10 tips

By Laura T. Coffey, Times Correspondent
Published May 13, 2007

Do you know as much about brake jobs as you do about, say, quantum physics? If so, you're not alone. Many people experience that deer-in-the-headlights feeling when a mechanic tells them their rotors must be replaced or their calipers have failed. These tips can help you feel more informed:

1 Do a little bit of homework. Go to www.familycar.com/brakes.htm and spend five minutes learning what these terms mean: disc brake assembly, drum brake assembly, brake hoses and master cylinder.

2 Recognize when to start asking questions. In many cases, rotors and drums can be resurfaced rather than replaced. Ask for evidence if anything other than your brake pads or shoes need to be replaced, your rotors or drums need to be resurfaced and brake fluid needs to be added.

3 Understand brake pad wear. One common sales approach involves calling attention to differences in a vehicle's brake pad wear. One side may look more worn than the other, and you may be told this could indicate a hydraulic system failure. However, such uneven wear is usually normal, and no major system component replacement is typically needed to correct it.

4 Know what to expect from different brake pads. Some shops routinely sell less expensive, generic brake pads to reduce cost. That's fine - and safe, too - but just be aware that such pads don't necessarily fit every vehicle well and, as a consequence, they may make excessive noise. To avoid this, you can opt for factory brake pads designed specifically for your vehicle.

5 Brace yourself. Some shops aggressively promote deep discounts on brake jobs, such as $99 front- and rear-axle brake-pads. If you want to take advantage of one of these deals, be prepared for the possibility that the store may try to sell you new rotors, calipers or other parts.

6 Require your signoff. When you drop your car off at a shop to have your brakes checked out - or anything checked out, for that matter - say that you would like to receive a phone call with a cost estimate before any work begins.

7 Work the phones. When you're told what kind of brake repairs you may need and how much those repairs may cost, take good notes. Then call three or four other shops and ask their price for the same work. Try a variety of businesses, including independent shops, chain outlets and dealerships.

8 Check the store's reputation and complaint history. Once you've zeroed in on a shop, check its reputation through the Better Business Bureau of West Florida www.bbbwestflorida.org or 1-800-525-1447 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (1-800-435-7352).

9 Give the go-ahead if everything looks good. No matter where you go, ask whether the repairs come with a written warranty, and say you'd like to keep or at least look at your old parts.

10 Close the deal correctly. Look the bill over carefully and make sure everything matches up with the estimate and the notes you had taken. If you spot anything you didn't authorize, speak up.

Sources: Eric Coffey, service manager for Russell Mazda in Clearwater; Edmunds.com; The Family Car (www.familycar.com)