Whether on the interstate or off-road, the suspension system comprises a huge part of a vehicle’s performance. And as such, components like upper and lower ball joints must be kept in check.
Some car owners, however, may find accomplishing this task more challenging than others. If you fall under this group, let this guide help you as it covers signs of bad ball joints and their corresponding replacement costs.
Bad ball joint symptoms include clicking or squeaking noises, excessive vibration from the front suspension or steering wheel, steering wandering and slack, and uneven tire wear. Note that some of these signs are not exclusive to ball joint wear and, therefore, require more stringent examination.
For a more detailed breakdown, here are six of the most prevalent symptoms of a bad ball joint:
- Clunking noise
- Steering inconsistencies
- Excessive vibrations
- Uneven tire wear
- Visual damage
As they are responsible for connecting control arms to the wheel hub and enabling precise control of your vehicle, ball joints must always be kept in good working condition. Otherwise, they could become loose or deteriorate and result in dire consequences.
That said, it is the objective of this article to get you acquainted with bad ball joint symptoms and make it easier for you to spot them.
Symptoms of Bad Ball Joints
Typically, ball joints have built-in wear indicators that make diagnosing a loose ball joint a less grueling experience.
The wear indicator, in particular, is a movable grease fitting that becomes flush with the ball joint housing when the ball joint itself becomes worn out. But this may not relate to all vehicles, which is why familiarity with the following bad ball joint symptoms is important:
1. Clunking Noise
Initially faint and intermittent, clunking sounds top the list of things to notice when it comes to faulty ball joints. At times, it may sound eerily similar to grinding noises.
These noises usually emanate from the corner of your vehicle and get progressively louder and more frequent the longer the affected ball joint is not serviced or replaced. Clunking also becomes more pronounced when going around a corner, over a bump, or doing any maneuver that stresses the ball joints.
Similar to clunking, this unusual sound occurs when going over bumps or around curves. But unlike the former, squeaking noises indicate dirt or grime buildup more than typical ball joint wear.
Specifically, this noise comes about when gasket seals give out, and the ball joint consequently seizes up.
3. Steering Inconsistencies
One way to tell if ball joints are bad while driving is when your steering feels stiff or there is too much play or slack in the steering wheel. This could take place even on level roads or straightaways.
Inadvertently drifting when going over speed breakers is another indicator, as well as encountering difficulties in getting through tight curves or into parking spots.
4. Excessive Vibrations
It could also happen that you get to experience vibrations from the steering wheel or the vehicle’s suspension. This incident is expected from lower ball joints when they become loose in their sockets and vibrate unreasonably whenever the car is being driven around.
Vibrations are initially felt at the front of the vehicle and may reach the steering wheel when ball joint wear worsens.
5. Uneven Tire Wear
Although not exclusive to the issue, uneven wear on your knobbies is another telltale sign of ball joint wear. You would know this is the case if your front tire’s inner or outer edges wear out faster than the rest of its tread.
Note, however, that the kind of wear I just described is the only case linked to ball joints. If visible tire wear occurs on both edges of the affected tire, the culprit is not worn-out or deteriorating ball joints but tire under-inflation.
6. Visual Damage
Lastly, we have physical damage. This typically applies to the rubber ball joint boot as it is prone to crack over time, but it may also be the case for the actual ball joint itself.
Severe wear or the occurrence of an accident are but a few instances that can cause ball joints complete breakage and, ultimately, the complete collapse of your vehicle’s suspension system.
Top Causes of Ball Joint Failure
- General wear and tear
- Dirt, grit and other impurities get inside the ball joint sockets
- Lack of ball joint lubrication
- Subpar conditions of suspension parts (especially crucial for ball joints integrated into control arms)
- Non-adherence to OEM-recommended upkeep and servicing
- Ignoring early bad ball joint symptoms
How to Check for a Bad Ball Joint
The following are (non-exhaustive) steps on how to tell if a ball joint is bad:
Listen for Unusual Noises
Uncommon noises include clunking, grinding, or squeaking when your four-wheeler is on the road.
Perform a visual inspection of your ball joints and ball joint boots behind the wheel. Scrutinize them for cracks, water accumulation, or dirt buildup inside the ball joint socket.
Check for Damage
Determine if your vehicle’s upper ball joint is damaged. If yes, replace the entire control arm (view on Amazon) it connects. Unfortunately, the bad ball joint alone cannot be replaced in this situation – unless you use a compatible ball joint separator.
Confirm the Problem
Jack up your car, hold the 6-12 o’clock and 3-9 o’clock wheel position, and look for any wiggling or play while moving the wheel back and forth. Ascertain that it is a worn ball joint and not bearings or suspension components causing these two.
Place a long bar under the wheel, pushing the latter up and down while looking for any clicking sound.
Inspect the Ball Joint
Further, inspect the suspected ball joint itself by pushing and moving it. Watch out for signs of looseness, wear, roughness, or corrosion as you do this step.
How to Replace a Ball Joint
Before determining how much your projected spend is, you first have to perform the above steps and identify the severity of the ball joint wear your vehicle has.
Also, determine whether or not the affected ball joint is integrated into the control arm. If it is, replace the control arm where it latches on altogether.
Otherwise, carry out the steps below:
Prep your work area and park your vehicle on a flat surface. Next, secure the wheels by locking them.
2. Lift Your Vehicle
Raise your car using a jack like Arcan 3-Ton Quick Rise Aluminum Floor Jack with Dual Pump Pistons & Reinforced Lifting Arm (view on Amazon).
Visually inspect the ball joints, and see if they need replacement.
4. Determine Ball Joint Type
Referencing your car’s service manual, determine the type of ball joint/s for installation before ordering them. Once received, compare the new ball joint to the worn-out one to ensure a perfect match.
5. Remove the Wheel
Remove the wheel with the affected ball joint.
Clean all bolts and hardware using WD-40 or a PB blaster.
7. Install the New Ball Joint
Following your owner’s manual instructions, remove the old ball joint and install the new one. Ensure bolts are tightened correctly.
8. Lower Your Car
Lower your vehicle and take it out for a test drive.
9. Test Drive
As you take your car out for a spin, listen for any unusual sounds and other signs of bad ball joints mentioned in this guide.
If any of these indicators persist, revisit your ball joint installation. If it checks out, determine if you have another faulty ball joint or a compromised suspension component.
Cost of Replacing a Ball Joint
For ball joints integrated into the control arm, replacing the unit can cost $1,500.
A lone ball joint replacement can range from $38 to $330. With labor fees factored in, the price range will be an average of $170 to $500. These values can be higher depending on your car’s make and model.
How Long Does a Ball Joint Last?
Barring complications, ball joints last an average of 70,000 to 150,000 miles. However, this figure may be reduced significantly depending on the following factors:
- Road conditions
- Driving habits
- Ambient/outside temperature and weather
- Condition of stock suspension components
- Location of the ball joint
- Whether or not the ball joint is load-bearing
- Exposure of the vehicle to road salt, contaminants, and the elements
Contrary to public speculation, a vehicle’s make and model have little to do with the longevity of its ball joints. The factor with greater influence is the car’s intended application.
Four-wheelers used mainly for farm work or hauling tasks will have their ball joints deteriorate faster than cars used for city or daily driving.
Can You Drive With a Bad Ball Joint?
The answer to this query is a “no” for two solid reasons. One, it is counter-intuitive to do so since you are putting yourself and your passengers at risk of getting into an on-road accident. Two, you cannot drive even if you wanted to, as ball joints support the weight of your vehicle.
The moment they break or deteriorate, your car will be left stranded where the ball joints failed.
What Happens if You Drive with Bad Ball Joints?
If you insist on driving on bad ball joints, you may consequently witness your front suspension come apart. Worse, you may experience loss of vehicle control while driving on the highway. Either situation is catastrophic and can put you at risk of getting into a car crash.
Conclusion – Bad Ball Joint Symptoms
In summary, here are some of the most prevalent symptoms of a bad ball joint:
- Clunking noise
- Steering inconsistencies
- Excessive vibrations
- Uneven tire wear
- Visual damage
Because the condition of your ball joints impacts ride quality, overall handling, and safety inside the vehicle, it would be folly to leave ball joint issues unattended. Recognizing its symptoms is already half of the battle won. However, this effort would be futile if nothing is done to correct the situation.
For the mechanically inclined, the contents of this guide and your service manual should be enough reference to get you started on nipping bad ball joints in the bud. Otherwise, get a technician to inspect your ball joints and tire-and-wheel assembly (if needed) and proceed with the next steps to ensure you are out of harm’s way.
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.