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How to Tell if You Need New Brake Pads or Rotors

brake pad and brake caliper close up

Maintaining a well-functioning brake system is critical to keeping the roads safe. The last thing you want is to put off a trip to your local auto repair shop just to rear-end someone on your way there because of faulty brakes. Car crashes are a major headache, and as a driver, you must know when your vehicle is due for brake repair. Here we discuss the major brake parts – brake pads, rotors, and brake calipers – and how to tell if you need new ones.

Symptoms of Bad Brakes

In a perfect world, applying the brakes should produce no sound at all. However, it’s common for brakes to get worn down after long periods of use and require some attention. Having worn or damaged brake pads or rotors can significantly reduce your stopping distance and is a safety hazard to yourself and others sharing the road. If you notice any of these signs, it is important to get your brakes checked by a mechanic as soon as possible.

  • The brake indicator light is on, either before you start driving or after applying pressure on the brake pedal
  • Grinding sounds
  • Squeaking or squealing
  • Car veering to one side when you brake
    • This could indicate that one brake pad works, but the other doesn’t
  • Wobbling or vibrating steering wheel when you brake
    • This could mean a rotor is unevenly worn down
  • Fading: The brake pedal feels spongy or like it is sinking
  • Pulsating brake pedal
These issues are dead giveaways that there might be something wrong with your brakes. However, the cause of the problem may be from different parts of the braking system, such as the brake pads, rotors, and brake caliper. Here’s how to tell if you need new brake pads or rotors.

Differentiating Brake Pad Issues vs. Rotor Issues

Signs You Need New Brake Pads

Brake pads are the pieces that squeeze on your brake rotors when you press on the brake pedal. Since they act as a clamp on metal parts, brake pads wear down over time. Take note of these sounds in your vehicle, the feel of the brake pedal, and things to look for in your brake pads.

  • Sounds:
    • Squealing or squeaking when you stop
      • This is often due to a wear indicator scraping the rotor, or there may be a foreign object lodged in your brakes.
    • Deep grinding metal sound
      • This indicates the pads are worn through and metal is grinding against the rotor
  • Feel:
    • Vibrating or pulsating brake pedal
  • Visual:
    • The brake pad thickness is less than ¼ inch
    • Brake Indicator light turns on

Since they do get easily worn by use, brake pads replacements are the more common fix for braking issues. Getting a replacement can range from $35-150 for parts for all four wheels or $80-120 per axle. This range of pricing is only a guideline, and you won’t be able to get the exact cost without bringing your vehicle to a mechanic. 

Keep in mind that the cost of brake pads depends on the make and model of your vehicle. The amount of labor also depends on the make and model of the vehicle and the labor rate of the auto repair shop.
Typically, it is best to replace by pairs (ie: both fronts, or both rears). Usually, multiple parts of your braking system will need to be replaced at the same time. If your brake pads are wearing out it’s usually the case that your rotors will also need to be replaced.

How to Tell if You Need New Rotors

Alternatively, brake rotors or brake discs are the parts that rotate to keep your wheel moving. They’re often made of steel or iron and are attached to the axle. Since they’re metal, rotors typically last a while before you need a replacement, especially if you press on your brake pedal gradually. However, harsh or panicked braking can cause premature wear on your rotors. 

A question we often hear is if bad rotors make noise while driving. Rotors should not make any noise when you’re braking. So, what does it sound like when your rotors are bad? With some variations to brake pads, here are some of the telltale signs that you might need new brake rotors

  • Sounds:
    • Squealing or squeaking when braking (This can also be caused by bad brake pads)
    • Grinding noise (This indicates the rotors are severely worn or damaged)
    • Loud bangs when braking
  • Feel:
    • Vibration in the steering wheel, brake pedal, or vehicle itself when you brake
    • Pulsating brake pedal when braking
  • Visual:
    • Scratched, scored, or grooved rotors
    • Large edge on the outer part of the rotor’s surface
    • A blue color on the rotors


You can inspect rotors for wear yourself by running your finger vertically down the brake rotor’s surface. If you can feel or see any grooves or corrosion, it’s time for a replacement. If you don’t have an open spoke wheel, you will need to take the wheel off to inspect the rotor.

Rotor replacement usually happens at the same time as brake pads, but replacing just the rotor may cost you around $30-75 per rotor, or $150-200 per axle. Like with brake pads, the cost of rotors depends on the make and model of your car as well as the specific issue. These prices are just for the brake materials and don’t include labor. As with any auto repair shop, the cost of labor depends on the make and model of the car and the specific labor rate that the auto repair shop charges.

What Are the Symptoms of a Bad Brake Caliper

Lastly, a brake caliper is a part of the disc brake system that houses your car’s brake pads and pistons (the part that moves brake pads to make contact with rotors). When you press on the brake, brake fluid is sent down to the caliper, which pushes pistons out and slows your wheels by creating friction between the brake rotors and brake pads.

Over time the heat generated by the braking system can weaken and break down the seals inside the calipers. This means they can become dirty, rusty, or contaminated and if you don’t drive regularly, they may leak brake fluid.

A bad brake caliper can cause some of the same symptoms as worn brake pads or rotors, so it’s important to have a qualified mechanic inspect your brakes if you are experiencing any of these issues. However, in addition to grinding, your vehicle pulling to one side, or delayed braking ability, some signs that your brake caliper needs some attention are:

  • Fluid leaks around the caliper piston and bleeder screws
  • Spongy or soft brake pedal
  • A dragging sensation when braking

You can check out your caliper by having your vehicle supported on jack stands and turning the wheel by hand. If the wheel feels hard to turn, there’s a chance that the brake caliper may be sticking and pushing your brake pads against the rotor. 

While calipers are one of the less likely issues with brake repair, we always recommend an inspection by a professional from a reputable auto repair shop. To get a sense as to why a quality shop is extremely important, here is a real-life example of what happened to a previous customer.

At 4 Mile Auto, we had a customer who was having issues with overheating and went to another auto shop out of state. The other shop replaced the radiator but unfortunately, the customer had another heating event shortly after the new radiator had been replaced. She took the car back to the shop and they said it overheated because there were cracked radiator hoses that hadn’t been replaced at the time of the radiator replacement. This issue could have been avoided in the first place if a quality mechanic had noticed the issues and made the correct replacements ahead of time.

This was a costly and stressful experience for this particular customer. A similar philosophy applies to your brakes. You want to make sure that you are safe on the road and won’t have to keep coming back to the shop over and over again for the same problem. At 4 Mile Auto, we would never let you get back on the road knowing that there is another issue looming in the future.

The Importance of Brake Maintenance

Safety on the road is so important! We can’t stress enough the importance of regular maintenance of your braking system to prevent any accidents. Learning about the parts of your brakes and the warning signs of a replacement will allow you to keep your brake system running smoothly and ensure road safety. We always recommend having a qualified and professional mechanic inspect your brakes if you have any concerns about your braking system.

Since the cost of brakes largely depends on multiple factors, it is impossible to give a quote over the phone without having the vehicle physically in the shop. Brakes are essential to being safe on the road and you should have a professional do the job correctly. Maintain your peace of mind by knowing your brakes are in the good hands of a professional.

If you have further questions or concerns with your brake system, don’t hesitate to contact us with your automobile questions.

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