How to Replace Ball Joints
Just as any part of your car can get worn out and require replacement, ball joints are probably not going to last the life of the vehicle. Like any other suspension or steering part, they are vital to the car’s stability as it drives down the road. Replacing ball joints can vary widely between vehicles, so overall is an intermediate job, requiring some specialty tools. The following information can help you get started.
What is a Ball Joint?
So, if you haven’t read our article on control arms and how they work, we recommend checking out that article too. A ball joint is a vital part to your car’s suspension, and is usually housed at the end of a control arm on a vehicle.
A ball joint’s job is to hold the entire suspended weight of the vehicle on its steering point. Basically, when your wheels turn left or right, the ball joint, or ball joints on each side are allowing this to happen. They keep the wheel/tire in correct alignment, while allowing the steering components to turn smoothly.
Some ball joints are built directly into the Control Arm and are not replaceable. Others are, either by being pressed, bolted, or riveted in. Most front-wheel-drive vehicles have only 2 lower ball joints on each side, as the upper pivot-point is accomplished by the strut assembly. In a traditional rear-wheel drive or full-size cars, there is an upper and lower ball joint on each side. Most trucks still take 4 ball joints.
Ball joints fail the same way that tie rods fail. Over time, a lack of grease occurs or grease can deteriorate from a torn boot that should protect the it, allowing water and grime to intrude into the joint. As the joint continues to wear back and forth, slop begins to form in what should be a precise joint.
Eventually, it becomes so bad that the joint begins to knock – which is noticeable when going over bumps and hearing a knock or pop sound. Other symptoms can be wandering steering, along with popping noises in the suspension. Over time, this joint will get so bad, that eventually the ball will completely release from the socket, which will completely free the wheel and steering knuckle from the car, causing catastrophic damage or worse yet, an accident.
It’s important to note that back in the day all ball joints, tie rods, and other suspension parts were greaseable, and this service was regularly performed during an oil change (it’s where the term “oil and lube” comes from). Over time, many manufacturers began to make sealed, non-serviceable joints, but it’s important to note that many still are serviceable, and if they are, should be greased regularly.
In you have concerns about your suspension, it’s recommended that you check our list of Preferred Shops in your area and look specifically for shops that specialize in alignment work. If you want to check out your car yourself, you can check ball joints quickly by doing the following:
- Safely jack the vehicle up and secure with proper jack stands. You can leave the wheels on, but make sure you have enough access to get under the front of the vehicle.
- Squatting outside each front tire, reach under the tire in a 5-o’clock / 8-o’clock position and lift up and out on the tire. There should be zero movement. If you feel any movement, or clicking / knocking when you do, locate the ball joint on that side and have a helper do the same thing. Observe if there is slop in the ball joint when this is performed.
- Some ball joints will need more coercing to troubleshoot. You can also stick a crow bar or pry bar between the steering knuckle and the lower or upper ball joint. Gently pry and observe if the joint has slop or moves.
If either of these 2 processes show slop in the joint, the joint will need to be replaced. If its determined that the joint is non-replaceable, then the entire control arm assembly will need to be replaced.
Can You Replace Your Ball Joint?
Ball joints are not always an easy replacement, but a DIYer who is versed in changing suspension and brake components will probably be able to tackle the job. Depending on your vehicle’s set-up, ball joints can either be part of the control arm itself (requiring complete control arm replacement), pressed into the control arm, bolted, or riveted onto the control arm. For older or 4X4 trucks, most ball joints are pressed onto the axle, or onto the steering knuckle.
In most cases, a ball joint press and ball joint fork will be needed to remove the ball joint and separate the control arm from the steering knuckle, which both of these are available for free through AutoZone’s Loan-A-Tool program. For ball joints that are bolted on, simply unbolting the bolts will separate the joint from the control arm. Some ball joints have factory hot-rivets to secure them to the Control Arm. While these are rare, in these cases, the rivets must be either cut off with a cut-off wheel or torch / plasma cut.
Generally a job to replace ball joints will involve the following, but not exclusive to these steps:
- Taking off your vehicle’s wheels.
- Moving the brake calipers, and rotor. Some vehicles will need the sway bar links removed.
- Front wheel drive cars – in most cases, separate the lower control arm from the steering knuckle via a ball joint fork.
- Trucks and some cars – separate the steering knuckle from the ball joints with a ball joint fork and set aside. This process usually requires a lot of force and a BIG hammer!
- Carefully inspect and remove any snap rings that may be securing the ball joint in place.
- Using a ball joint press, press the old joint out of the control arm.
- Using the ball joint press, press the new joint into the control arm. Tip – throw your new ball joints in the freezer overnight before installation. Heat makes things expand, and cold makes them contract. By freezing the joints, you will make installation easier.
As with any repair, consult a repair manual or online source for repair info for your specific vehicle before starting. Be sure you have all the proper tools to complete the job. Some ball joints can be relatively easy while others, especially on older cars that are rusty, can be a real nightmare to break loose.
Depending on your experience you may want to consult an experienced individual for help and advice, in which don’t hesitate to use our list of Preferred Shops in your area.
How Much Does Replacement Cost?
The cost of replacing ball joints varies depending on the vehicle you drive, especially when it comes to labor rates. The average serviceable ball joint generally falls somewhere in the range of $20-50.00. In some cases, you may need to buy a combination control arm and ball joint as a single piece, which costs between $100 and $500.00. It is considered best practice while diagnosing the ball joint failure to inspect control arm bushings as well to determine if both control arm and ball joint will need to be replaced. Keep in mind that on some vehicles, the control arm bushings are also serviceable.
If you want to go the DIY route, you will also need to consider the parts and tools needed to get the job done. You will need equipment to jack up your car as well as the ball joint press itself. This can cost anywhere from around $75 to $250 but these tools are also available in AutoZone’s Loan-a-Tool Program. Remember that after any suspension or steering parts are replaced, you will need to re-align the vehicle.
Should you decide to seek a shop to repair your ball joint issues, keep in mind that the labor is generally driving the cost of repair here. Shops will generally recommend that both or all ball joints be replaced at the time the car is there because if one has failed, the chances are the others will fail soon. This is a valuable practice that even a DIYer should follow, even though it doubles the work. Most ball joint jobs are going to run 3-5 hours of work per side, leading to a cost of $350-650.00 in labor costs alone, plus parts.
Should you choose to do the job yourself, remember that AutoZone not only has all the parts, but all the proper tools to complete the job. Stop by your local AutoZone today for parts, tools, and advice!