2003 Ford Explorer • 220,000 miles

I have had 2 safety's done on this truck and both coming back with different answers, the first guy said I needed 3 front ball joints, 1 rear upper ball joints, e brake and the part that stumps me is rear lateral links? The second test came back with all front ball joints being fine ( I kno how ironic ) the back one still needing fix with he ebrake as well but instead of lateral links they said I needed 2 rear tie rods, now iv been getting different answers from a few people and am sick of not knowing, considering lateral links are $30 a piece and rear tie rods are $250 a piece this is a huge question mark? Please help
April 6, 2013.

Sometimes play in a ball joint is subjective and open to interpretation but if you are dealing with an older or more experienced mechanic he is going to be much less forgiving of any movement. Fords have had WAY more failures of ball joints and tie rod ends leading to loss of control and crashes than all other manufacturers combined, since the mid '70s. I was involved with one that everything checked fine, and 700 miles later a ball joint separated and caused a crash. The owner was angry that we didn't say it was bad. If we would have we could have been accused of trying to sell unneeded parts. How do you win? On a Ford truck, a tie rod end fell apart and the guy ended up in the ditch. I learned about that when he traded it in on the spot before it even got unhooked from the tow truck at my dealership and I had to fix it. He said that was the last Ford he would ever own. When I worked for a mass merchandiser we got a shipment of 40 outer tie rods in every Wednesday for the Escort and Tempo 'killer cars" and those were usually sold out by Saturday and we had to order more locally. For the same typical week we usually got in six to eight tie rod ends for all the other cars on the road.

You've heard the stories about doctors ordering more expensive tests than are needed to "cover their butt" and to avoid lawsuits. Mechanics are in the same situation but they are held to much higher standards than doctors. One of the parts identified on your vehicle might be a high-failure item. It might have a little play in it now but it's not really bad enough to cause a noticeable problem yet. Do you recommend replacement since you know it will cause a problem in a few months? That's the conscientious thing to do, but you risk having someone else tell you the part isn't needed. Both people could be right.

The more important question is why did you feel the need to have two different people inspect it? Did either of them show you what they found and explain why they recommended what they did? At the mileage you listed it is unlikely any of the ball joints are still original but if they are no one would find three are worn and not expect the fourth one to be just as bad. If I found three were bad I would want to replace all four unless I knew or you told me that fourth one was already recently replaced. What kind of service am I giving you if I allow you to ignore one part that is just as old as the three worn ones. Your truck will need an alignment after replacing one, three, or four ball joints. Why would I allow you to leave one ball joint alone only to have it fail a few months later and you have to pay for another alignment?

You also have to look at the problems you're having and the possible remedies. Fords are well-known for not designing in some alignment adjustments. You're stuck with what you got which may be fine until the springs sag from age. That changes the geometry of the suspension, and that can lead to accelerated tire wear. The aftermarket parts suppliers often do a real good job of redesigning parts much better and they make them adjustable so corrections to the alignment can be made. The proper repair involves carefully measuring ride height and comparing it to the published specs, and making corrections, but alignment adjustments will still need to be made.

There are times I recommend a person get a second opinion when the dollar estimate seems out-of-line but it's important that both estimates include the same parts and services. When they differ in that respect we need to figure out why. There are some parts that normally have some play which is acceptable but it can be interpreted as excessive if it's compared to those same parts on other car brands. If I'm given a tire to "read" the wear pattern, my first question will be "what car was this on?" If it was on a Ford the wear might be normal. If it was on a GM or Chrysler it might be in a serious need of an alignment. The point is you have to be careful when identifying a part as defective or worn out that your judgement isn't clouded by previous experience that may not apply in this case. I would suggest you see the same two mechanics who will hopefully remember your truck, and ask them to rate each recommendation based on severity or importance, and which ones can wait until later. Either person could be conscientious by trying to save you money on repairs right now or by looking out for your best interests long term be recommending a more thorough service.

Apr 6, 2013.