Buying Car Tires: When, Where, and How

When do you need tires?

Tires are considered legally worn out when the tread depth reaches 2/32 of an inch. Sure, you can purchase an inexpensive tread depth gauge to help you measure your tires, but there are also two easy ways to inspect your tread depth.

First, most tires have “wear bars” on them. These bars are spaced periodically into the grooves of the tire. They are raised to 2/32" so that when the bars become level with the remaining tread, you know it’s time to replace your tires.

Second, you can use a regular United States penny to get an idea of how much tread you have left. First, take a penny and pinch Lincoln’s body between your fingers. Find a spot on the tire where the tread seems the lowest and put Lincoln’s head down into the groove. If any part of Lincoln’s head is obscured by the tread, you’re okay. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s hair, or where it says “In God We Trust,” it’s time for you to get new tires.

You should also replace tires when they approach five years old. As tires age, they become susceptible to dry rot and cracking, which increases their risk for failure. You can determine the age of your tires by seeking out the DOT number stamped into the tire sidewall, near the rim and bead of the tire, on either the inside or outside of the tire. The DOT number consists of various digits, usually nine to ten in length, that denote the manufacturer, the plant, and other manufacturer identifying digits. The last four digits of the code identify the date of manufacture. The first two digits indicate the week the tire was made and the last two digits are the last two digits of the year. So, for example: 4808 indicates the tire was manufactured in the 48th week of 2008.

To be safe, you should consider replacing your tires as they reach about 4/32"–5/32" of tread. You really start to sacrifice wet traction at those levels and increase your risk of hydroplaning and maintaining contact with the road in inclement weather conditions.

Where is the best place to buy tires?

Tires are marketed very aggressively and competitively throughout the automotive retail repair industry. Marketing tires aggressively is seen as a way to develop a relationship with a potential customer, with the intent of gaining confidence and future business.

With that in mind, there are often very good deals offered for tires. Pay attention to special offers and rebates at all retailers, from the national chains to a discount tire retailer featured on the Internet or in magazines. In the last ten years, even automotive dealership repair facilities are boasting low prices on tires for most cars. Look for offers like “Buy 3, Get 1 Free” or “$100 rebate with the purchase of four tires.” Depending on the tire you are buying, you can find a great deal. 

When determining the cost of your new tires, make sure that you are figuring in not only the cost of the tire, but the labor to install it, the labor and materials to balance the tire, and the valve stems your rims need to support your new tires. Consider also that there is often a state tire tax and disposal fee to contend with.

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