Where should I get my car's brakes checked?
September 20, 2012 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I need my car's brakes looked at. Where should I have this done, and should I expect to pay for it? How much?

When I had my oil changed (at an independent oil-change-only place) the guy said I should have my back brakes looked at. This seems about right--I can brake OK but I've been having a faint feeling something might be wearing out, and the last time I had brakes fixed or inspected was 10,000 miles ago.

I know some places (often chains) advertise free brake inspections. Should I take it to one of those? My concern with that is that those places might say stuff needs to be replaced even if it doesn't. I'd trust an independent mechanic more but not sure if those would do free inspections.

I'm also not sure how awkward or rude it'd be if they say to replace something and then I don't take the car there. I mean, obviously I can do it, but would that make me an ass? How much time does a brake inspection take?

Random bonus points if you have a suggestion for a place to do this in the Berkeley/Oakland area.
posted by needs more cowbell to Travel & Transportation around Berkeley, CA (15 answers total)
What kind of car do you have? If it's a Honda/Acura/Toyota, Berkeley Minicar is an great place.
posted by gyusan at 1:25 PM on September 20, 2012

Best answer: You don't want one of those chain places -- generally what you want is an independent full-service garage. Most professionals will be understanding if they give you a big work estimate and you want a second opinion, but if you do NOT get the work done there, they may charge you for the inspection. (This is also the case at the chains -- they just don't advertise that part of the fine print.) If anything, you're more likely to get a freebie from an independent shop without a corporate fee structure.

But brakes are actually a fairly straightforward system and "getting them looked at" generally involves basic questions of pad (if you've been diligent) or rotor (if you haven't -- ouch!) replacement rather than something involving tearing apart the engine or transmission. This is in fact not *much* more complicated than oil changes* and I would be surprised if prices vary that much that taking it someplace else is worth it. In rare cases you could have a brake line leak or something else that ties back to the controls. But it's something you might not find at all unless you have the appropriate work done.

* It's actually something that a backyard mechanic could probably do, except that it practically requires lifting the vehicle up in the air.
posted by dhartung at 1:30 PM on September 20, 2012

Response by poster: I realize it's pretty straightforward, but I'm curious about time/effort investment for the mechanic...5 minutes? 25 minutes? One page I looked at said you have to take the wheels off, which seems somewhat involved for (what I'm hoping will be) a free no-obligation service.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:38 PM on September 20, 2012

Best answer: I came in to offer what dhartung said. Please stay away from the chain places. I had my brakes done there twice (I was an idiot and went back a second time.) Both times I had to return to have them re-repair something they hadn't done right the first time.

And FWIW, I'm completely mechanically inept but thanks to my experience with these chain-shop thieves, I can now successfully change my own brake pads. Me ... whose least favorite words in the English language are "assembly required."

Hope someone chimes in with a more helpful answer.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 1:41 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It would help to know what year/model car you have. Rear disc brakes are easier to inspect than rear drum brakes, but in both cases you do generally want to pull the wheels so you are sure to make a good inspection. In the case of drum brakes, once you have the wheels off you also want to pull the drum off so you can see not only the material left on the shoes, but also inspect the drum surface for pitting, cracks, or excessive wear.

The "free brake inspection" is like the proverbial "free lunch", in that the cost of the inspection is factored into the rate the garage sets for all work they do. They aren't really giving anything away, you just aren't paying for it up front.

And yes, you'd kinda be an ass to have a free inspection done in Garage A but the work done in Garage B (or by shade tree mechanic C).
posted by mosk at 1:53 PM on September 20, 2012

Response by poster: Car is a 2000 Corolla.

I was mostly curious if if it made sense to get a free inspection at a chain and then get the work (if any) done at an independent shop (which I trust more), but it sounds like it doesn't.

How much should I expect to pay for a brake inspection if it's not free?
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:03 PM on September 20, 2012

Art's Automotive (a few blocks away from Berkeley Minicar) is also awesome for Hondas and Toyotas. They're reasonably priced, honest, and great at diagnosing weirdness, should your car ever have any.
posted by zippy at 2:29 PM on September 20, 2012

Also also, most garages go by what The Book says about the number of hours for a job, rather than actual clock time. They then multiply this by their hourly rate.

TL;dr, they can probably quote you what an inspection would cost, and it will be the same whether Hideo Toyoda, who take 5 minutes, or Joe Newbie, who takes 2 hours with supervision and multiple trips to the First Aid Station, does the work.
posted by zippy at 2:36 PM on September 20, 2012

On the website of NPR's venerable automotive show, type your zip code into their Mechanics Files mechanic finder. You'll be able to read reviews of mechanics, and find one nearby that specializes in Toyotas.

I don't know what a brake inspection costs, as I'm in the habit of doing my own, but it's pretty quick once the car is on the lift. They'll look at the brakes to see how thick the pads are, which is seconds per wheel. They'll probably rotate each wheel a bit to make sure the calipers aren't locking up. They'll also keep an eye out for leaking brake fluid (which is wet and shiny, so pretty obvious), and any other obvious problem. Basically, putting it up on the lift is half the battle.
posted by jon1270 at 3:36 PM on September 20, 2012

It take less that 1 minute to look at disc brake pads if the wheel is off.
posted by bensherman at 4:34 PM on September 20, 2012

Where do you get your gas? Is it one with a mechanic? If so, they will check it for free. You are a regular customer. Go later in the day (evening) when it is slow and they will be happy to put it on a lift and check it for you.
posted by Yellow at 6:03 PM on September 20, 2012

basic questions of pad (if you've been diligent) or rotor (if you haven't -- ouch!) replacement

Actually, rotors need replacing every so often even when you have been diligent; they just wear more slowly than pads, but once they're thinner than the maker's specification new ones are important.
posted by anadem at 8:48 PM on September 20, 2012

Best answer: +1 to stay away from free 'let us tell you how much money to give us' inspections.
Learn a little about brakes, enough to know what the major components and common issues are and go to a small independent garage.

Brake check is pretty simple; stick the car on a ramp/lift to get the wheels off the ground, visually check the condition of components and the material left on brake pads, then spin wheels to check brakes are not binding.

Wear and tear is expected on brakes and is easily sorted; new pads, new discs (rotors).

As with all mechanical things though, there can be more expensive issues...
-Binding calipers; does your roll to a stop so smoothly you can hardly tell it's stopped? Or is there a jolt; even the tiniest sensation? If the brake calipers (things that hold the pads) are not moving freely then these may need replaced/repaired.
-Corrosion; brake pipes are typically aluminium, if these have heavily rusted they'll need replaced. This can be a fiddly job.
posted by BadMiker at 2:59 AM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: yellow, it might be a regional thing but I've never been to a gas station that has a mechanic in residence (unfortunately.)

I'll go to an independent shop, either one my friend recommended or something upthread, for the inspection and whatever work needs to be done. (I think I was hoping that no work needs to be done, but I'm realizing that the oil change guy's "get your back brakes looked at" probably meant "they need work.") Thanks for all the answers!
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:48 AM on September 21, 2012

Response by poster: OK, update: I did some reading about how brakes work, got recommendations, called around a bit to check prices and took my car in to Mira Vista Tire & Brake up in Richmond, CA since they were both well-recommended and reasonably priced. They checked my brakes (front and back, since it had been a while since the front had been done), told me I needed new back brakes (brake shoes) but that everything else was fine (no other new parts needed). They gave me a reasonable estimate (exactly what they'd told me on the phone for brake shoe replacement), did the work, and now everything is peachy.

Thanks everyone for directing me away from free chain store brake checks.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:03 PM on October 22, 2012

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