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Overview: Brake job rip-offs and what you can save

You’ll buy at least three brake jobs during the life of your vehicle. And if you don’t learn how to spot the rip-offs, you’ll waste upward of $1,000 on parts and services you don’t really need. Brake job rip-offs happen far more often than you think. I’ll lift the curtain on these shady practices and show you how to get a good brake job and avoid getting taken.

Anatomy of a Brake System

Stop on a dime with three simple components. The exploded photo shows the caliper (the squeezing machine), the brake pads (the friction material), and the rotor (the part that gets squeezed).

Rip-Off #1: Buying calipers when you don’t need them

Brake calipers work in a push-pull process to squeeze the brake pads against the rotors (see “Anatomy of a Brake System”). First, the caliper piston pushes the inboard pad outward until it touches the rotor. Then the caliper slides backward, pulling the outboard against the other side of the rotor. When you back off the brakes, the piston retracts slightly and the caliper releases pressure on the pads.

But if the caliper binds on the slide pins, the brake pads wear unevenly and quickly. Binding is a very common problem. But that doesn’t mean you have to replace the calipers (to the tune of $300 per pair). Instead, the shop simply needs to replace the slide pins ($20 total parts cost) and lubricate them with high-temperature synthetic grease. So if replacement calipers are recommended, ask if they can be fixed by replacing the slide pins.

In most cases, calipers can be reused. But don’t argue if you’re told that the brake caliper is leaking fluid or the piston won’t retract. Then it must be rebuilt or replaced.

Rip-Off #2: Paying premium prices for generic pads

Lots of companies build mediocre brake pads and pass them off as a premium product at bargain basement prices. They’re really no bargain because they wear out quickly, chew up your rotors and increase your stopping distance.

How can you tell “real” premium pads from the impostors? First, top-quality brake part manufacturers always put their name on the box (photo). And even though they may offer several quality levels (good, better, best), their “good” pads are almost always of higher quality than a premium pad from a “no-name” company. Second, real premium pads usually include all the required hardware (shims, anti-rattle clips and abutment hardware) at no extra cost. So, if the shop claims it’s installing premium pads, but the price quote includes additional charges for the hardware, well, you can tell where this is going.

Rip-Off #3: Getting up-sold to ceramic pads

There are lots of myths surrounding ceramic brake pads, and shops are happy to recite them to help you justify an “upgrade.” They’ll say that ceramic is simply the best brake pad material you can buy. Not true. Another is that they outlast semimetallic pads and provide better braking. Not true either. What is true about ceramics is that they run quieter and give off less brake dust—period.

If you haul heavy loads or do a lot of stop-and-go driving, semi-metallic pads last longer and provide better braking than ceramic pads. So, before you fall for the ceramic upgrade routine, think about what type of pad came with the vehicle and what kind of driving you do. If you do mainly light hauling and light braking and are really into the look of your aluminum wheels, then go for the ceramic pads.

Rip-Off #4: Getting inferior rotors for premium prices

The brake parts market is flooded with inferior rotors that wholesale for as little as $10 a pop. Some shops buy those instead of premium rotors, charge you the higher price, and pocket the difference. To the untrained eye, the generic rotors look just like the high-quality versions. But when you place them side by side, the differences are staggering. The friction surfaces on the generic rotors are noticeably thinner and they weigh about 20 percent less (photo). With less metal to absorb heat and fewer cooling fins to dissipate it, the generic rotors heat up faster, warp more often (creating pedal pulsation), make more noise and simply wear out faster. They’re a lousy choice all the way around—even if you’re trying to save money.

Just as with brake pads, ask the shop for a quote that’s based on brand-name professional grade (as opposed to “service” grade) rotors.

How to Find a Reputable Brake Shop

Top-quality shops automatically use the best parts because they don’t want “comebacks” (jobs redone at their expense). They charge a fair price up front without resorting to gimmicks and up-selling. Call a few shops in your area and ask what brand, type and quality-level pads and rotors they use. Here are some well-known brands: Bendex, Raybestos, Akebono, Hawk, Wagner, NAPA/United, Carquest, Centric, Motorcraft, ACDelco, Monroe, Brembo and EBC.

One you find a shop that carries brand-name parts, ask for a price quote over the phone. Any reputable shop will provide a fairly firm quote that includes machining the rotors, replacing the slide pines and installing high-quality pads and hardware. Shops don’t need to see the vehicle to provide a price—a break job isn’t brain surgery. If a shop balks at providing a phone quote, call a different one.

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Comments from DIY Community Members

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May 13, 3:07 AM [GMT -5]

I am a big fan of you magazine and a supporter of DIY projects. This article kind of rubbed me wrong and I'd like to correct a few things.
1.ceramic vs semi metalic brake pads
* The metalic pads cause much more wear to the brake rotor.
* The metal that is sprayed does not just make the wheels dirty the hot metal will go through protective coatings on wheels destroying the wheel.
* On aluminum wheels the hot metal will actually pit the aluminum.
* The cost of ceramic vs semi metalic 3or more years ago was prohibitive, however as virtually all auto manufactures have gone to ceramic pads on most new vehicles since 2000. the cost is not that much. (I.E. a metalic pad name brand costing about $40 in ceramic name brand would be maybe $55 - $60.

I have to say assuming that auto repair shops are out to rip you off is unfair. I have been in this business for more than 30 years. and I know most of my competition personally. We are honest hard Working people that take offense to being accused of being dishonest. I work very hard and have always repeat always done the right thing in dealing with not only my customers but my vendors and my employees. My shop is not unusual I think most automotive shops are honest

Your comment about the calipers or wheel cylinder is very odd. I did some checking and in the last 1300+ brake jobs done at my shop. We had 57 that required wheel cylinders and 39 that needed calipers. Less than 20 required the sliders be replaced . Just clean them out very good and reuse your old ones.

Now that said a shop that runs adds for a complete brake job for $69, $79 or even $99 is not going to do the job correctly or with any kind of quality parts. Very often this is a price that the company never really does a brake job for because it is the price of brakes on a 79 Pinto.

Another problem I have with the article is. On vehicles with ABS "antilock brake systems". When compressing the piston back into the caliper I would recommend opening the bleeder screw and allowing the fluid that is displaced by pushing the piston back into the caliper housing to be released into a drain pan.
It is not a good idea to push the debris back into your ABS pump. This can cause major problems with your ABS. The ABS motor pulses the brake pressure through a very very small orfice inside the ABS pump. If you push debris out of the caliper back into the pump it is not unusual for this to cause problems or require replacment of ABS pump or ABS motor.

The brake rotor part is kind of right but the easiest way to describe the rotor difference is not by name brand but by country made in. I know for a fact that automotive manfacturers of vehicles made in the United States have made in china rotors on brand new vehicles. So name brand doesn't mean that much. As most of us all know most things made in the United States are of higher Quality than those made in other countries. There is never a truer statment made than when discussing anything made of steel . The Quality of steel made in China or other countries is of such low quality it should in most cases not be used. The price difference like brake pads 5 years ago was a lot you could just about buy 3 rotors made in china for what 1 made in the USA cost. However that is not the case today. The made in the USA rotors are rarely double the price of the China rotors and the quality difference is worth every penny.

February 18, 7:51 PM [GMT -5]

Personally, I like ceramic pads for my street car due to the lack of dust and quietness.

On my track car, I use do semi-metallic high performance pads.
The same would apply to a tow vehicle or for mountainous driving.

February 18, 7:46 PM [GMT -5]

Rotors and pads are simple to replace yourself - buy the parts on line and find a instructional video for your car. Save HUNDREDS of $

Don't forget to use a torque wrench to tighten the caliper bolts and the wheel nuts: the latter is important to prevent warping your new rotors.

February 16, 5:21 PM [GMT -5]

Be sure to replace flexible brake hoses as well as change the brake fluid periodically - the fluid is hygroscopic (absorbs moisture) and over time will tend to break down the hose material and can rust the rigid line from inside out.

December 13, 10:12 PM [GMT -5]

Not only have I had all of these rip offs done to me by a mechanic, the part store has upsold me the ceramic pads for my truck. Very imformative! Thank You!!!

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Auto Repair Rip Offs: Avoid Brake Service Costs

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