How to change your own brakes

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There are 253 million cars registered in the United States. That is 253 million vehicles that need oil changes, tune ups and regular maintenance each year. And according to this data, there are an average of 2 vehicles per household in the United States. Which means if you are reading this, you have a 2-ton rolling vehicle sitting in your garage or driveway that will need serviced at some point in the near future.

The upside involved in learning to do basic car maintenance cannot be overstated. Not only do you save $80+ an hour in labor costs, but you also learn valuable lessons in how your car functions, giving you more confidence when owning a used car. And you won't immediately head for the nearest dealership when you hear a strange noise coming from under the hood.

One of the simplest ways to save money on car maintenance is changing your brake pads yourself. Most people think of oil changes and tune-ups as the most important maintenance, but I would argue that the parts that make your 4,000 lb. vehicle carrying your family go from 60 MPH to 0 MPH is probably the most important thing you can maintain. And contrary to what large brake shops will tell you, it doesn't cost $500+ to keep them in great working condition.

How to know when to change your brake pads

Brakes are convenient in the fact that you never have to guess when they are worn down. The brake pad "wear indicators" give you a nice, shrill high-pitched squeal every time you tap on the brake pedal. If for any reason you ignore the wear indicator's warning, the "metal-on-metal" scraping sound means the entire pad has completely worn off and your brakes are now worthless. I don't recommend waiting that long.

Some other symptoms include; Vibration when holding down the brake pedal, or having to press the pedal down further than normal to get full stopping power. If you experience any of these symptoms, I recommend immediately getting new brake pads, and possibly repairing the rotors as well.

Repair or replace brake rotors?

One question that always comes up when discussing brake rotors is whether to repair them or replace them. When you take your car into a shop, many of them will say something like "we'll just resurface the rotors to give them more life." This is a nice idea when paying someone else to do your brakes because it saves money, but when doing it yourself, it's hardly ever worth the hassle.

Since (most of you) don’t own a lathe at home, you'd have to remove the rotors and take them in to a shop to have them resurface the rotors. This could cost over $100 for the service. Compare that to the cost of front rotors for, say, a mid-2000s Honda Accord which only cost $36 per rotor at O'Reilly Auto Parts. You get brand new rotors and save $35.

What you need to replace your brakes

When you have brake issues, 99% of the time it has to do with your front brake pads, They handle most of the braking work for your vehicle, and are the ones that wear out. So you will most likely just be replacing the front brakes when you do the job.

Replacing your brake pads and rotors is a pretty straightforward job on most cars. The simplest way to find step-by-step instructions on replacing your brakes is to go to No, I am not joking, seriously. Youtube is an AMAZING tool for anything DIY, especially when working on cars. Just type in "how to replace brake pads and rotors on _______ car" and you should have a plethora of videos to choose from. For example, here are the instructions on replacing a 2005 Accord's brake pads and rotors.

Most brake jobs need a few simple tools:

  • Floor Jack and Jack Stands

  • Tire Iron (to remove wheels)

  • 3/8" Socket Set

  • C-Clamp

  • Rubber Mallet (optional)

  • Hammer (optional)

  • Phillips and Flathead Screwdrivers

  • Mask (brake dust)

  • Brake Cleaner

I recommend setting aside at least 3-4 hours to get everything completed, allowing time to figure out each part of the job. Definitely watch the How-To video a few times before diving in as well. The brake pads themselves could take as little as 15 minutes per side, the extra time built in is for removing and replacing the rotors as well.

How to get free brake pads for life

If you've ever had your brakes done, you know it can be costly. Most of the larger brake shops like Les Schwab won't just replace your pads. They'll require that your rotors be resurfaced or replaced, and probably tack on caliper replacement as well. A simple brake pad replacement that should only cost $40 could easily turn into a $500+ brake job. So you are saving possibly $450 every time you replace your own brake pads.

And check this out: Some auto part stores will give you a "Lifetime Warranty" on their brake pads. Many people have bought these pads, and once they are worn, simply bring them back to the store for a free replacement! One set of these pads are the Autozone Cmax brake pad line. They offer a lifetime warranty, and there are several reports of people trading out their worn pads for free replacements, no questions asked.

Don't be afraid, give it a shot!

The #1 reason people don't work on their own vehicles is a fear of "doing it wrong" and messing something up. Don't be afraid! With Youtube and and online repair manuals, repairs couldn't be easier. If you hear that familiar "SQEEEEEEEEEEL" coming from your car's brakes, I encourage you to roll up your sleeves, do the job yourself and save hundreds of dollars in the process!

Have any of your out there done your own brakes before? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments about how DIY has saved you money and built your confidence!

Clark Howard  is America’s #1 resource for all things money.

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