually.

Don’t follow too closely

Whether you are driving in heavy traffic or just have a bad tailgating habit, driving too close to the car ahead causes a lot of extra braking on your part, resulting in rapid brake wear (and possibly a rear-end collision, which will be your fault!). Leave some extra space ahead of you – your brakes will last a lot longer.

Drive slightly slower in heavy traffic

While we all would like to get to our destinations ahead of the other cars on the road, it’s not usually an option in high-density traffic situations. Traffic studies have shown that driving slightly slower than the traffic flow smooths things out, eliminating those “phantom traffic jams” that seem to come out of nowhere. Everyone gets there sooner, and there is now room for other cars to merge without jamming things up. Try it and see!

Don’t accelerate when the light ahead is red

This is a guaranteed way to shorten the life of your brakes. Increasing your speed when the traffic ahead is stopped makes you brakes work harder when you apply them, and also lengthens your stopping distance. A rear-end collision (caused by you) is another potential bad outcome. As soon as you see the red light ease up on the gas and brake gently. The light might even change before you get to it, possibly eliminating the need to stop completely. Congratulations – you have just extended the life of your brakes!

Get rid of the junk in your trunk

Are you riding around with a lot of cargo that you don’t really need? Remove the unused or rarely-used exercise equipment, sports gear, camping equipment, unread books, plumbing tools, and whatever else doesn’t need to be there. All of that extra weight makes your brakes work harder and wear out faster.

Use a lower gear on long downhill stretches

Instead of constantly pressing on the brake pedal to slow your car when going down a steep hill, try shifting the transmission into a lower gear. This will let your drivetrain take some of the load off of your brakes. Your brakes will run cooler and last longer.

Don’t “ride” the brakes

If you are one of the rare breed of “two-footed” drivers, who use their right foot only on the gas and left foot only on the brake, do not rest your left foot on the brake pedal as you drive, no matter how lightly. Any pressure on the pedal will push the brake pads into contact with the rotors, wearing them down slowly but steadily. Rest your left foot on the floor when you don’t need to use the brakes.

Don’t creep forward at red lights

When stopped at a red light, hold the brake pedal down firmly enough to keep your car from inching ahead. Creeping forward will wear down your brakes, if you make it a habit. Stopping completely adds no additional wear.

Take an alternate route with less traffic and fewer stops

If you have a way to avoid congested streets that require you to frequently stop, doing this will extend the life of your brakes. It could very well get you there faster and be a more relaxing experience, too!

Is it worth fixing your brakes?

If you do need your brakes repaired, and your car is otherwise in good running condition, it is definitely worth fixing the brakes. First and foremost, this is because you can’t drive your car safely if the brakes don’t work! The consequences of not being able to stop your car are too terrible to even consider.

On the other hand, if your car is very old, has a lot of miles on it, is not particularly reliable, and the cost of fixing your brakes is high, you have a decision to make. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is your car worth?
  • How many miles are on it?
  • Does your car have any other chronic issues that could result in a big repair soon?
  • Will the tires need replacement soon?
  • Is it time to cut your losses and get rid of your car now?

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