If there is one component of a vehicle that should be well maintained, invested in and understood, it is the brakes on your car. Having a quality, well-installed and reliable brake system is absolutely vital to the safety of yourself, your passengers and other drivers on the road. It is interesting to note that the federal government sets quality standards for brakes installed in new vehicles, but there are no regulations for replacement pads. In addition to this, a high portion of the complaints received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are regarding brakes. It should now be clear why it’s so important to understand the many choices of parts and service available and what factors cause the extremely wide range of their costs.
In This Guide
- When to Replace Brake Pads
- Average Replacement Cost
- Factors that Affect the Cost
- What Should be Included
- Finding the Right Shop
What are Brake Pads & When to Replace them?
Brake pads are one of three primary parts of disk brakes – the others are calipers and a rotor. The rotation of a car’s wheels is slowed by the friction created when two pads are pushed against either side of a rotor by a set of calipers. The pads are typically made of some friction material (ranging in composition from composite to ceramic to organic to metallic) and a steel backing plate. Rotors can be made of ceramic matrix composites, reinforced carbon-carbon or simply cast iron and are attached to the wheel or axle. When you press down on the brake pedal, brake fluid is used to engage a piston that clamps the brake pads onto each rotor.
Over time, the material gets worn down. When the wear becomes significant, then it’s time to change the brake pads. Most pads have a way of indicating this in order to alert the driver. At the very least, they will have a small tab made of a soft metal embedded underneath the friction material that causes a loud squealing noise every time the brakes are used when the pads are thin and need to be replaced. Other types have a similar metal tab that doesn’t cause squealing, but completes an electric circuit that turns on a warning light on the car’s dashboard. If all else fails, the best way to determine if your brake pads need to be replaced is by removing the tires and doing a visual inspection. If either one has a thickness less than 3/16 of an inch, then it’s time to replace them.
There are a number of factors that determine the amount of wear and tear that your brake pads are subjected to and, as a result, how long they will last in terms of mileage. The first is the quality of the brake pads and the type of friction material they use. The higher the quality, the longer the pads will last. While organic pads have the shortest stopping distance, they don’t last as long because they use up more material per stop. Ceramic and semimetallic pads last the longest, but have a shorter stopping distance. The second factor is your personal driving style and the type of braking you do. Are you light on the brakes and slow down over a long distance or do you press the pedal down hard to stop at the last second? The harder you press, the faster the brakes will wear down. Other factors include:
- Geographical areas – hilly or mountainous areas are harder on brakes
- The type of car you have – heavier and sportier cars use up brake pads faster
- Driving style – the faster you drive and the more often you stop also affects wear and tear
- Manual transmission – downshifting to control speed instead of using the brakes can greatly extend pad life
Overall, manufacturers state that pads should typically last between 30,000 and 70,000 miles for semimetallic pads.
Average Replacement Cost
There’s a great deal of variance when it comes to the cost of getting your brake pads replaced. The pads themselves range from $35 to $150 for a set, depending on the material and quality of the pads and the make and model of your vehicle. It costs an average of $100 to $250 per axle to get pads replaced by a professional service center or mechanic. If the front right wheel’s pads need to be replaced, you should get the ones on the front left wheel replaced at the same time to ensure that both sides wear out uniformly and prevent the car from pulling to one side when you press the brake. If your rotors need to be replaced as well, this could end up running you around $250 to $600 total (including pad replacement). Rotors themselves range from $30 to $75 each (some higher performance rotors are $100+). Prices depend heavily on type, quality and brand.
There is also the comparison and decision to use aftermarket vs manufacturer (OEM) parts. Aftermarket parts are typically less expensive, are more available and greater selection, while OEM parts have a greater assurance of quality, are easier to choose and come with a warranty. In addition, if the calipers (which are responsible for closing and retracting the pads) need replacing, you’re looking at a cost of around $70-$130 each for a common make and model or $100-$300+ for a high end vehicle. A complete brake repair job including pad replacement, new calipers, rotors and labor can cost anywhere from $300 to $800 depending on the factors discussed in the next section. If all top-of-the-line parts need to be replaced, this can easily inflate to $1000+. The average price is right around $400.
Factors that Affect the Cost
The primary cost determining factor is whether you do the work yourself or have it done by a professional mechanic or technician. Having your brakes replaced by a mechanic will end up costing a lot more. While replacing pads is a relatively simple process, rotor replacement is considerably more challenging so you might want to leave it to the professionals unless you are confident with your automotive skills. Buying tools might seem like an unnecessary expense, but consider it an investment as doing the job yourself will save you a considerable amount of money in the long run. If you go with a reputable repair shop, then you shouldn’t pay too much more for the parts than you would if you bought them yourself. However, you’re probably going to pay a little more as shops try to make some money off the parts rather than relying solely on the cost of labor to make a profit, but it shouldn’t be too much over the list price for the part. If you think you’re being overcharged, consider asking for the receipts or the exact part numbers of the components they installed.
As mentioned above, the make and model of your vehicle has a significant impact on the price of pads and sometimes even the cost of installation. Luxury and/or imported vehicles typically have higher maintenance costs in general, not just for brake pads. Pads come in a wide range of quality and materials and the differences in price reflect that. Therefore, premium ceramic pads for a high end vehicle such as an Audi R8 will cost significantly more than standard semimetallic pads for your Toyota Camry. Doing some research to determine which parts best fit your needs and buying aftermarket parts yourself instead of paying a technician labor and markup costs to decide for you can save you hundreds of dollars.
The cost of labor is another major factor and depends on your geographical location (supply and demand of auto maintenance) and whether you get the job done at a dealership, national service center chain or an independent mechanic. The average is typically around $60 to $100 per hour. Brake jobs are usually priced at anywhere from 1-2 hours per axle (sometimes 3 for the most comprehensive jobs) worth of labor based on a flat rate pay system. The costs can add up if you need both your front and back brakes repaired. While paying someone to fix your brakes isn’t the most affordable option, having a professional handle this job is the best way to go for those that don’t possess the mechanical skills.
What Should be Included?
The services provided depend on your car’s needs. The following are the typical procedures and services that make up a complete repair job.
- Road test or in-shop diagnostic tests to find the problems and the vehicle’s current condition
- Removing wheels to inspect and replace mounting clips, brake pads, calipers, rotors, fluid, hoses, shims and lines.
- Removing, cleaning and reinstalling bearings, rotors, calipers and hoses
Finding the Right Shop
If you’re not up to the task of replacing them yourself and are looking for a shop to handle the repairs, you want a reputable, certified shop or mechanic that offers brake repair within your budget. Pick a shop that offers warranties on their work. Selecting a shop with a good reputation and a history of satisfied customers is vital if you want to get the best service possible. Consider asking your friends and family to refer you to a mechanic they have used in the past and were satisfied with the value of their work.
If you don’t have a mechanic that you know and trust and none of your family or friends are able to refer you to one (or you just don’t want to bother them), you can use the shop locator provided by National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence to find a certified mechanic. Call several shops in your local area and schedule a time for you to bring your car in to get a quote for the repairs it needs. Ask them to explain to you what they think is wrong and what needs to be done. Don’t tell each shop what the others’ diagnosis/prices were – let them all come to their own conclusions. This is another way to weed out the shady shops and find an honest and affordable mechanic.
You’ll also want a shop that offers a wide selection of quality brake related products. Names like Pagid, Monro, Wagner, Axxis, EBC and Akebono are all trusted, quality manufacturers. Unfortunately, there are many shady repair shops out there that will charge you big dollars for a “premium part”, install a generic part instead and pocket the difference. Again, if you think you’re being overcharged, consider asking for the receipts or the exact part numbers of the components they installed and look them up online. To save yourself time, money and headaches, consider learning the basics of vehicle maintenance including: changing the oil, replacing brake pads and fluid and changing the transmission fluid. Learning the basics will also help you understand the work involved and whether or not you’re getting a good deal on any future repair work.