Car Brake Problems? 7 Most Common Problems & Solutions

Your car’s braking system is one of the hardest working systems on your car.

There are a lot of ways brake systems can have problems, and we’ll cover the most common problems with solutions in this article.

#1 – Your Brake Pedal Feels Soft or Weak

Your brake pedal should have a firm feel when you press on it. It should move freely as you move it from its resting position, and as the brakes are applied the pedal should become firmer with more pedal use.

If your pedal has some resistance but feels soft and squishy, your braking system has a serious problem occurring.

It may cause your brakes to work at a minimum level and they are probably not safe for use until the system is restored to its original condition.

How to Fix It

Soft brakes can be caused by many different reasons, so a methodical approach should be taken to identify the source of the problem.

The first item to check is the level of the fluid in the system. The brake system is closed, meaning it should not lose fluid unless there is a leak allowing fluid out.

If you find the brake fluid is low, it could mean that the brake pads are worn enough that the fluid level in the master cylinder and reservoir has dropped. If the fluid is near the full level, but the brakes are soft, it could mean that there is air trapped somewhere in the system.

Follow the brake lines from the master cylinder and search for a leak. If you find a leak, get that fixed and then bleed the complete brake system with new brake fluid.

An owner’s manual should specify the type of fluid required for your car. If the fluid has been in your car for more than 2 years or 30,000 miles, it should be replaced, and the system bled as the fluid has absorbed condensation.

Beyond the fluid causing problems, the components in the brake system can equally cause soft brakes.

  • A bad master cylinder or proportioning valve can prevent pressure from building in the system.
  • A bad brake caliper or wheel cylinder can cause pressure to build incorrectly too.
  • A bad wheel bearing can allow the suspension hub to move while driving and the brake pads can subsequently move away from the brake disc.

You will need to go component by component looking for leaks and proper function to determine what is causing a soft brake condition.

Are you feeling confused? Head over to our article How Do Car Brakes Work, for an easy guide.

#2 – Your Brake Pedal Feels Solid as a Rock

As frustrating as a soft pedal is, a hard pedal can be equally appalling as you try to stop your car with no luck.

A hard pedal takes much more effort to apply the brakes and to move the brake pedal. A hard pedal can be scary to use as it doesn’t inspire confidence while driving.

How to Fix It

Most newer cars use a power-assisted brake system with a power brake booster or a hydro-boosted system to add braking pressure. It amplifies your effort on the pedal, so you don’t have to apply the full pressure to the brakes.

If your system loses the assistance, most likely the brake pressure will feel very hard and make it difficult to apply the brakes as you have before.

There are multiple components in the power-assistance system including a power booster, vacuum hoses, check valves, and the brake calipers.

If the booster fails internally, it can seize and cause the assistance system to stop working. A vacuum line can develop a hole or a leak and cause the booster to stop working.

Worn brake pads or a seized brake caliper can prevent the brake system from working correctly.

As with soft brakes, you’ll want to go component by component to find where the problem is in the system to remedy the situation before driving again.

#3 – Your Brakes Fail to Disengage

With a hard and soft pedal feel, your brakes still disengage after you apply the brakes.

What happens if the brakes won’t let go?

You could be driving and detect a burning smell. Your car may seem underpowered because the brakes are applied, and the calipers don’t release the pressure.

How to Fix It

There are just a handful of components related to applying hydraulic pressure to the brake calipers and brake discs.

If the brake calipers seize internally, they may not release the pressure on the brake discs. There is also a cable for the parking brake that will activate the caliper to prevent your car from rolling while it is parked. That can become corroded and seized preventing the caliper from releasing the pressure on the brake disc.

Corrosion can affect most of the brake system. The rotors and/or drums can corrode and seize the brake pads and calipers.

You may find corrosion in the master cylinder if the brake fluid has absorbed a significant amount of condensation. This can cause a clog in the master cylinder or a blockage in a brake line.

If you find corrosion on or in any part of the braking system, you need to remove it and change the brake fluid. Seized parts and corrosion can cause the brakes to stop disengaging.

#4 – Your Brakes Squeal or Howl When You Step on The Pedal

Your brakes shouldn’t make any significant noise when applied, but when they start talking you need to listen.

The most common reason for a squealing or high-pitched noise is the wear indicators touching the brake rotors when the brakes are applied.

The indicators let you know your brake pads have less than 25% of pad material left, and the pads should be replaced.

How to Fix It

If your brakes are making a high-pitched squeal, the most likely cause is the pads are getting thin.

The wear indicators touch the brake rotors when the brake system is applied, and the easy way to fix this is to replace the pads with new ones.

It’s recommended to have the rotor surfaces machined when new brake pads are used, and the thickness of the rotor should be checked before it is machined.

There is a minimum thickness that the rotors should be to ensure they are safe to use.

A reused brake rotor that has not had the surface machined may cause the pads to glaze over and that can also cause a high-pitched squeal or howl. A few hard applications of the brake system can reduce the glaze on the brake pads and reduce the squeal.

If new pads are installed, they should have a thin backing plate to reduce the rattle and squealing noise that can occur without the plates installed.

If your new pads don’t have the plates installed, you can apply an anti-squeal paste on the backside of the brake pads to reduce the noise.

#5 – Your Brakes are Vibrating or Pulsing When Applied

Stepping on the brake pedal shouldn’t result in a vibrating massage.

If your brakes shudder, pulse, or vibrate when they are applied, you either have a build-up of material on the rotor surface or the rotors have a surface that is no longer flat.

How to Fix It

It may be hard to distinguish between a build-up of material on the brake rotor surface and a warped rotor surface. A build-up of material may occur because you aren’t applying your brakes hard enough.

Consistently driving in stop-and-go traffic only applies the brakes lightly because you aren’t traveling at a significant speed.

You may have a tendency to slightly apply the brakes, which causes them to drag on the rotor and slowly build up material on the surface.

A few hard applications of the brakes from a higher speed can reduce the material buildup. If the buildup is significant, the rotors may need to have the surface machined to remove the buildup completely.

If the rotor surfaces have warped, they may be corrected via machining. A small amount of warp can be corrected by a machine shop or an auto parts store with a lathe.

If the rotors are significantly warped, they may need to be replaced with new ones.

Also, watch for cracks in the rotor surface due to overheating. They can also cause vibration, and the rotors should be replaced if significant cracks are visible.

#6 – Your Brakes Emit a Burning Smell

Your brakes should not emit any smell if they are operating correctly.

Heavy use of the braking system can cause the brake pads and rotors to get hot. Hot parts can smell, and it can cause parts to warp.

A seized caliper can overheat the rotor it touches as well as cause the car to pull to one side while the car is driven.

How to Fix It

If your brakes smell, they are hot. You need to let them cool down, which means you need to stop using them.

That could force you to take a break from driving while the brakes cool off.

If you find a caliper has seized, it will need to be removed and rebuilt or replaced. If the heat has caused warping, the pads and rotors may need to be replaced or machined to fix the warping.

#7 – You Find a Fluid Leak

The braking system in your car is a closed system, meaning you shouldn’t find any fluid on the ground or the outside of any component.

A leak indicates a breach in a connection or seal or a hole in a hose.

How to Fix It

Finding a leak is usually easy as there is fluid on the ground or a component in your car.

Brake fluid is very corrosive, and it can remove coatings and paint. If you find a fluid leak, it needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

A leak at a connection or a gasket can be fixed by replacing the gasket or tightening a connection. If one of the components, such as a brake caliper or a brake hose, is leaking fluid it should be rebuilt or replaced.

Final Thoughts

You use the brakes constantly while driving, and most of us overwork them while towing or in stop-and-go traffic.

Most braking systems use disc brakes on the front with discs or drums in the rear. Most newer cars have anti-locking systems full of sensors to monitor stability control and the distance to other vehicles.

I hope you have found this article useful in solving your car brake issues. Good luck.

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