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How to Tell if You Have a Bad Ball Joint

Alex Palmeri
August 6, 2018

The ball joint connects the wheel and tire to the vehicle's steering and suspension system and allows the wheel to turn — you wouldn’t get far without them. Because ball joints are under heavy load, continually navigating roads that aren’t perfectly smooth, they tend to wear out and need to be replaced from time to time.

When a ball joint breaks, it can make for a dangerous situation that can leave you stranded or cause you to lose control of your car. In most cases, the ball joint will provide you with the warning signs below before it fails.

  • Metallic clunking noise: One of the most noticeable and common symptoms of a bad ball joint is a clunking or knocking noise when the suspension moves up and down. A worn ball joint will begin to rattle inside the socket when driving over an uneven road, rough terrain, potholes or speed bumps. This noise will get louder as the joint wears, and this can lead to the joint ultimately breaking.
  • Squeaking noise: Because ball joints are constantly moving, they require grease for lubrication. This grease makes the joint’s operation quiet and smooth. If the rubber boot that holds and protects this grease gets compromised, a ball joint can begin to squeak or creak. The noise can be heard when you turn the steering wheel and when you go over bumps. It can sound like a noisy door hinge, a rocking chair or a creaky spring mattress.
  • Vibration: A loose or worn ball joint can cause excessive vibration. This can make the car feel very unstable, and in some cases it will shake the vehicle. You may also feel a vibration in the steering wheel.
  • Wandering steering: A worn ball joint can cause your car to pull to the right or left. The front-end alignment is set when the steering and suspension components are tight and in good condition. Once a ball joint loosens up, it can throw off the alignment and require you to compensate with the steering wheel. This may also cause your tires to show uneven wear.
Get it diagnosed by a professional
 

How ball joints work

A ball joint is similar to the ball-and-socket joint in your shoulder or hip. It’s a hard sphere with a threaded tapered stud sticking out of it, and is housed in a steel casing that contains grease for lubrication. It’s protected from dirt and debris by a rubber boot. Nearly every car has front lower ball joints, and, depending on your car’s suspension type, you may have an upper ball joint or rear ball joints, as well.

The ball joint connects the steering knuckle or spindle to the control arm. The joint has a limited range but can move in all directions. It acts as the pivot point for the steering, allowing you to turn the wheel. 

» MORE: Get an accurate estimate for your car repair

Ball joint repair advice

Most ball joints made in the past few decades aren’t serviceable, but some older vehicles and trucks have grease fittings that can be lubricated. Ball joints aren’t a maintenance item but should be checked for excessive play on a regular basis. 

Ball joints should be inspected periodically. Your owner’s manual may have a specific time or mileage interval for inspection, but when in doubt, have them looked at during each oil change service

Ball joints can last for many years, with some never needing replacement. Things like rough road conditions and city driving can cause ball joints to wear faster. A car that is driven lightly on the highway can go hundreds of thousands of miles without needing a ball joint replaced, while a city car could need new ball joints after just 30,000 miles.

If you begin to experience any of the symptoms of a bad ball joint, it’s important to get your car to a repair facility right away. A broken ball joint can cause your car to lose steering or make the suspension collapse.  

Your mechanic will check ball joints for excessive play. The technician may recommend that the joints be replaced in pairs, even if just one side is faulty. This is because when one ball joint starts to fail, the other side is likely soon to follow. It’s also a great time to have the entire vehicle's suspension inspected.

The cost to have your ball joints replaced can vary. On some cars, the ball joints themselves can be replaced, while on others, the entire control arm may need to be swapped out. This can drive up the price. Labor costs can vary as well, depending on how complex your suspension system is, and whether your car is four-wheel or all-wheel drive. 

A wheel alignment will normally be required after replacing the ball joints.

If you do it yourself

This is a job best left to professionals. Extreme caution needs to be taken when dealing with your car's suspension, as some parts are under a great deal of tension and can cause injury or death.

If you have a lot of experience and decide to tackle this job yourself, be sure to acquire all the proper tools and work instructions, as the disassembly of your suspension needs to be done safely and in a specific order.

Make sure to use jack stands, safety goggles and have a second set of hands and eyes at your disposal.

Always use factory-quality, or OEM, parts and follow torque specifications.

 

Alex Palmeri

About the Author

Alex Palmeri worked nine years as a master technician at Mercedes-Benz of Chicago and is currently the foreman at a large fleet garage. He writes about automotive news, maintenance and racing, and runs a YouTube channel called Legit Street Cars.

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