What to Know About Brake Pad Replacement and Repair

Updated: Sep. 14, 2023

How to get a good brake job and save $1,000 over the life of your car. Here are tips for figuring out brake replacement cost.

Anatomy of brake system parts

Stop on a dime with three simple components. A vehicle’s braking system consists of the caliper (the squeezing machine), the brake pads (the friction material), and the rotor (the part that gets squeezed). Even if you have no experience repairing cars, you can check your brake pads and the condition of the rotors with these simple how to check brakes instructions.

Brakes do need occasional professional servicing to stay in top shape. Here are some things to look for and some things to avoid next time you get your brakes worked on

New caliper pins save you $300

Brake caliper pins on FHM ocean screen grid backgroundTMB Studio

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 brake 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 brake calipers are recommended, ask if they can be fixed by replacing the slide pins.

In most cases, brake 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. Check out how to change brake pads yourself!

Premium vs. generic brake pads

Generic and premium brake pads on FHM ocean screen grid backgroundTMB Studio

Demand brand-name parts. Top-quality manufacturers are proud to put their name right on the package. Generic brake parts are almost always packaged in plain white or yellow boxes. Generic 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.

So how can you tell “real” premium pads from the impostors?

  1. First, top-quality brake part manufacturers always put their name on the box. 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.
  2. 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 brake pad replacement quote includes additional charges for the hardware, well, you can tell where this is going.

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 to determine if the brake pad replacement cost is for you. 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.

Less metal is a bad idea

Metal rotors on FHM ocean screen grid backgroundTMB Studio

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 on the brake job cost.

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 service shop

Top-quality brake service shops automatically use the best parts because they don’t want “comebacks” (jobs redone at their expense). They charge a fair price upfront 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.

After you search “brake service near me” and find a shop that carries brand-name parts, ask for a brake pad replacement cost 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 brake job isn’t brain surgery. If a shop balks at providing a phone quote, search for a different one and give them a call.