Don't Wait Until Your Brakes Squeak to Get Them Checked

Learn the signs that your brakes need service and how to keep them in good working order.

A full-sized SUV drives through the Arizona desert on a clear day.
Squeaking and grinding are only a couple of the possible signs that your brakes are overdue for a checkup.
Julien Hautcoeur / Shutterstock

It’s said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but when it comes to your car’s brakes, the time to pay attention is before you start hearing any noises.

“When your brakes start making noise, it's often a sign that they've been overworked or neglected. If left unchecked, this could lead to even more significant damage, such as warped rotors, which could ultimately require more costly repairs or replacement,” says master mechanic Sydney Bates, owner of Ocala Detailing Pros. So when is the time to check in on the status of your brakes? Read on to find out.

How Do Brakes Work?

Cars typically use two different kinds of brakes: disk in the front and drum in the back. 

Both types of brakes stop your car by using friction. With disk brakes, pads compress on a spinning rotor on the wheel, while brake shoes create similar friction stopping with drum brakes.

Friction inevitably leads to wear, which is why brake pads periodically need to be replaced. 

Depending upon how you drive, your brake pads can last anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 miles, while brake rotors are intended to last at least 30,000 miles.

How Often Should I Check My Brakes?

Automotive experts say that brakes should be inspected by a mechanic at least every six months. If you tend to be a more aggressive driver, more frequent routine checkups are recommended, such as when you bring your car in for an oil change

“Regular brake maintenance can help you save money in the long run,” says Bates. “By catching potential issues early, you can avoid more significant problems down the road, saving you money on expensive repairs. Additionally, by keeping your brakes in good condition, you can extend their lifespan, meaning you won't have to replace them as frequently.”

Why are My Brakes Squeaking or Grinding?

Noisy brakes can sometimes be benign, such as when moisture accumulates on brake pads and rotors, causing them to temporarily squeak, particularly in the morning. 

But brake pads also have metallic wear indicators that will cause squeaking as the pads get thinner. 

Grinding noises likely mean your brake pads are completely worn out, allowing the metal backing of the brake pads to scrape against the metal rotors. This can be a serious problem.

Damaged rotors can be costly: Not only will you have to replace them sooner, but the repair will be more expensive. A complete brake job—which includes replacing the brake pads, rotors, and brake calipers (which hold the pads in place)—can easily set you back close to $1,000. 

Replacing brake pads before other parts are damaged, on the other hand, is cheaper—an estimated $100-$300 per axel, on average.

Are Noisy Brakes Dangerous?

Safety is even more important than savings when it comes to getting your brakes checked routinely. Keeping your brakes in good working order will keep you, your passengers, and other drivers and pedestrians safe

Worn, thin brake pads create less friction, meaning they will take longer to stop your car. Braking power is reduced, and the distance needed to brake is increased. A near miss with good brakes can become a serious crash with worn-out ones.

“When you neglect brake maintenance, it not only puts you and other drivers at risk, it can impact the overall condition of your vehicle,” says Bates. “This could ultimately affect its resale or trade-in value when it comes time to upgrade.”

Other Signs That Your Brakes Need Service

Squeaking and grinding are only a couple of the possible signs that your brakes are overdue for a checkup, new brake pads, or rotor servicing or replacement. Other indications include:

Your car’s brake indicator light comes on. In some cars, the brake light simply means that you’ve left your parking brake on. In others, however, the light can either mean a problem with the brakes has been detected or that your brakes are due for regular maintenance. Check your owner’s manual to be sure.

  1. Wobbling or vibration when braking. If your steering wheel shakes when you are stopping, it could mean that the surface of your brake rotors has become uneven due to wear. A mechanic can tell you whether your rotors can be serviced (resurfaced) or need to be replaced.
  2. Your car pulls to one side while braking. Sometimes pulling is a sign of an alignment problem, but it also can be caused by problems that cause the brakes on one side of your car to work more strongly than the other.
  3. Burning smell when braking. Overheating brakes can cause an acrid smell, but so can issues such as a frozen brake caliper. The solution to overheating is simple: pull over and let your brakes cool down. A frozen caliper, however, requires a visit to the closest service station.
  4. Leaking brake fluid. When you step on your brake pad, hydraulic pressure in the brake lines force the brake pads or shoes against the rotors or brake drums, causing friction and making the car stop. Losing brake fluid can decrease hydraulic pressure, weakening braking strength. If you notice a puddle of fluid under your car, get your brakes checked immediately.
  5. Soft or spongy brakes. If your brake pedal depresses further than usual—or, worse, goes right to the floor—it’s a pretty good sign that your brakes are weak or failing. Don’t drive a car with weak brakes: contact AAA Roadside Assistance for a tow to your nearest certified service station.