What does a complete or full brake job cost? It varies with what vehicle you have, what parts you buy, and even what state you live in. But it’s usually between $500 and $675 in parts and labor. That’s to replace pads and rotors on your front or rear brakes. It’s a lot, and I know of three ways to reduce it. You can do the job yourself, which cuts labor. You can replace just the pads, which cuts costs. Or you can do a more complete brake job, and have fewer brake jobs in the future. All three ways have benefits and drawbacks and this article will address all of it. But it starts with brake heat and a passenger van in the hills of central California. —Motor City Mitch
She tried to trade it in at a used car lot”
REALITY OF THE ROAD
Years ago (long before I heard anyone ask about full brake job costs) I worked at a small high school in rural California — and part of my job was to drive the only school vehicle, a white, full-size passenger van.
That van was great for driving teams to games or making a supply run to Vons. But taking kids camping in the nearby national forest was a different deal. The forest road was steep and tightly curved. The van was fine going up, even loaded with kids and gear, but for me it was tough ride coming back down.
When descending, the steep slope and hairpin turns forced me to slow down a lot. Some curves had cattle guards, which made me stop completely. Afterwards, you could see and smell smoke coming off the brakes. And it wasn’t the vehicle’s fault (or the brakes’ fault). It was a reality of the road.
Brakes convert momentum into heat. If you add more weight and speed and slope, and stop repeatedly or quickly, brake heat goes through the roof. Or, more accurately, it goes through the calipers.
HOW HOT DO BRAKES GET?
In 2003, the University of Washington published an SAE paper on how hot brakes get with heavy or continuous braking. They towed different vehicles (car, van, and truck) on a flat road at just over 30 mph and applied brakes to simulate going downhill at a five percent grade.
In less than five minutes on all the vehicles, either the rotors or inside pads — and sometimes both — were over 800 degrees F. In another minute or two, they were over 1,000 F.
The van’s rotors got even hotter. And on all vehicles, brake fluid was boiling in 20-25 minutes.
And that’s at a grade of five percent. While most highways aren’t steeper than that, many are.
If you’re driving near Yellowstone on US 14, for example, the grade hits 13 percent. If you’re on Pennsylvania’s PA 487, the grade gets to 14 percent.
Near Big Bend Ranch State Park, it’s 15 percent. In the Sonora Pass, it’s 26 percent.
And what if you’re carrying extra weight? Pulling an un-braked trailer? Or, like me, drive a bunch of kids and camping gear?
Those temps, the SAE paper says, can reduce pad friction, vaporize brake fluid, and permanently deform brake parts.
Permanently deform parts? Yes, and we’ll hear more about that later with brake hardware clips.
And that brings me back to the topic: what does a full brake job cost?
1. FULL BRAKE JOB COST WITH DIY
As I mentioned above, the first way to reduce the cost of a full brake job is to do it yourself. By going DIY, you can eliminate labor. That said, you’ll likely be adding other costs as well. (More on that in a moment.)
So how much is brake job labor? Kelley Blue Book has an online brake repair estimator. You enter your zip code, select your vehicle, and Kelley gives you price ranges. And they tell you how much is for labor versus parts.
For a full brake job — replacing pads and rotors — labor is almost as costly as parts. Let’s look at the nation’s best selling vehicles, the Ford F-series. An F-250 complete brake job cost in Michigan is $513-$589 for either front or rear. Of that, labor is $202-$238.
That’s around 40%. And it seems to be a good ballpark number for other vehicles, at least based on Kelley’s estimates.
So doing a brake job yourself can save a lot. That said, there are things you’ll need that you may not have: a breaker bar to loosen bolts, for example. Or a torque wrench to correctly tighten them. Or a wire brush to clean rust off the caliper. Or silicone lubricant, jack stands, etc. So you may end up spending more money than you save, at least the first time you do it.
If you want to go the DIY route, Chris Fix has a video on his popular YouTube channel called “How to Replace Brake Pads and Rotors (COMPLETE Guide).”
So that’s the first way to cut the cost of a full brake job: go DIY.
2. FULL BRAKE JOB COST WITH PAD-SLAPPING
The second way to cut the cost of a full brake job is to only replace the pads. Of course, then it’s not a full brake job. Which in a way invalidates this entire point. But I’ll mention it anyway because a lot of people may think it is a full brake job. I know I did.
When I was working at the school, I made friends with a mechanic in town. He was a good guy who lent me tools to work on my own car, an old Toyota Tercel. And he taught me what little I knew about brakes. To be fair, I’m sure he was keeping things simple so I could understand. But what I got from him was this: a brake job meant changing pads. Period. I never considered other parts. I didn’t know anything else should be changed or even looked at. Of course, maybe I heard what I wanted to hear. It was cheaper that way, or so I thought.
A few years ago, Mark Phillips at Counterman did a video sponsored by Carlson, and called this type of brake job a “pad slap.” It’s a job where you change pads but reuse other parts in the caliper: clips, guide pins, rubber boots, bushings, etc. as well as the rotor. It’s basically a partial brake job and — because the other parts may be worn out too — it can lead to noise and other problems in the future. So says Phillips…
So this is the second way I know of to reduce a full brake job cost. Do a pad slap instead. Just be aware that it’s not a complete brake job at all and your long-term costs are likely going up.
3. FULL BRAKE JOB COST WITH FEWER BRAKE JOBS
A third way of reducing full brake job costs is to have fewer brake jobs. It turns out if you do a truly complete brake job — looking at everything and replacing what’s worn out — you’ll increase the time before your next brake job.
How much time, you ask? Andrew Markel, editor of Brake & Front End magazine, did a brake wear video for Carlson about reading wear patterns on old brake pads to find underlying problems. He shows a torn pin boot and seized pin (two key parts we’ll look at in a moment) and estimates they robbed a driver of 15,000 miles of pad life.
What does 15,000 miles mean in terms of time? A little over a year, according to the FHWA. As of 2022, the average American drives 13,476 miles a year. Here is Markel’s video…
So in Markel’s example, instead of needing your next brake job in 35,000 miles, you’d need it in 50,000 miles. Your pads last longer because everything else in your brake system is working more efficiently.
This approach takes brake heat head-on. It deals with parts that have taken a toll from the high temperatures in the caliper.
Many parts don’t wear out quickly, but they at least need to be checked. Brake lines, for example. ABS sensors. Electronic wear sensors (EWS), if you have them. Mounting bolts, which can get stuck. Brake fluid. Bleeder valves. To name a just a few.
There are a few parts, however, that wear out along with the pads. Carlson’s engineers identified what they believe should be replaced on every brake job when they developed the Brake Job Completion Kit in 2021 and 2022.
Here are the parts they identified (which vary by vehicle). The last two are for drum brake systems:
- Brake pad clips (hardware)
- Guide pins
- Guide pin boots
- Parking brake hardware
- Drum brake hardware
- Self-adjuster (for drum brakes)
Let’s take a closer look at what are (in my opinion) the top three.
FULL BRAKE JOB COST & HARDWARE CLIPS
Maybe the best candidate for a part to replace besides pads would be brake pad clips. Often called “hardware,” these clips hold your pads (sometimes aided by springs) in the right position near your rotors. In particular, their job is to pull your pads completely off your rotors when you stop braking.
This is critical. If just one pad isn’t pulled completely off a rotor — and stays in contact with it — it will wear down quickly, and probably unevenly. And even if your other pads are okay, you’re going to get squeaky brakes, at least one worn-out pad, and a premature brake job.
And there’s more. That unwanted pad-rotor contact will take a toll on the rotor and generate excess heat in your brake system. Which in turn impacts other parts.
The reason to replace hardware clips with every brake job is that they deform as they get exposed to brake heat over tens of thousands of miles.
In 2016, Carlson hired an independent lab to test old versus new hardware clips on a 2014 sedan and a 2014 pickup truck. They found that that at the time of the first brake job, the clips holding brake pads for 35,000 to 45,000 miles had deformed. Nearly all their dimensions — 16 out of 17 on the blueprint — were out of spec versus the OEM part. That deformity caused premature pad wear, as well as noise.
Let’s look at the cost of new clips.
Earlier, we looked at an F-250 complete brake job cost. You can buy a set of semi-metallic front brake pads for about $29 online, not including tax. Or you can get those same pads, with hardware clips included, for about $8 more.
Alternatively, if you buy only the pads, you can buy a separate “hardware kit” for between $6 and $7. (That kit will work on either your front or rear brakes.)
So the F-250 complete brake job cost, which in Michigan is $513-$589 for either front or rear brakes, will increase by eight bucks. In return, you’ll increase the time before your next brake job, because you’ll lengthen the life of your new pads.
FULL BRAKE JOB COST & GUIDE PINS
Probably the next best candidate for parts to replace are caliper guide pins.
Sometimes called sliders or slide pins, they’re pretty ingenious. When you hit the brakes, you force pistons and pads into your rotors from the inside (or inboard side). Each caliper, sliding on two pins, floats in from the outside, pressing your outboard pads into the outside of your rotors.
It’s kind of like a powerful hand squeezing your rotors from both sides, the way you might hold a frisbee.
To me, it’s helpful to see it. There are a lot of good animations on YouTube land if you search for “sliding brake caliper animation.” Here’s one I thought was pretty good. It shows the caliper sliding open and closed…
So why would guide pins be part of a complete brake job? Because they have to be clean and rust-free for the caliper to slide back and forth easily and smoothly. The whole system depends on them.
If even one pin gets dirt or rust or any kind of a problem, you’re going to get a stuck caliper pin. That means you’ll have a seized caliper, which doesn’t move in and out evenly. It’ll put uneven pressure on at least one pad and rotor. Which in turn means you’ll have uneven pad wear. You’ll also have one or more pads and rotors wearing out too soon, noise, a premature brake job, and money out of your pocket.
FULL BRAKE JOB COST & BOOTS
We just saw how critical guide pins are — and how important it is to keep them clean, rust-free and smooth. Pin boots are vital in this regard.
A pin boot is a rubber part that seals the chamber in which a guide pin sits. It keep moisture and dirt out of the chamber and away from the pin.
Pins and boots don’t come with a new set of pads: so you’ll have to buy them separately. Let’s look at the costs, using an F-250 again.
You can buy a set of F-250 guide pins for just over $6 per caliper. That’s $12-13 for either front or rear. And you can buy a set of rubber boots for an F-250 (for front or rear brakes) for just over $3. So the F-250 full brake job cost, which in Michigan is $513-$589 for either front or rear, would increase by between 15 and 16 bucks.
If you’ll recall from Andrew Markel’s video, he estimates that a torn boot robbed a driver of 15,000 miles of pad life — over a year of driving time for the average U.S. driver. If his estimate’s correct, that’s 16 bucks for new pins and boots — or three bucks for new boots alone — with the average return being an extra year of not needing a brake job. To me, that’s getting your money’s worth.
A few weeks ago, I was a passenger in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter passenger van — a new one — and we got stuck for over an hour in traffic. To make up time, the driver found a country road and gunned it. We were going 20% or more above the speed limit most of the way, which got a little crazy on curves. And every time he hit the brakes, I thought about brake heat.
Heat is, after all, what brakes do. They convert our momentum — speed + weight + slope — into heat. And that heat, according to the SAE paper we looked at, gets high enough to deform parts in the brake system.
There are pad-slap brake jobs, and then there are full or complete brake jobs. The latter are more expensive, but they also reset your brake system to like-new performance and — as a side benefit — they increase the time until your next brake job. That was something I didn’t know years ago, driving a van of kids downhill on a curvy mountain road.