Bad Ball Joints: Signs, Symptoms, and Replacement Cost

Ball joints are little-known components of your suspension that help keep your vehicle planted and help you stay in control as you cruise down the road. Were it not for your ball joints, your vehicle’s wheels and tires would not be able to stay in consistent contact with the road.

Bad ball joints contribute to premature tire wear and the inability to properly perform a wheel alignment. Additionally, signs and symptoms include clunking noises, loose steering, steering vibration, and even vehicle shaking. 

What are Ball Joints?

ball joint

A ball joint is the connection point between your suspension and wheels. The control arms have to be connected to your wheels in some way to help maintain control of the vehicle, and the ball joints serve as the connection point. 

These joints also allow pivotal movement so that the steering rack can also be connected to the wheel hubs and control the vehicle further. Their rotational abilities also help keep the tire fully planted on the road over undulating surfaces to ensure appropriate tire contact. Depending on the suspension setup of your vehicle, vehicles will have either one or two ball joints. 

There are two types of ball joints. Load-bearing ball joints are designed to carry the weight of the vehicle while follower ball joints assist more in maintaining steering control. Both still work to accomplish the same task, but they both have different wear rates since load-bearing joints have to support more weight. MacPherson strut systems only have one ball joint that is not load-bearing. 

Common Signs and Symptoms of a Bad Ball Joint

Many of the signs and symptoms of bad ball joints are easily recognizable because of their profound effect on vehicle handling. Some are even noticeable without having to drive anywhere since external inspection can produce red flags as well. 

Excessive Wheel Play

The most obvious way to tell if a ball joint is bad is to check for excessive back and forth motion when the wheel of your vehicle is off the ground. This check is easily accomplished on a lift, but it can be done by using a jack if cautious. Ideally, the wheel should spin normally, but any wiggle outside of a normal wheel turning should not be present. Many mechanics perform this check as one of their first inspection steps when doing a general vehicle inspection.

Wear Indicator Status

Depending on your vehicle and the type of ball joint, the joint could have a built-in wear indicator. Similar to brakes that squeal when the pads become too worn, there is often a gasket, pin, or ring that wears to indicate when the joint needs to be replaced; This is also an easily identifiable method of checking the status of a ball joint. 

Unusual Noises

A bad ball joint will often make a cracking, clunking, popping, or squealing noise that is accentuated when accelerating or turning. Hitting a pothole or going over a speed bump can also cause this noise, but regardless of the exact type of noise, it usually becomes louder over time. 

Sloppy Steering

Because ball joints connect the suspension to the wheel hub, the loss of precise steering is also an indicator that a ball joint is excessively worn. This is sometimes called steering wander, and it is more pronounced at speed when traveling in a straight line is more important. Of course, this occurs because the crucial connection between the vehicle and the wheels becomes loose.

Stiff Steering

In some vehicles, the opposite of loose steering can occur. Often, ball joints are protected by a boot with oil to maintain appropriate lubrication. Vehicles with these boots are not meant to be oiled regularly, but being made of a soft rubber material, they can wear out and crack over time. When this happens, the oil held within them can leak and cause the joint to dry out, making it stiff and harder to turn.

Vibration During Steering or Acceleration

Again, as a result of the loose connection between the vehicle and wheels, vibration can also occur during driving. This can be especially pronounced at highway speed or when accelerating. 

Excessive or Unusual Tire Wear

worn ball joints

One of the subtler effects of ball joint wear is excessive or unusual tire wear. This happens when the joint begins to sag and fail, causing changes in the camber. Camber is the tilting of a vehicle’s wheel to one side in relation to the centerline of the vehicle from the front or back. In racing and drifting, camber can be beneficial, but for normal vehicles, it could mean a costly set of new tires several times over. 

Learn More: Tire Size and Terminology Explained

Inability to Maintain or Set Tire Alignment

If the ball joints are excessively loose, even the best alignment shop will not be able to set a vehicle’s alignment. If this does occur, a vehicle with loose ball joints will not be able to maintain proper alignment. This is often a sign of ball joint failure that occurs well after other signs of failure have presented themselves. It is a warning sign that you should see a mechanic immediately. 

Separation of the Wheel Hub

Of course, the complete separation of the wheel hub from the suspension is quite an obvious sign of ball joint failure, but this does not usually occur without plenty of other warnings first. Rather, it is often the consequence of failing to have your vehicle properly fixed when other signs and symptoms present themselves and become increasingly worse. 

What is the Expected Lifetime of a Ball Joint?

Ball joints can last the lifetime of a vehicle, depending on how well maintained and how well built they are. However, most mechanics expect ball joints to last for between 80,000 and 100,000 miles before being serviced or replaced. Much of how long ball joints last is dependent on a driver’s driving habits and the road conditions in which the driver drives.

Sealed ball joints – ones with protective boots and oil – usually last for up to 100,000 miles before starting to show signs of cracking and failure. Unsealed ball joints require regular oiling to ensure the longest possible lifespan. Because of the conditions under which ball joints are subjected, it is not uncommon to replace them at least once during your ownership period. 

How Much Does a Ball Joint Cost to Replace?

Ball joint replacement costs can be under $100 and up to $200 or more for high-end vehicles or those with special suspension systems. Most labor costs are also relatively low since replacing a ball joint usually requires minimal movement of other components. They can reach $400 in the most extreme situations but normally cost between $150 and $250. 

In total, ball joint replacement usually falls between $250 and $400 with these costs being bookended by the most extreme cases. Sometimes, doing multiple ball joints can save some money in labor costs. 

Final Thoughts

Ball joints are little-known but important parts of your vehicle. They form the vital connection between your suspension system and your wheels, helping you successfully and efficiently control your vehicle and steer. If they fail, you could hear unusual noises, your tire can wear out prematurely, you could experience steering wander, and you could feel vibrations through your steering wheel while driving. If any of these symptoms exhibit themselves, you should see your local mechanic immediately. 

Richard Reed
I've been a General Manager of a moving company and I've also been a Professional Mover for over 30 years. I've driven flat beds, reefers, dropdecks, moving vans, heavy machinery, etc. In my time as a Mover I've driven over 1,000,000 safe miles. My days of moving and driving truck are past me but The Vehicle Lab allows me to share the knowledge I've gained over the past 40 years.
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