Tire shop questions
August 5, 2007 12:34 AM   Subscribe

I've got to replace my front tires, so I have some dumb tire shop questions.

I've got to replace the tires on my car in the morning due to uneven front tire wear. I'll be dealing with a typical suburban Firestone shop.

1. (Most important) If I want to get the front wheel alignment fixed, how much extra time is normal? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? Fifty minutes? I have no idea how long this takes on top of new tires.

2. Is it ever a good idea to have new tires balanced? Or is this something that is only done to used tires?

3. Are there any tire upsells that I need to avoid?

4. What do you say about the "used" tires some shops sell? Are they ok buys? Or should I get new?

posted by zek to Travel & Transportation (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
1. An alignment job can take at least 30-45 mins, but I'd expect it to be around 1.5 hours just to be safe.

2. Yes. Due to inconsistencies in manufacturing, balancing is always a good idea, new or used.

3. I can't think of any that seem to be common "scams".. possibly fancy valve stems or upgraded valve stem caps that are more of a aesthetic option. Road hazard warranties and lifetime rotation/balance/puncture repair are actually worth it, imo.

4. Used tires are about as reliable as buying a secondhand pair of shoes. They may look alright and work for their purpose, but you don't know their history or if any serious issues are going to arise, plus they just aren't comfortable to be in.

I suppose this applies more towards the future, but I've always found www.tirerack.com to be top notch for buying tires. You can have them ship the tires to a local installer who will mount/balance them onto your car.
posted by skwillz at 1:05 AM on August 5, 2007

The time it takes to do a front wheel alignment will depend on what is wrong with your car, the make and model of your car, and if any parts are bent/broken or will need to be replaced. If you have worn or damaged front suspension parts, you need to replace or repair them, if your car is going to hold an alignment, and not prematurely wear your tires again. Even something as innocuous as worn struts or shocks (the damping element in your suspension system) can cause tires to wear abnormally, because the wheel motion is not well controlled. Good suspension mechanics can tell a lot about possible suspension problems by examining wear patterns on your old tires, and you'll probably see charts of wear patterns with suggested causes posted on the walls of the tire shop.

But assuming your car is in reasonable mechanical shape, and only needs caster, camber and toe-in adjustments on a standard GM type MacPherson front wheel drive system, you're looking at about an hour on the alignment rack, after your new tires are mounted and balanced. If your vehicle is a rear wheel drive, you might be offered a 4 wheel alignment (some times called a thrust alignment), which will ensure your rear driving wheels are pushing exactly inline with your front steering wheels. This type of alignment takes longer (perhaps 90 minutes to 2 hours), requires the use of a 4 mirror alignment machine, and thus will cost more, but it is necessary if you want to be sure your rear wheel drive car is handling properly, and you are getting uniform tire wear.

You should get new valve stems and caps (to eliminate slow leaks from the old ones) and you should have the new tires balanced. You may be offered pressure indicator style valve caps, which are supposed to provide a visual ("go"/"no go") indication of tire pressure, but it is better if you make a weekly habit of checking your tire inflation with a guage. If you're not going to do that, then I suppose the inflation indicators may be worth it to you, at $6-8 per tire.

You may be offered a road hazard replacement "warranty" on new tires. The value of those warranties is always a matter of what you get in protection, for what you pay, over and above manufacturer's warranties, but generally, the extra cost "road hazard" warranties are only a pro-rated replacement policy, that is only of any real value if you run over a spike that rips your side wall in the first 5,000 miles, requiring tire replacement.

The problem with buying used tires, is that you don't really know what the tire has been through prior to your buying it. Sometimes, premium tires are pulled off luxury cars because of excess road noise or harsh ride quality, or because the owner has a hankering for higher performance tires. I have seen such sets, with the molding "tits" still protruding from the tread, offered for sale at some tire shops, and if you can see that such tires are unworn, and of the size and type for your vehicle, they can be a good deal. But caveat emptor more than for most other purchases, when buying used tires.
posted by paulsc at 1:15 AM on August 5, 2007

An alignment will take upwards of an hour to perform but may take longer to realise if they have to procure parts.

Balancing is essential for long life, consistent performance and even wear.

It's a good idea to replace the stems if they they are more than a few years old. My shop includes new stems when I pay for balancing. Many places there are enviromental fees or levys charged on tires.

I've bought many used tires but it's generally only cost effective1 if you anticipate not having to change the tires again (beater car, spare, getting ready to sell). Note "take-offs"2 while technically used may only have a few hundred kilometres on them and are often a very good deal. I once scored an absolutely killer deal on a set of tires because they happened to have an annoying hum/whine at hughway speeds; something I put up with because I was poor.

1 It costs $15-20 to mount and balance a tire irregardless of it's wear which is 10-20% of the value of most common tires. Ergo unless the tire has less than 10% wear you are better off buying new in the long run.

2Tires taken off a brand new car because the owner wants a different tire. Usually a desire by the owner to have either snow or high performance tires.
posted by Mitheral at 1:34 AM on August 5, 2007

Alignment should take an hour or so. If the car is pulling in one direction, maybe you need an alignment, but the first thing they teach mechanics to look for is air pressure - make sure one front tire isn't down a ways. If they are telling you that your tires are worn unevenly, then the car does need an alignment, but if that's the case they should be able to show you the uneven wear.

ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS have any new tire balanced. Some people think "hey, it's going on the rear, I don't need it balanced." Yes yo do. It can save you a chunk of money by keeping the tire from wearing prematurely, and if you get the tires rotated and you didn't have that rear wheel balanced, that unbalanced wheel is now on the front. Balanced tires are better for the car and they also drive better.

When you're buying new tires, they will usually quote you the tires plus the extras. Always ask them for the out-the-door price on the set and you'll cut straight through that, as well as make it harder for them to sell you add-ons. Also don't be afraid to shop around; most tire shops will play ball if they think you might go elsewhere.

Stay away from the used and buy new. Used tires are fine if you're in a pinch and need a tire right now, but they aren't a long term solution. Besides, a set of new tires will make your car much, much smoother.

If you have Discount Tire in your area, I've had nothing but good luck with them, as have all my friends. They will get the new tires on quickly; there may be customers ahead of you but once they get your car in, they're done in a few minutes. They also don't do any mechanic work, so if they notice that you need some work, they'll tell you, but they won't hard sell you. (I had one local tire & mechanic shop hold up my car to try to sell me a brake job, something I was going to do myself. I'd returned in two hours after I dropped it off, and they still didn't have my tires on because of that. Never went back there.) They also stayed an hour late to bail me out once when I had a blowout - I was hundreds of miles from home and I didn't know any of the local shops. I called the nearest location a few minutes after closing time on a Friday and they told me to bring it in.
posted by azpenguin at 1:34 AM on August 5, 2007

Huh, I just had to do this same thing the other day. The only upsell I got was new brake pads because mine were worn way, way down. I had to trust them on that. (They said the brake pads were down to 3mm, that replacement is recommended at 4mm; my car is 4 years old and my SO said he doesn't doubt the nice Car-X people for one moment.)

FYI, wheel balancing cost me $17.98. Not something I'd skimp on.
posted by iguanapolitico at 6:57 AM on August 5, 2007

3. Are there any tire upsells that I need to avoid?

Don't pay extra to have your tires filled with nitrogen. While there are benefits that make it worth doing on race cars and airplanes, the cost/benefit ratio is way too high for normal everyday driving.
posted by pmurray63 at 7:49 AM on August 5, 2007

A buddy of mine has had bad luck with those pressure indicator valve caps - I don't recall the specifics but my take-away was to avoid them at all costs. I had been thinking of them for my wife, who never checks her tires.

I've had good experiences with the Tire Rack (online), as well as the local Tires Plus shop.
posted by altcountryman at 6:49 PM on August 5, 2007

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