How to Tell If You Need New Brakes

How to Tell If You Need New Brakes

Last Updated April 16, 2024 | Meghan Drummond

If there’s one part of your car you want to work perfectly, it’s probably the brakes. A poorly functioning set of brakes can cause serious damage to you and your car.

Obviously, if a brake warning light comes on, you know you need to check out your brakes. But there are other signs that can give you an early warning that your brakes may be in trouble.

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Look for these 5 Bad Brake Warning Signs

The symptoms of failing brakes are easy to notice if you know what you’re looking for. These are five of the most common things people notice when their brakes start to become a problem.

1. Noisy Brakes

A green car broken down in the woods

When brakes start to malfunction, at least they aren’t quiet about it. As brakes start to fail, they make noise. This usually starts as an annoying, persistent squeak when you’re braking hard or the weather’s bad.

If you don’t check into the cause, it will slowly progress to squealing, and then to screaming. If something’s damaged, it sometimes jumps straight to screaming, but that’s unusual.

Some brake noise is there by design. Brake pads usually have a built-in metal wear indicator that makes noise when it’s time to replace them. Warped rotors, which you can get by not changing the brake pads regularly, can also cause loud noises.

If you’ve noticed these sounds, it’s probably time to look at replacing your brake pads or rotors.

2. Sluggish Brake Response

When you hit your brake pedal, you want your car to respond instantly. But as your brakes become less functional, you may find it’s taking longer for your car to roll to a stop. While you may be able to adjust your timing for a stop sign, it’s a lot harder to adjust to sudden dangers like deer.

Slow brake response can be a symptom of failing brake pads, but it can also be caused by your brake fluid.

Bleeding your brakes will force air bubbles out of your brake lines, making your braking more responsive.

3. Brakes Smell Like They’re Burning

When your brakes start to overheat they’ll also smell. Badly. Most people say the smell is a little bit like burning carpet.

No matter what the cause, if your car smells like “burning” you should pull over. It’s never a good sign. If the smell is coming from your brakes, the most likely culprit is the parking brake. Even if you carefully released the parking brake, they sometimes get stuck. If you try to keep driving with it on, it can overheat the brake fluid and cause the entire system to fail.

4. Bad Vibrations or Brake Shudder

If your car gets a case of the shakes whenever you brake, then it’s likely something has happened to prevent even pressure from being applied to the rotor. This can be due to warped rotors, uneven brake pads, a stuck caliper, or other damage.

Wobbling while braking can also be caused by your wheels or tires.

5. Car Pulls when Braking

When you hit the brakes, all four wheels should stop at the same rate. If you notice the car pulling to one side more than the other, then that’s not happening. The most likely cause is a stuck brake caliper, but a trapped air bubble or leaky brake hose can also cause this issue.

Troubleshoot Your Braking System

Whether or not you feel comfortable working on your own brakes, it’s good to do a walk around to get an idea of where exactly the trouble is coming from. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • You might be able to fix it yourself.
  • Knowing what’s wrong can help you find the right expert.
  • Pricing estimates are more accurate when you’ve got an idea of the problem.

Figure Out If You Have Disc Brakes or Drum Brakes

Before you can inspect your brakes to figure out what the potential issue is, you have to confirm what kind of brakes you have. With a hydraulic brake system, those could be either drum or disc brakes.

Disc brakes have a disc (called a rotor), with a caliper that applies pressure to a brake pad. Drum brakes use the exact same system to apply pressure, but the pressure goes straight to two curved pieces of metal called “shoes.”

Diagram showing how the disc and caliper connect to the master cylinder

There are a lot of differences between the two brake types, but the basic inspection process will be the same. It is easier to see the individual pieces of a disc brake system, though. In the troubleshooting section below, we’ve clearly marked which steps are relevant for disc brakes and drum brakes only.

Diagram showing the inside of a drum brake

Inspect Your Braking System

Inspect your braking system using the troubleshooting tips below. We’ve broken them up based on the parts you’ll find in both drum and disc brake systems, as well as ones that are exclusive to each type. You can use the tips from the warning signs section above to narrow your focus, or just start at the top if you’re unsure.

How Do I Know If My Brake Pedal Is Bad?

The problem with your brakes is almost never due to the actual brake pedal. You can just do a quick exam to make sure there’s nothing loose or weird with the pedal itself. Your brake pedal can help narrow down what the real problem is though.

If you get a mushy feel when you press down, you might have air in your brake lines that needs to be bled out. You may also have leaky or old brake lines that need to be replaced. If your brake lines and fluid look good, then you’ll need to check your master cylinder.

If you’re experiencing a hard brake pedal, then it’s likely a vacuum issue related to the brake booster. Contaminated brake fluid can also result in hard pedal feel. That can be fixed by draining and replacing the brake fluid.

How Do I Know If My Brake Booster or Master Cylinder Is Bad?

  • A hard or soft brake pedal
  • Brake warning light showing
  • Leaking Brake Fluid

If you suspect the master cylinder or brake booster is bad, you’ll want to physically check these parts. While in the driver’s seat, pump the brake pedal and apply pressure while you turn the ignition. The pedal should drop a quarter-inch if your master cylinder and brake booster are working correctly.

Close-up of a dual bowl master brake cylinder

If your pedal doesn’t drop, you should check out the master cylinder and brake booster. But if it does drop, you’ll also want to check the master cylinder so you can get a gander at your brake fluid. If you have ABS, double-check your owner’s manual before checking your master cylinder. Some ABS systems are under pressure and can be difficult to work with.

Your master cylinder is easy to spot. Located under the hood, it holds your brake fluid and is one of the most important parts of the braking system.

Before doing anything, wipe down under your hood. You don’t want anything to fall into your master cylinder.

Carefully open the master cylinder.

When you remove the top you’ll see the diaphragm cups. These are what push the fluid, so they should be able to descend to touch the fluid and lift up when the fluid returns to the master cylinder. If they won’t move or are damaged, it could be because incorrect brake fluid was used, or the fluid was contaminated. Either way, you’ll have to replace your master cylinder.

How Do I Know If My Brake Fluid Is Bad?

  • A hard or soft brake pedal
  • Sluggish braking

Once you’ve opened the master cylinder, you can get a good look at the brake fluid. It should come up to the full line of your reservoir and be clear or a light gold color.

If it’s not quite reaching the full line, then you should check out your brake lines before topping it off. It’s possible you’ve been leaking brake fluid.

If it’s contaminated, then you’ll want to flush it, but you should also check to see if you can find out why it’s contaminated.

Sometimes the rubber seals in a master cylinder can break down, which allows dirt and grime to enter the brake fluid. But it will also become contaminated over time.

If you know you haven’t changed your brake fluid in a long time, that may be all it is. If you recently flushed it, then do an inspection of your rubber seals.

If it’s full and not contaminated, then you may want to try bleeding your brakes. Bleeding your brakes helps to get air bubbles out, and can make your brakes more responsive.

How Do I Know If My Brake Line Is Bad?

  • Low brake fluid levels
  • Mushy brake feel

Your brake lines will connect to your brakes at the wheels. Most brake lines are a combination of steel and rubber (hard and soft brake lines). Usually, these parts will last around 6 years, but bad weather or salt can lead to early corrosion.

One of the most obvious signs that a brake line needs to be replaced is leaking. If there are leaks, you’ll need to replace the line.

The rubber part of the brake line should be firm, not soft or spongy. If you drive in an area that’s particularly hard on rubber (lots of road salt or high temperatures), then replacing the rubber brake line with a more durable alternative may be necessary.

How Do I Know If My Brake Pads Are Bad? (Disc Brakes Only)

  • Noisy, usually squealing and squeaking
  • Vibrates while braking

Most of the time, if you’re noticing a problem with your brakes, it’s going to be your pads. Though they should only need to be replaced every 30,000-70,000 miles, driving habits can reduce a brake pad’s lifespan. If you drive in cities with a lot of congestion, you may need brake pads as often as every 15,000 miles.

Fortunately, brake pads aren’t very expensive, and you can even change them yourself with a few tools. If your brake pads are toast, you’ll want to keep inspecting the rest of your brake system. Sometimes brake pads can wear out too quickly due to warped rotors or a stuck caliper. By checking to make sure everything else is in great shape, you’ll help your new brake pads last longer.

How Do I Know If My Brake Rotor Is Bad? (Disc Brakes Only)

  • Increased stopping time
  • Squealing
  • Brake pedal wobbles

Rotor with some rust

Brake rotors, like brake pads, are designed to be replaced. Typically, you’ll want to change your rotors every other time you change your brake pads. Some rotors need replacing more often depending on your driving habits and environment.

You may hear a lot about rotors becoming “warped.” True warping isn’t as common as you might think, but there are a few ways the rotor’s surface can become rough. Brake pad deposits, cracks, rust, and even stones can cause uneven rotor wear.

Replacing your brake rotors and brake pads is an easy way to restore your ride’s stopping power.

How Do I Know If My Brake Caliper Is Bad? (Disc Brakes Only)

  • Horrible dragging sounds
  • Car not accelerating correctly
  • Pulling to one side

Unlike brake pads and rotors, brake calipers typically last the life of a vehicle. But, occasionally, they do break. Typically when brake calipers break they get stuck, causing the brakes to be continually applied. That means lots of weird sounds and a lot of drag.

Most of the time, when calipers are stuck it’s because the rubber boots that protect the caliper bolts or piston degraded and let debris in. It’s important to check over these parts when you replace a set of brake pads or rotors.

Caliper with piston, bolts, and brake hose labeled

How Do I Know If My Brake Shoes Are Bad? (Drum Brakes Only)

  • Scraping noises
  • Sluggish braking response

Brake shoes act a lot like brake pads as they wear down. As the friction-creator, brake shoes take the brunt of the wear and tear and need to be replaced periodically.

Like brake pads, brake shoes will last about 30,000 miles, give or take.

While brake shoes are cheaper to replace than brake pads, they’re a little harder to access. Many drivers have a professional replace these for convenience.

How Do I Know If My Drum Is Bad? (Drum Brakes Only)

  • Shaking
  • Vibrations
  • Brake Pedal Rides Low

If your brake shoes get overly worn, then bare metal will come in contact with the inside of your brake drums. This can cause damage pretty quickly as the metal backing plate digs into the drum.

The metal on metal sound should be a tip-off, but the real tell is a lowered brake pedal. If there’s too much space between the shoe and drum, the pedal dips a little.

Sometimes brake drums can be resurfaced, which saves you money. If the drums are too thin though, they can crack and break, so they’ll need to be replaced.

Whenever you replace your drums, you should replace your shoes at the same time.

Fix Your Brakes

Once you have a good idea what issue(s) you’re having with your braking system, you can get started on a solution. A lot of brake problems are easy to fix on your own, but it’s better to get help from a professional for other issues.

Repair On Your Own

Bleeding your brakes, replacing your brake pads and rotors, and even replacing your own brake lines are fairly simple tasks. These fixes only require a few basic tools and not much time.

If you choose to do repairs on your own, make sure to check your brakes before you hit the open road. For brake pads and rotors, you should perform a basic bed-in procedure to make sure you’re not creating a rough surface on your rotor. For any brake repairs, driving around the block and braking a few times is a good idea.

Hire a Professional

Because your brakes are so important, you should never take on a repair you’re uncomfortable with. Hiring a good mechanic is going to be much less expensive, and painful, than recovering from an accident.

For things like installing new brake calipers or a master cylinder, a repair shop is going to have the tools to do the job efficiently and safely. Find a shop you trust and discuss your needs in advance to make sure you get brakes that are suited for your needs.

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This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.