How much should a brake job cost?
Introduction to brake job costs
Brakes are a wear item just like tires. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you need a brake job every three or four years or about every 40,000 miles. A typical brake job from a reputable shop costs around $270-$375 per axle (both front wheels or both rear wheels). But some unscrupulous shops charge as much as $900 per axle and that kind of brake job rip-off happens far more often than you think.
Brake job rip-offs happen because a brake job is one of the few auto repairs where your safety is at stake. Some shop play on that safety fear to increase their profit. They know if they say your vehicle needs new brake calipers in order to operate properly, you’ll probably go along with their recommendation to ensure your safety. But that can only happen if you’re not up to speed on what a caliper does or how it fails. Replacing perfectly good brake parts happens all the time. That’s why it’s so important to become brake job savvy before your brakes wear out.
Here’s what you need to know to become a smart brake job consumer.
Brake job rip-offs happen more often than you think
If you do an Internet search for brake job rip-offs or brake job bait-and-switch, you’ll most likely find the California cases shown below. But brake job rip-offs happen in every state and there are tell-tale signs that you’re about to be ripped off.
Let’s start with the bait-and-switch rip-off where a shop advertises a low price for a brake job and then tries to up sell you to “better” parts or convinces you to replace perfectly good parts. Here are some examples:
In 1989 the California Attorney General’s office obtained an injunction against a muffler and brake shop franchise owner for “105 incidents in which shop managers, mechanics and employees….made false and misleading statements to pressure customers into purchasing unnecessary parts and services.”1 The investigation by the State revealed that the shops overcharged the undercover agents almost $300 for unnecessary repairs.
In 2010, the California Attorney General’s office pursued action against the same muffler and brake franchise and their 22 stores, alleging the shops engaged in the same bait-and-switch tactics as in 1989. The State arrived at a settlement that required the franchise owner to pay $1.8 million for damages, investigative costs and attorney’s fees. As part of the settlement, the franchise owner had to relinquish ownership of 22 repair shops and agree to refrain from engaging in any business that requires any type of license or registration1.
On November 15, 2018 the Napa County District Attorney’s office, in conjunction with the Solano and Sonoma County District Attorney’s office filed a complaint2 against another repair shop franchise owner for alleged “violations of the Automotive Repair Act, Hazardous Waste Control Act, false advertising and unfair competition laws.”
The State of California has a rigorous inspection system for repair shops and aggressive district attorneys to pursue the scofflaws so you’ll see more of those lawsuits in the news. But brake job rip-offs happen all the time and in every state.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Not every auto repair chain or independently owned shop engages in bait-and-switch tactics and you should not assume from these new stories that all chain muffler and brake stores are dishonest.
What you need to know about brake parts to help you make the right decision when buying a brake job.
In the old days shop owners purchased brake parts from a handful of respected domestic brake parts suppliers. That’s changed. Today, the market is flooded with offshore brake parts, many of dubious quality. They’re sold online and in auto parts stores under a private label or store brand. Many are marketed as “premium or original equipment (OEM) quality” when they’re actually made with substandard materials that don’t perform as well or last as long as OEM parts.
If fact, testing performed by the Global Brake Safety Council shows that many of these “premium” brake pad products are of such low quality that the metal components rust and fail long before the brake pad friction material wears out.3 (See link at bottom of post)
The problem isn’t limited to just brake pads. Offshore brake rotors often don’t match the car maker’s original design, resulting in improper cooling and early failure.
Car makers invest significant time and resources to come up with just the right metallurgy and cooling vane configurations for the brake rotors on every model. In fact, there are currently over 600 different cooling vane configurations for today’s cars. These exotic vane configurations are costly to reproduce, so many aftermarket rotor manufacturers simply build their rotors with the cheapest cooling vane configuration and the least expensive metallurgy. How would you possibly know if you didn’t get the same rotor as original equipment? Well, your brakes won’t cool as well, so they’ll wear out faster. In other words, you won’t know until you realize that your brakes wore out faster than the factory brakes. By then it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s why it’s so important to demand high quality OE rotors from the shop. Ask the shop to show you the new rotors. If you have to, shine a flashlight into the air gap between the rotor plates to examine the cooling vanes.
How the low quality brake parts scam works
Unscrupulous shops purchase the cheapest lowest quality brake “premium” pads and rotors and offer you a lifetime warranty. However, the lifetime warranty only applies to the brake pads. It doesn’t cover the rotors or the labor. You hear “lifetime warranty” and walk away thinking you’re protected in the event they fail.
Those low quality brake pads will fail and when you return to the shop, they’ll be more than happy to replace the brake pads for free. But you’ll have to pay for the new rotors and the labor. So your lifetime warranty brake pads will actually cost you about $400 when they fail. You pay the bill and leave the shop thinking it was just a fluke and now you’ve got new pads and new rotors.
But you’ll be back for another “free warranty” replacement in another year or so. This will repeat over and over again until you catch on to the scam. By the time you realize you’ve been fleeced, you’ll have paid many times over for those low quality brake pads.
Back to how much a brake job should cost
A typical brake job includes replacing the friction material: brake pads (for disc brakes) or brake shoes (for drum brakes). The shop can buy many different brands of friction material and in many different quality levels. But typically, OEM or premium quality brake pads or shoes cost around $40 to $100 per axle (both front wheel or both rear wheels), depending on the year, make and model and whether they’re for front or rear wheels.
The average brake job takes about an hour to perform. Depending on the shop’s hourly labor rate, brake job labor can run from $80 at an independently owned shop to $140 at a dealer. Then there’s the issue of the disc brake rotor condition or the condition of the brake drum.
Do you need new rotors with every brake job?
In the old days car makers equipped their vehicles with thick heavy brake rotors and drums that could be re-machined several times to bring them back to like-new condition. The process of reconditioning a rotor or drum is called “turning” or “machining.” To recondition, the technician removed the rotor or drum from the vehicle, mounted it in a special brake lathe and cut away very small layer of metal to produce a new flat surface.
That’s changed. Today’s vehicles have much lighter weight brake rotors and many times they’re simply not thick enough to be machined once they’ve worn. Many brake rotors are so thin from the factory that it’s impossible to machine off a portion of the rotor face and still have enough left to meet minimum thickness safety standards.
To determine whether your rotors can be reconditioned by machining, the tech will measure the rotor thickness, examine the depth of any deep grooves in the rotor face and then consult the rotor’s minimum thickness or “discard” specification. The rotor must be at least .030″ thicker than it’s discard thickness after machining. You need that extra .030″ to allow for wear with the new brake pads.
Even if the shop determines your rotor is machinable, it’s may actually be cheaper to replace rotors with new units, rather than pay a shop $140 to machine them. That’s why most brake jobs include new friction material and rotors or drums. New rotors cost around $40-$80 each.
Total brake job cost
Approximately $70 for a set of brake pads
Approximately $120 for two rotors ($60/each)
One hour of labor ($80 to $140 per hour depending on location)
Add it up and it comes to around $300—more if you live in a high labor rate area and require more expensive pads and rotors, or less if you live in rural areas with lower labor rates or own a car with less expensive parts.
What’s NOT included in a typical brake job?
A brake job does not include new brake calipers or caliper brackets (disc brakes) wheel cylinders (drum brakes), flexible and rigid brake lines, master cylinder or parking brake components. They’re all extra.
Most cars and trucks don’t need those parts during the first 150K miles of use. But you wouldn’t know it from the way unscrupulous shops run their business. The rip-off shops recommend new brake calipers on every brake job that comes into their shop, whether the vehicle needs them or not. Replacing perfectly good calipers can easily add $400 or more to your brake job cost.
There are times when calipers or caliper brackets must be replaced and I’ve listed those instances below. Unless your vehicle fits the descriptions shown, you should not need new calipers. If the shop recommends new calipers, ask why and see if their reasons stack up to the information shown below.
When should you replace brake calipers
Brake calipers typically last 150K miles or more. But the brake caliper abutment areas and caliper slide pins can rust and bind long before then, causing brake release issues. Binding causes the brake pads to wear unevenly, make noise and require more braking effort. But rust and binding issues can be fixed without a full brake caliper replacement.
Any competent shop can clean the rust the brake pad abutment areas and apply corrosion resistant brake grease. Corroded slide pins and protective rubber boots can be replaced separately for about $22 per wheel.
Even if the corrosion in the caliper bracket bores is severe, the shop can replace the bracket separately for about $32. In the vast majority of cases, you do not need to replace the entire brake caliper to fix corrosion issues!
These conditions do NOT require new brake calipers
• Corroded bores on caliper bracket. Severely corroded caliper brackets can be replaced with a rebuilt bracket for around $32 each.
• Degraded or torn caliper slide pin boots can be replaced for $11 per wheel.
• The brake pads show uneven wear. Uneven wear is most often caused by rust buildup or corroded caliper slide pins. Fix the problem with new slide pins and possibly a rebuilt bracket and clean off the rust buildup instead of buying new brake calipers.
However, you must replace the brake caliper for these conditions:
The brake caliper is leaking brake fluid
The brake caliper piston dust boot is torn
The brake caliper piston is seized in the bore
The brake caliper piston doesn’t retract quickly when you take your foot off the brake. The tell-tale signs of a brake caliper piston that’s not releasing properly is glazed heat soaked brake pads. The square cut O-ring flexes as you apply the brakes. When you release the brake, the O-ring relaxes and pulls the caliper piston back into the bore. As the rubber O-ring ages, it loses flexibility and takes longer to relax. That keeps the brake pads engaged with the rotor longer, causing the pads to overheat and glaze. Corroded brake caliper slide pins can cause the same overheating. But if the pins are moving smoothly but the pads show signs of overheating and glazing, chances are the square cut O-ring isn’t doing its job properly. The caliper must be rebuilt or replaced.
Here’s a price comparison for a full caliper replacement versus fixing just what’s wrong
Most rust issues can be fixed with new slide pins and a boot kit for a total cost of around $75 per wheel. Even in a worst case scenario, it’s still cheaper to replace just these parts rather than a new caliper.
A closer look at brake parts
Not all brake parts are created equal and economy brake parts can cost you far more in the long run. As I said earlier, there are no Federal standards for brake parts sold by dealers, parts stores and shops. So any manufacturer can label their brake parts as OE or premium quality, even though they’re made with substandard raw materials.
Since 2012 all cars and trucks must be equipped with stability control systems and those systems require OE quality brakes; brakes that stop the vehicle in the same distance as the factory pads. As I mentioned earlier, there are no Federal standards for aftermarket brake parts. So anybody can make brake pads and anybody can say their brake pads meet OE specifications. Since car makers never disclose their specifications or brake pad formulas to anybody except their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, the only way a brake pad manufacturer can determine OE stopping distances is to actually dyno test the brake pads for every year, make and model vehicle. That kind of testing costs a fortune, so only the largest manufacturers can afford it.
In other words, the vast majority of brake pad manufacturers simply guess what the OE pads are made from and try to duplicate the formula. Then they cross their fingers that they’ll never be sued if their brake pads don’t stop the vehicle in the same distance as the OE pads.
Worse yet, the stability control and emergency braking systems on new cars assume that the replacement brake parts are OE quality. If the shop doesn’t install brake parts that are dyno tested to ensure they match OE parts, the stability control and emergency braking systems won’t perform as designed.
The ins-and-outs of brake parts quality is a topic unto itself. If you’d like to learn more about brake parts quality to avoid getting ripped off, click on the image below.
Curious about how brake pads are made? Click on the image below.
Three ways to avoid brake job rip-offs and scams
1) Avoid the low priced brake job
Based on the parts costs I show above, no shop can make money selling a brake job for $99, $150 or even $200 unless they’re using inferior parts or using a low price to lure you in so they can up-sell you. So you should automatically become suspicious if a shop advertises a lower price for a brake job or offers a coupon for a big discount on a brake job.
The truth about brake job “sale” prices is that almost nobody ever gets out of the shop for that price. The instant you walk in the door, the shop will try to up-sell you to “better” brake pads or they’ll find more brake parts that “must” be replaced.
How the brake pad up-sell works
Currently around 60% of all cars and light trucks come from the factory with either ceramic or semi-metallic brake pads. Yet most brake job sale prices don’t include either ceramic brake or semi-metallic pads. The instant you walk in the door, you’ll face a brake pad up-charge just to install the same type and quality as the factory pads.
The shop pushes you to upgrade to premium brake pads
There are three quality levels for brake pads; economy, original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and premium. Upgrading to premium brake pads will improve braking performance and extend brake life.
But with no Federal standards for brake parts, how can you really know whether the upgrade is really better? Here are some tips:
• Insist on brake pads from a well known reputable brake parts manufacturer like; Wagner, Beck/Arnley, Raybestos, Bendix, Centric, AC Delco, Hawk, Bosch, Brembo, EBC, Akebono, etc. Each manufacture makes several quality grades. Refer to the manufacturer’s web site to determine if the pad is actually rated as a premium product.
• Avoid store brands and private labeled products. Many auto parts stores sell store branded brake pads and repair parts. Generally speaking, those brake pads and parts are designed to achieve one goal; higher profit margins for the store. Why buy store branded products when you can buy name brand products for close to the same price? In my opinion, even the “premium” quality store branded brake pads don’t measure up to a premium brake pad made by a well known name brand manufacturer.
The shop charges extra for noise reduction shims and hardware kits
Most reputable brake pad manufacturers include noise reduction shims and brake hardware for free with their OEM and premium quality brake pads. If the shop quotes you on OEM or premium brake pads but charges extra for shims and hardware, they’re either double dipping or not actually providing OEM or premium pads.
Want to know more about the differences between NAO, semi-metallic and ceramic? See this post for in-depth information.
How to find an honest reputable repair shop for a reasonably priced brake job
I’ll be honest with you; I’m not a big fan of chain operated repair shops. If the shop is company owned, they’re usually under tremendous pressure from corporate big-wigs to increase sales through any means possible. If they’re a franchise operation, the individual franchisees often have to meet quotas to maintain their buying power. Worse yet, they have to buy all their parts from the franchisor who may or may not be providing the best quality parts.
If you have your brake job performed at a car dealer, you don’t have to worry about parts quality. Dealers are contractually obligated to buy their parts from the car maker, so you can rest assured you’re getting factory quality parts. Dealer hourly labor rates are usually higher than the rates at independently owned shops, so your brake job will cost a bit more. On the flip side, car dealers are incredibly sensitive to customer reviews. A bad customer review can cost the dealer several percentage points on their new car purchases. So, generally speaking, you won’t find dealers engaging is the bait-and-switch game—they simply can’t afford the bad customer reviews!
Then there’s the independently owned shops. The honest ones replace only what needs replacing and their labor rates are lower than the dealer. The big question is how to find the right shop.
I often recommend the International Automotive Technicians Association website iatn.net. The iatn is an association of independently owned shops that band together to share repair information and advice. In my experience, these shops are owned by great people that really care about their profession. They’re often higher priced than the local gas station, but they’re also better diagnosticians so they dig deep to find and fix the root cause of the problem rather than throw parts at the vehicle and hope they work. They genuinely value knowledge and good work. My advice is to go to the site, find a shop near you and then check out their reviews online. I think you’ll be happy.
©, 2016 Rick Muscoplat
1. Brown Reaches $1.8 Million Settlement with Owner of 22 Midas Auto Shops Over Massive Bait-and-Switch Scheme—Monday, January 25, 2010
2. CONSUMER PROTECTION LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST LOCAL MIDAS STORES
November 20, 2018
3. New Study On Brake Pad Failure Modes And Corrosion Find Some Vehicles Pose A Significant Safety Risk
Global Safety Council November 28, 2017
Posted on by Rick Muscoplat