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Bad Starter Symptoms: Signs, Symptoms, and Replacement Cost

It can be argued that the engine, wheels, or even the lights are the most important part of a car, but without a starter, none of the things listed above would ultimately work. It is responsible for making everything in your car wake up by spinning up your engine when the key is turned or the button is pushed.

Common signs of a bad starter include not being able to start the car, slow crank times, unusual noises, the smell of smoke, and having oil coat the starter motor.  

What Is the Starter?

car starter

The starter is a small electric motor, powered by the battery that engages with the flywheel when the ignition key is turned or the starter button is pressed. A solenoid is located between the battery and starter motor that sends the electric signal to push a starter gear into the teeth of the flywheel. This process results in the motor starting and the ignition sequence beginning.

Common Signs & Symptoms of a Bad Starter

It is not extremely common that starters constantly go out, but because there is so much riding on them, they are used regularly, they have the potential to wear out quicker than many other car parts. Symptoms of a bad starter are quite isolated and usually only directly involve straightforward connections to the starter motor. 

Cannot Start the Car

If the starter fails completely, some component within the starter have failed, or if there is an electrical issue with the solenoid, the starter will fail to do its job - starting the car. Not every issue involved with the starter will cause it to completely fail, but if left without repair, failure will be a certainty.

Slow or Intermittent Starting

Slow engine cranking can be a sign of a battery issue or a starter issue. It may mean that the battery is starting to lose its ability to power the starter, but it could also be a sign that the starter is on its way out. A good way to tell definitively where the root issue lies is to have the battery load tested. If the electric output is low, it likely means the battery is going bad. If the battery is normal, it likely means that the starter is wearing out. 

Intermittent starting and not being able to start your car is likely an electrical issue between the starter and the battery. The components of the starter do not usually stop working, then start working randomly again. A loose connection that is jostled has the potential to allow and disallow electrical flow until it is fixed.

Unusual Noise When Attempting to Start

The noise most associated with a bad starter is a "clicking" when the ignition key is turned. Grinding is also a common noise associated with starter failure. Both of these noises are indicative of the teeth on the starter wearing out, potentially causing flywheel damage if not repaired. 

A lesser-known noise that can also necessitate a trip to the mechanic is a swishing, whining, or whirling noise. This is a sign of the teeth within the starter not engaging with the flywheel to start the engine. 

Smell or Appearance of Smoke

Another lesser-known starter issue is the appearance or smell of smoke after attempting to start your car. This usually happens when the starter fails to do its job, and the vehicle owner continues to attempt to start the vehicle. This leads to overheating, causing electrical issues that produce smoke.

Lights On Without Being Able to Start the Car

When the engine is not running and you turn the ignition key, you can still use the radio, turn on the lights, and use other accessories in the vehicle. If the battery is dead, the lights will be dim and other accessories may work. Turning the ignition key and being able to still use all the accessories while not being able to turn the engine on can mean that the starter is dead instead of having a battery issue.

Oil on the Starter

Oil on the starter is often not so much a starter issue more than a sign of another issue pertaining to an oil leak. Any oil that is present where it shouldn’t also cause an issue for the part on which it drips, but this is usually a good signal to get the rest of the vehicle checked out.

What is the Expected Lifetime of a Starter?

bad car starter

The starter can be finicky when trying to determine lifespan. General wear and tear are the largest factors that cause starter failure. Another big factor comes in the form of electrical system failures, which are often finicky too. 

Even though starters are a universal car part, they can typically last anywhere from 50,000 miles to the lifetime of the car in which they are equipped. Most vehicles that are cared for can have a starter that lasts up to 100,000. Fewer than 50,000 miles and more than 120,000 miles get into the realm of unusual for car starters. 

How Much Does the Starter Cost to Replace?

One good thing about starters is that they can be cheap to replace, especially if you do the work yourself. They can be as low as $50 to about $300 without labor. Taking your vehicle to a mechanic can drastically drive up the price. 

Parts prices are generally the same as DIY starter replacement, but labor costs can be drastically higher. This mostly depends on where in the engine bay the starter is located and how much must be disassembled or removed to reach its location. The harder the location is to reach, the higher the labor costs can bel; Costs typically can be as low as $200 but can also be as high as $1,000 or more. 

Final Thoughts

The starter is a crucial car part because, without it, your vehicle will not be ultimately able to run. They are not particularly durable as far as parts go, but they can be quite inexpensive to replace. Signs that you will need a new starter include oil on the starter, the smell or appearance of smoke when cranking, a grinding or clicking noise when attempting to start, and no action at all when attempting to start.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
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