10 steps toward an affordable brake job

Boy, do people like to vent about brake jobs.

When the “10 Tips for Keeping Your Money in Your Wallet” column launched last month, many readers wrote in to share frustrating experiences involving brake jobs done on their vehicles. Jackie Herndon of Atlanta reminisced about the time a mechanic waved her over to her car – (“I call it the ‘you-need-more-money wave,’ ” she wrote) – and told her she needed new rotors, even though she absolutely did not.

“Well, I take a look (I might as well have been looking at an alien) and of course I don’t let on that I have no idea what I’m looking at,” Herndon recalled. “I then turn to the mechanic and say, ‘Is there a special on today – are you giving rotors away for free?’ He looked taken aback and said, ‘What?’ I calmly said to him, ‘If you’re not giving rotors away for free, put the (brake) pads on and let me get out of here.’ … He sputtered, saw I meant business, placed the pads on at the agreed-upon price – and I drove away from there and for the next two years without needing pads or rotors.”

Way to go, Jackie! Granted, that’s not to say you’ll never need new rotors, because someday you might. But that time around you didn’t, and it would have been a shame to spend money on parts that didn’t really need to be replaced.

All the feedback about brake jobs prompted me to ask my brother, Eric Coffey, to provide some insights about this important and potentially confusing area of car repair. Eric has worked in auto service in the Tampa Bay area of Florida for more than 10 years. Here is his advice along with tips from other sources, including the excellent automotive Web site

1. Educate yourself. Go to this Web site – – and spend five minutes learning what these terms mean: disc brake assembly (which includes rotors, brake pads and calipers); drum brake assembly (which includes drums, brake shoes and wheel cylinders); brake hoses, and master cylinder. A brake job usually involves replacing the brake linings (which means replacing the brake pads and/or shoes), resurfacing the rotors and/or drums, adding new brake fluid and bleeding the system as needed, and looking for other worn components.

2. Know when to wonder. In many cases, rotors and drums can be resurfaced rather than replaced altogether. Mind you, sometimes they really will need to be replaced if they’ve become worn beyond specific safety limits. Other potentially necessary repairs could include the rebuilding or replacement of failed calipers, wheel cylinders or the master cylinder. But as a general rule, ask for reasons and evidence if anything other than your brake pads or shoes need to be replaced and the rotors or drums need to be resurfaced.

3. Don’t be duped. One common sales approach involves calling attention to differences in a vehicle’s brake-pad wear. One side may look more worn than the other, and you may be told that this could indicate a hydraulic system failure. However, such uneven wear is usually normal. It happens when you stop your vehicle under different conditions, such as when you are turning. Be aware that no major system component replacement is typically needed to correct this. Get a second opinion if someone tells you otherwise and you’re concerned about it.

4. Ask about fit. Some shops routinely sell less expensive, generic brake pads to reduce cost. That’s fine – and safe, too – but just be aware that such pads don’t necessarily fit every vehicle well and, as a consequence, they may make excessive noise. To avoid this, you can opt for factory brake pads designed specifically for your model of vehicle. Such pads are typically available through dealerships.

5. Stay on high alert. Some shops across the country routinely and aggressively promote deep discounts on brake jobs. For instance, you may be intrigued by a $99 front- and rear-axle brake-pad special, as Jackie Herndon of Atlanta had been. If you want to take advantage of one of these deals, be prepared for the possibility that the store may try to sell you new rotors, calipers or other parts. Don’t automatically cave in and agree to have such work done without making sure it’s absolutely necessary.

6. Make your signoff a requirement. When you drop your car off at a shop to have your brakes checked out – or anything checked out, for that matter – say that you would like to receive a phone call with a cost estimate before any work begins. Politely clarify that nothing should happen until you’ve authorized it first.

7. Shop around. When you’re told what kind of brake repairs you may need and how much those repairs may cost, take good notes. Then quickly call three or four other shops and ask how much they would charge for the exact same work. Try a variety of businesses, including independent shops, chain outlets and dealerships.

8. Check the store’s reputation and complaint history. Once you’ve zeroed in on a shop, visit the Web site of the Better Business Bureau ( to see how many consumers have complained about the repair shop. You also can contact your state’s consumer affairs department or attorney general’s office about the company’s track record. To find contact information for your state, click here (


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9. Know when to give the green light. For the sake of convenience, you could authorize the shop that’s holding your car to do the work if its price seems fair enough and its reputation is sound. No matter where you go, though, ask whether the repairs come with a written warranty, and say you’d like to keep or at least see your old parts if some parts will indeed need to be replaced. (You may be charged an additional fee if you want to keep your calipers, master cylinder or shoes rather than simply inspect them.)

10. Wrap things up. When the time comes to pick up your car, look the bill over carefully and make sure everything matches up with the estimate you had been given and the notes you had taken. If you spot anything you didn’t authorize, speak up about it.