How much does a brake job cost at your shop? That’s a question that you never want to ask, because you’re going to get a generic answer to a very broad question. Most likely you’ll end up with a result similar to what was found by AutoMD in a national study of 600 shops. Over fifty percent of repairers did not stick to the original price.
So why is the question so unrealistic? First, it’s because there are two systems at work in your brakes, one mechanical and the other hydraulic. A very basic explanation of the system is that brake fluid is sent to the brake assemblies at each wheel to move the brake pads or brake shoes against the rotors or drums to stop the vehicle.
Many times you only need to replace the mechanical parts (pads and rotors) in the case of disc brake equipped cars. Other times the brake calipers, which are hydraulically actuated, are the root cause of disc brake pad failure as the calipers “freeze up” causing the pad to continuously engage the rotor and wear prematurely.
Add to this the reality that there are brakes in the front and rear and you can see how senseless it is to ask the brake job cost question. A more appropriate question is: “What does a front brake job cost and what does it include?” Actually, all that this accomplishes is to establish a base line to begin your shopping.
Another way to approach brake evaluation is start to have them checked when they have been in service around 20,000 miles or when your owner’s manual suggests and go from there. At that time inquire about the cost of replacing the brakes and don’t buy into the idea that everything has to be replaced. The percentage of brake caliper failures when compared to disc brake pad replacement is very small.
Unfortunately, there are times when caliper failure causes the job estimate to implode. A way to at least make it more difficult for the shop to escalate the job is to inquire specifically about the condition of the calipers at the time of the estimate. “Is there anything that can change this price?” is my expression of choice. This puts the shop on notice that you consider this a firm price and expect the final price not to vary by more than twenty percent of the estimate or $50, whichever is less, which is the industry standard.
We have only considered two brake components. Add to these the master cylinder, brake booster, brake line, or an ABS problem and you can see how brakes can be a black hole. One way to avoid confusion about your brakes is to be very clear about what you’re experiencing. If there is noise involved try to isolate its source as being in the front or rear. Be specific about any evidence of fluid leakage and try to describe how the brake pedal feels--mushy or hard, and whether the brakes are locking up or fading.
Brakes are one of the mainstays of the car repair industry. The fact that they are essential to our safety on the road adds to the concern about their maintenance and repair. Being informed and pro-active about their replacement will reduce the chance that you will be misled.