Listen for grinding noises, but by then it's going to be more expensive. Most cars have "squeakers" that make a high-pitched squeal while you're driving to let you know the front linings are almost worn out. Sometimes they squeak when you apply the brakes, sometimes they STOP squeaking when you apply the brakes. They are real easy to hear with the window open when you drive next to a building. The best way to tell is with a brake inspection. You can get a clue too by checking the brake fluid level in the master cylinder reservoir. If it is low, the front disc brakes are worn. Do not add any fluid. The level will come up a lot when new front pads are installed. That's why conscientious mechanics never top off brake fluid during routine service such as an oil change. Be careful too when you check the fluid that absolutely no oil from your fingers gets in the brake fluid. Front brakes typically wear out twice as fast as the rear brakes, but some rear disc brake pads have been known to have the linings rust off. Usually that isn't serious but it can cause a low brake pedal or a rattling sound. If you do a lot of city driving the brakes should be checked probably once every year or two when it's in for other service. If you do mostly highway driving, like me, you might get 50,000 to 70,000 miles on a set of front brakes.
March, 14, 2011 AT 7:43 PM
Forgot to mention cost. Watch out for places like Midas that advertise a low cost special for a basic brake job on the front or the back. They trick you because that is only for the brake pads and labor to put them on, typically around $29.99. Almost every car they work on "needs additional parts" otherwise they won't give you the lifetime warranty they advertise. When I worked at a very nice Chrysler dealership across the road, we got a lot of people coming in for a second opinion on needed brake work and we were always a lot less expensive. A basic brake job could run as high as $100.00 to $150.00 if new rotors were needed. Many of those people had estimates from Midas for over $600.00. That included front calipers and hoses, rear wheel cylinders, parking brake cables, just about everything except the pedal pad! Their mechanics are paid on commission so the more parts and services they sell, the more money they make. Regular independent repair shops will be the least expensive. You will likely have to buy two new front rotors because original ones are made very thin to save weight. There is a legal minimum thickness they can be machined to. Once they reach that limit, either from wear or an attempt to machine them, the mechanic is obligated to replace them. New rotors have come down a lot in price over the last ten years. Be aware too that many new rotors come from China. There is nothing wrong with the parts but anything made from cast iron has to be "aged" for 90 days before the final machining steps are performed. China produces, machines, and ships their parts right away, then they age on your car. That means they could warp and cause a pulsing brake pedal. That can happen to ANY brake rotor. All you need to know is any reputable shop will machine your new rotors months later at no charge to you to remove that warpage. Usually that only has to be done once. Due to the age of your car, you might be told you need new front rubber hoses too. If the mechanic takes you to the car and shows you the outer casing is cracked, usually near the metal fittings on the ends, that is the time to get them out of there. You could expect around, ... Oh, ... Maybe $30.00 per hose and about a half hour extra labor to replace each one.