Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Les Schwab Brake Job - overpriced to the tune of $700 per axle


Almost everybody who owns a car will one day need to have some sort of brake service performed.

I have just gone through the process of contacting literally dozens of garages to get estimates ranging from the big names such as Firestone, Aamco & Les Schwab to lots of highly recommended independent mechanics. I even contacted an official dealer for an estimate.

While labor rates varied and some marked up parts more than others, there were basic similarities in how everyone worked. Your car is spec'd for ceramic brakes so we'll quote you for those. Yes we'll machine the rotors and this is the price but if you need new rotors this is the price.

Les Schwab

Which is why I am writing about Les Schwab. Les Schwab do things differently. They don't quote for brake pads, they quote for loaded calipers. While telling me verbally they would try to machine the rotors, they presented for my signature an estimate containing new rotors even though they had measurements indicating the rotors were only 25% worn. They didn't disclose the brake pad measurement nor explain the interpretation of rotor measurements that they did disclose. On the phone they quoted me for ceramic brakes but in person they advised ceramic would be $60 more.

Having noticed multiple signs of misinformation or withheld information in a process that was clearly slick and orchestrated (they greet you in the car park, a receptionist takes details, they bring the car round to the front door when you leave), and intrigued by such a different approach, I set out to understand what was going on. I thought through how they went about the sale, what information they disclosed, what they said and sometimes more tellingly, what they didn't say, and also what the underlying economics were.

The more I pieced everything together, the more I began to realize that Les Schwab runs a very unique sales approach as part of a extremely clever business model that is designed to generate excessive profit through delivering less to the customer while making the customer think they are getting more. In addition, by having a different pricing approach, direct comparability is made more difficult vs their competition.

It's very clever, in some ways one has to admire how clever it is. But the bottom line is that not only do you pay more, you get a worse result while having the wool pulled over your eyes, and that's just plain insulting to the customer.

How Les Schwab will make $700 per axle more from you

Firstly, how did I calculate they would be more expensive by $700 per axle?

Very simply, after checking my brakes and measuring my rotors, Les Schwab quoted me $425 for work they said was required. The work would be warrantied for 3 years / 25k. Based on the quality of the pads and rotors that they quoted, plus their approach of changing the rotors when not required, over 6 years / 60k, you could expect to do this service twice for a grand sum of $850 if you were to trust their advice.

In the end, I purchased my own ceramic brake pads and took them to my local mechanic for a grand total of $150 for install, cleaning, greasing and machining the existing rotors. The pads are lifetime and the rotors should last for 60k at least.

At issue here is that regardless of the status of your brakes, you will most likely be quoted exactly like I was or something very close. You will be verbally told that they will try to machine the rotors but the worst case is that they'll need replacing. You'll sign the estimate on the basis of this verbal understanding and return to find they needed to replace the rotors.

The sales process and business model that is in place dictates that approach and targeted outcome. When you go through the process, unless you are an informed customer, you won't realize that you're setting yourself up for paying $850 over 6 years vs $150. You go through a process designed to persuade you that you are getting a better result justifying the amount being charged. The $98.50 for labor includes a brake fluid flush. Wow that's cheap - the others charge $100 extra for that item alone. They put on calipers not just new pads. Great, that's better than everyone else.

But this is not the reality. If you pay $425 and receive great rotors, great calipers, great pads - in short a brake system overhaul that performs great and lasts a lifetime, AND you needed all of those elements, then it's only an average to good deal.

But you most likely don't need that and in any case you're not even getting that! You're getting basic brakes and basic rotors (probably worse than what you have), potentially not so good calipers and on top they'll be worn out in 3 years time and you'll need to have the work done again and pay $425 again.

The Caliper Con

Les Schwab do not quote for brake pads, they quote for remanufactured loaded calipers. The price quoted ($121 in my case vs $107 on Amazon), does not seem expensive, especially when they quote it together with Labor of $98.50 which includes a brake fluid flush.

But the truth behind the calipers is as follows;

  • It is highly unlikely that you need calipers. I know I didn't.
  • The brake pads are not ceramic and won't last. My OEM pads are ceramic. Ceramic were $60 extra.
  • Les Schwab's out of pocket for the calipers is probably ~$40 as they make money on the good quality original calipers discarded from your vehicle which are then remanufactured
  • The labor charge of $98.50 is effectively nearer $180 when you factor in the profit on the calipers
So by upselling to calipers, you end up with inferior pads and they end up actually charging a very high labor rate.

The Rotor Racket

Les Schwab have a huge incentive to sell you rotors.

Machining rotors costs from $20 to $50 a pair and uses labor time, training, machine wear and tear. The new rotors they quoted me were $179 for two. The cost on Amazon? $64 for two! Which puts them in the realm of cheaper rotors. That's at least $115 profit before any profit on recycling used rotors which in my case were still usable! They also take minimal time to install.

So by upselling you to rotors, you end up paying significantly over the odds, giving up potentially better rotors, and they boost their labor rate again!


Overall I estimate that after the true cost of parts, Schwab would make over $300 for an hour of their labor while sticking you with basic brakes and basic rotors.

However, when they present this to you, you are being sold on receiving calipers worth $120 and new rotors worth $180 with only a small seemingly reasonable charge for their labor which also includes a brake fluid flush. On top of this you will receive a 3 year / 25k warranty (that Les Schwab have cleverly moved the risk of to the rotor and caliper manufacturer rather then themselves because they are not machining rotors or installing pads - they are just assembling!)

Interestingly, it is being presented as $300 parts and $100 labor, but it is in fact $100 parts and $300 labor!

If you knew that, if it were presented that way, would you pay it? No way!

It is incredibly clever and I am all for getting rewarded for being clever, but as I said, in this case you are not getting a superior result for your $425, you're getting pretty much the most basic parts that will stand up to a 3 year / 25k warranty whereas so many pads and rotors now come with lifetime warranties

If you didn't know better, you'd be happy. And with the slick sales and service process, many customers are blissfully unaware of what they've done.

The Alternatives

I purchased Wagner Thermoquiet brakes which match original equipment specifications. For my car, this meant they were ceramic. Their usual price is $30 to $40. I found them for $29 while a $15 rebate was running. So this was a steal.

a) Option 1 - Install yourself

There are plenty of websites and videos to help you do this. You can take off the rotors and have them machined by a local shop or an auto parts store for $20 to $50 a pair. You could also just buy new rotors.

b) Option 2 - Mechanic Install

If you have a mechanic that you trust, then for relatively little cost this might be a good option for you. Supplying your own parts can save money. You can buy rotors and return them in the event your mechanic was able to machine your rotors.

c) Option 3 - Use one of the other chains or a dealer special

Firestone use the same Wagner Thermoquiet brake pads and perform the install and machining for less than $200. There are often discounts ranging from $35 to $50 available.

I would consider going this route if I could be sure of the competency and honesty level of the particular franchise. One advantage of going this route is that some of these chains really stand behind their work. I know personally that Firestone do. The disadvantage is that they often have the same incentive to upsell you to new calipers and rotors when you don't need them.

When might be a good idea to use Les Schwab?

If you genuinely need new calipers as well as pads and if you need a brake fluid flush then you could get a very good deal out of Les Schwab. Just make sure you don't buy rotors from them and that they machine them for a reasonable price, say up to $50 per pair.


  1. Wow this happened to me also

  2. I'm glad you're talking about this. I'm definitely going to be shopping around for me next brake job.

    I found some other stories that confirm what you experienced

  3. Ex employees confirm the training they receive to upsell. See response number 3 at this link:

  4. I had the brakes replaced at the Les Schwab store on 7304 Se 82nd Ave. After about 30,000 miles I noticed noise coming from the tires when braking and took the car back to be inspected. I was informed that there was plenty of pad left and there was no problem. I asked if I needed to sign anything and as advised no it was a free inspection. I left the country for a three month trip several weeks after taking the car in for the brake inspection.

    My girlfriend was driving the car in my absence and she contacted me to let me know that the noise was increasing I advised her to take the car back to have it looked at again. She returned to Les Schwab and was again told that the brake pads looked fine and that she could make an appointment for a more detailed inspection since they could not find anything wrong.

    Concerned that the problem was more sever and originating from some were else she decided to take the car to the dealership. She had just started a new job was already taking time off work. The car had now been looked at twice and both times we were told the pads were good.

    After the dealership inspected the car, they advised her that the pads still had plenty of thickness but were probably noisy due to being after market. The next day on her way to work the sound increased and was no longer intermittent. Again she feared the worse, thinking there maybe something severely wrong with the car. The car is a 96 honda civic hybrid. She was worried the sound was coming from the charging mechanism for the battery that is tied into the brakes.

    Again she returned to the honda dealership. A decision that anyprudent individual would make after the recent events. The dealership could find nothing else wrong and suggested replacing the pads to rule out the problem.

    While replacing the pads it was also discovered that the wrong calipers had been installed at the time of servicing by Les Schwab. Calipers for a non hybrid were used. The decision was made at that time to leave the incorrect calipers and just replace the brake pads and turn the rotors. More wear was noticed then should have been present. The problem was solved the noise went away. The pads that Les Schwab uses are of the wrong surface materiel to be compatible with the rotors on the honda.

    Upon my return I went to Les Schwab and spoke with the Cory the store manager.

    He informed me that the brake job had exceeded the 25,000 mile warranty and that the extra cost incurred to correct the problem was our fault for not giving Les Schwab anther chance to solve the problem. He felt that if we would have returned for a third time and had a more extensive brake exam that miraculously the problem would have been discovered and corrected.

    It would seem that this would not be the case. Again the problem was the wrong surface material of the pads and their incompatibility with the car. This problem and possible solutions for the problem should have been apparent by the description of the noise. Taking the brakes apart would have provided no new information. Everything would have still looked the same as it did during the “quick inspection”. The pads would have still had plenty of thickness. I could only guess if the wrong calipers would have been discovered. I would have to think that would have been unlikely.

    Cory advised that if we would have taken the car back for a third time that we would have been given the option of having pads with different surface material installed.

    My question should seem obvious. Why was the wrong surface material installed in the first place and why wasn’t that solution offered to a concerned customer on the first if not the second visit?

    A honda civic is one of the most popular cars on the road. Has Les Schwab never ran into this problem before? If the material is incompatible in my car would it not be incompatible in all of the other civics?

    Does Les Schwab train their employees to have no regard for their customers time and inconvenience.

  5. They told me it would be 2,200 for a "phony" repair, I went to the Zone and got a Master Cylinder, installed it for 100.00 and "saved" 2,100 in the meantime.

    Ya' gotta watch these guys, just like any other business these days.....

  6. Getting brakes fixed properly is vitally important for safety on the road. This article shows the importance of doing research when looking into repairs and replacements. Some companies charge more than other because of the cost of business. Others may try to do shady things to increase their profit. It's all about the research and finding the best rates and deals possible. brake service

  7. As a tech in a new Lube and Brake shop in my town I get a lot of, "Can I get a quote for brakes on my car?" "I just got one from Les Schwab and...." and at that point I interupt with "They want $500 per axle and want to replace calipers?". This surprises them that I knew being a newer shop. I can replace pads and rotors for about $220 depending on the vehicle. Parts and Labor. I dont currently have a lathe to machine rotors but am at that same price range as machining. But you get new pads and rotors. You would only need calipers if they are frozen/seized and/or leaking. Simple as that. To see vehicles with 40-60k miles come in with brand new calipers makes me angry. To many customers feel like they have been "Had". What surprises me is that this happens so often even with as much technology and knowledge that is at peoples fingertips with smartphones of today.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I just cancelled my apt to have my brakes done there. I'm an easy sell as someone who doesn't know that much about cars so I appreciate this insight.