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Signs Your Car Needs An Alignment

by | May 12, 2021

A tire alignment is an important maintenance task you should do every 6,000 miles and as needed. Emphasis on AS NEEDED. If you drive like a bat out of hell, and like to run over curbs you’ll likely need one a lot sooner than that.

I’m sure most of you drive like angels, but you should still keep an eye out for these signs that it is time to get your tires aligned. Things like uneven roads and other things out of your control can knock your car out of alignment prematurely.

Telling Signs You Need An Alignment

  • Uneven tire wear
  • Vehicle pulling to one side
  • Uneven steering wheel when driving straight
  • Squealing tires

Other Times To Get An Alignment

  • When you get new tires. 
  • It’s been over a year since you last aligned your tires. 
  • You’ve driven 6,000 miles 
  • You’ve been in any sort of accident 
  • You lifted or lowered your vehicle or you had some sort of work done on your suspension
  • Any sort of minor collision like hitting road debris or driving through a large pothole or you accidentally drove over a curb 

Before we get into the specifics, let’s have a very brief lesson on what an alignment is and why they are important.

What Is An Alignment And Why Get One At All

Wheel alignment is a maintenance task (or a repair item depending who you ask) for your vehicle where a mechanic or automotive technician modifies your suspension. They do this while checking the angles of your wheels in relation to one another and to the road to ensure your vehicle is driving straight and your tires meet the road at the right angle. 

Your car’s suspension consists of several parts, all of which are equally important in making sure your vehicle handles properly.

They are:

  • Struts (also known as shock absorbers)
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Ball joints
  • Control arms
  • Tires and wheels

In a brand new vehicle these will all be in perfect alignment with each other, but as you drive that alignment will be gradually thrown off. 

The Purpose Of An Alignment

The entire purpose of getting an alignment on your vehicle is to make sure the angle measurements that your tires sit are all equivalent, essentially that they make a rectangle. Getting your wheels aligned also ensures that the tires meet the road at an angle that wears them all relatively evenly. 

This does a couple of things for you and your vehicle. First off, you will get much better gas mileage if your tires have been aligned properly. They should be pointing straight and will be centered in their wheel well after a good alignment which ensures there is no unnecessary drag from a wheel that is at an off angle. 

A good alignment will also make sure that your tires are all getting worn at the same rate (or as much as possible) helping to extend the usable life of all your tires and prevent blowouts. It will additionally prevent you from having to replace one tire before the other three. 

Tire alignment also impacts how smoothly your car rides. Wheel alignment reduces vibrations by keeping your car as even with the road as possible. Think about it this way: if one wheel is slightly aligned to the right it’s going to pull your entire vehicle in that direction. You can feel it. If you are struggling to keep your car driving straight to the point where you are fighting even a bit with the steering wheel it’s probably time to get your wheels aligned.

Signs You Need An Alignment Explained

  • Uneven tire wear
  • Vehicle pulling to one side
  • Uneven steering wheel when driving straight
  • Squealing tires

Uneven Tire Wear

One of the signs that your alignment is knocked off is uneven tread wear on your tires. If the tires are not meeting the road at the right angles your tires will wear unevenly. All 4 tires should meet the ground at the same angle to ensure one tire is not taking more of the weight of the car and friction than others. Look for tire cupping and measure the tread on all the tires every month or so to ensure the car is wearing down the rubber evenly.

Vehicle Pulling To One Side

This one is a bit obvious and it is extremely noticeable if you are the driver. If your car pulls to one side and if you have to force it to drive straight, the alignment is off and definitely needs to be fixed. The more severe the pull is, the worse the alignment of the vehicle is.

Uneven Steering Wheel When Driving Straight

If your steering wheel is sitting at an odd angle, your alignment is off. You should get

Steering Wheel Vibration

Vibrations through your steering wheel can be caused by a handful of issues, but one of them is a poor alignment. The vibration is a result of the tires pulling in opposite directions.

When You Should Get Your Wheels Aligned

  1. When you get new tires. 
  2. It’s been over a year since you last aligned your tires. 
  3. You’ve driven 6,000 miles 
  4. You’ve been in any sort of accident 
  5. You lifted or lowered your vehicle or you had some sort of work done on your suspension
  6. Any sort of minor collision like hitting road debris or driving through a large pothole or you accidentally drove over a curb 

New Tires

Whether you replace the full set or just one tire it is usually a good idea to get your tires aligned. You are not only ensuring your car drives more smoothly, but you are also protecting your investment (in the new tires). It will extend their usable life.  Again it is prudent to protect your investment. You just spent $400 on new tires. Spending the extra $50- $100 on protecting the asset you just purchased is definitely worth it if you have the money. 

You’ve Driven 6,000 Miles

Most experts recommend you align your wheels every 6,000 miles. You can keep track of this by performing a tire alignment every other oil change. Because your wheels will gradually come out of alignment using a mileage number is generally a better gauge than time frame. 

Although it is advisable to redo your alignment every 6,000 miles you should consider what type of miles these are. Were you off-roading or driving on uneven dirt roads? These miles could also be on a perfectly even paved track.   It’s important to remember that this is a repair activity NOT a maintenance item. Check out our next section “How do you know when you need an alignment?” to understand when your car needs this repair and how you can check at home. 

It’s Been Over A Year

Basic wear and tear of driving on uneven roads will gradually impact your alignment. Experts recommend you take your car in for realignment AT LEAST ONCE A YEAR. Preferably semi annually. If your car sits in the garage a lot or the roads you drive on are like butter this may not be necessary.

You’ve Been In Any Sort Of Accident

A minor fender bender can majorly throw off your suspension. Whether you hit them or they hit you, your car withstood an impact and you should take it in for a check up. An impact that is strong enough to bend steel will likely result in knocking off your alignment. It is smart to have your wheel alignment reset after a minor or major car accident.

You’ve Lifted Or Lowered Your Vehicle

If you’ve recently messed with the height of your vehicle this one’s for you, realign your suspension. If you did an at home lift kit you DEFINITELY need to get your alignment done. You are messing with the suspension of your vehicle and your wheels are aligned based on your original lift. Lifting or lowering your vehicle will change the camber and toe out. More on what these are later, but yeah, get your wheels realigned. 

You Hit Road Debris Or A Pot Hole

Okay so this isn’t always indicative that you need an alignment. Generally if your car was perfectly aligned before and you hit a huge pothole your alignment is probably still fine. Don’t rush to a mechanic unless you are noticing a difference in how your vehicle is driving.

If you hit a big chunk of road debris you may want to take your vehicle to a mechanic. If you notice a change in its driving patterns or hear anything unusual, definitely take your car in. 

 A couple years ago I hit a large part of an outdoor lounge chair that fell out of someone’s truck bed on the interstate going about 75mph. Somehow my sustained almost no exterior damage from this, I got really lucky. I had heard part of the furniture clatter around under my car for several seconds before bouncing out.  

After encouragement from family members I took my car in later that week to get it looked at and I’m grateful I did. They found a couple things that if left untreated would have led to bigger repairs and my alignment was one of them. 

Testing Whether You Need An Alignment

If you don’t meet any of the above criteria to your knowledge, you may still need an alignment. There are a few ways you can assess the health of your car’s suspension without taking it into a mechanic. 

I remember my dad testing the alignment of our vehicles growing up. When driving cautiously on an empty road he would check by loosening his grip (for a couple seconds)  on the steering wheel just enough so it could slide through his hands. 

If the car continued to drive straight that was an indication that the alignment was probably still very good. If the vehicle pulled to one side depending on severity you could tell how badly the car’s wheels were aligned. 

After several tests on different roads you will know whether or not you have a problem. It is best to test the theory on several different roads. If the road you are driving on is higher in the center your vehicle may veer to one side while trying to find a level surface which may not indicate alignment. 

It is important to note that while this theory generally does point to wheel alignment, pulling to one side can also be indicative of things like low tire pressure so if you are using this method you should still have an expert determine what the source of the issue is.

You can also tell you need an alignment based on the wear on your tires. If your tires are being worn down at different rates you may have low tire pressure or you could need an alignment. Check the tread on your vehicle (assuming you got all four tires at the same time) and if one tire is worn more than the others your alignment is likely off and you should take your car in. 

Another great way to tell if your tires need to be aligned is by looking at your steering wheel when you’re driving straight. If the steering wheel is not also straight you may want to have your alignment checked by a professional. 

If you really want a definite answer, the best way is to go through the steps of measuring your vehicle’s tire angles yourself. 

Checking Your Own Alignment (Measuring The Tire Angles)

Many individuals believe you have to go to a mechanic to get an official diagnosis on your vehicle’s alignment. While this is true in some regard, you can actually check certain aspects of the alignment of your vehicle at home. The toe for example is relatively simple to self diagnose. Depending on your comfortability, you still may want to go to a professional. Look over this list and see if you want to try this at home:

  1. Park your vehicle on a nice even paved surface, your garage should work. 
  2. Center your steering wheel. You want your tires to be pointed straight ahead. 
  3. To check the toe of your vehicle you want to jack up the front tires. Make sure you secure the vehicle completely. 
  4. While spinning the tire, use a can of spray paint to make a line around the tire on the tread by holding your hand in one spot, I recommend balancing your elbow here to get an accurate result. 
  5. Repeat this on the other front tire and then again on the back tires. 
  6. Take the car off of the jack, then measure from line to line (between the line of the front two tires and then between the back two tires) with the vehicle again on an even surface. 
  7. To determine the toe, compare the measurements between the number you calculated between your front tires and back tires. 
  8. Recenter your steering wheel then adjust the tie rods on each side the same amount.
  9. Remeasure the toe and if needed repeat steps 3-8 until the toe is within spec
  10. Next you’ll want to ensure that the adjuster-sleeve nuts are in factory spec. Adjust these as needed. 
  11. Though camber is part of measuring alignment, it is typically not something that can be fixed. Camber is thrown off due to warping of parts. 

We also found this approach to aligning your vehicle at home very useful. Check out the video below for a more in depth discussion on DIY alignment. 

What Happens When You Take Your Vehicle To The Mechanic For An Alignment

Let’s talk about the details of a tire alignment. The average person knows they need to have the wheels of their car aligned but most don’t know what exactly goes on during that process. Here’s what a professional does when they align your wheels:

An alignment is actually a somewhat elaborate process where the car’s suspension is brought to an optimal configuration. When an alignment has been performed properly, the positioning of the suspension will allow all wheels to sit at an equal angle to each other which also optimizes the angle at which they meet the road. 

A new and high end alignment machine will lift the car in the air and use a computer to optimize these angles using precise measurements. At this time a mechanic will check the suspension for any other necessary repairs. 

The proper angles that a car’s wheels should sit after an alignment will leave the vehicles wheels square to each other. This allows the wheels to work together moving the car in one direction instead of having one wheel trying to power the vehicle one way while the other works against its efforts. 

The 4 Suspension Angles

  1. Toe- This is the measurement of the angle at which your sets of tires sit comparatively to each other. Toe in for example is a slightly pigeon toed look. Toe out is where the tires point out slightly away from each other
  2. Thrust- this is a measurement involving the front and rear axles and the wheelbase of a vehicle. The thrust line is the angle the back axle is facing in relation to the front. In a perfect world the thrust angle would be aligned with the center of the vehicle. 
  3. Camber- This is the lean of the tire itself. Ideally a tire will sit perfectly perpendicular to the ground. We do not live in an idealistic world however and any tire will sit slightly inward or outward. A tire that leans in is considered to have negative camber, while a tire that sits out and away from the car has positive camber. 
  4. Caster- This is the angle of steering pivot in degrees

These four components together affect tire movement and positioning. 

After your alignment is complete it is appropriate to ask for a print out of the service. Most mechanics will have no problem providing this. A print out should include before and after photos of the alignment (include a photo of a print out here)

If you’re wanting to check your toe, camber or caster, I found this video to be extremely helpful. Jump to about the 7 minute mark in for this video if you want a more condensed experience. 

Cost Of A Professional Alignment

A wheel alignment will run you on average about $75 in the United States. This will of course depend on where you live and who you go to. Any reputable mechanic will be familiar with wheel alignments and will likely offer them as a service. The top end price for a tire alignment will run you around $175- $200

 If you don’t have a regular mechanic do a search on google to find the highly rated professionals in your area. Call around and ask questions until you find someone and a price you are comfortable with. 

Cost is going to also vary based on the type of alignment you choose and the warranty offered on the service. You can get your tires aligned for a very low cost: a basic two wheel alignment at walmart for $50 or all four for $75 with no warranty. If you are looking for a warranty on your wheel alignment it is going to be a bit more expensive

The top end price for a tire alignment will run you around $175- $200. Some companies will charge you more if you have a large truck or SUV because they are bigger and more difficult to work with. Keep this in mind if you are calling around for a quote. These more expensive alignments usually come with some sort of warranty which is also an important question to ask when shopping around for a mechanic to perform your wheel alignment. 

Is A Wheel Alignment Necessary When You Get New Tires?

The answer is no it is not necessary, but it is strongly recommended that you do them at the same time. The reason mechanics recommend you align your wheels when you replace your tires is that they want you to get what you are paying for. Improper alignment will deteriorate the usable life of the tread on your new tires and cause your tires to immediately wear a tread pattern that is not ideal . An alignment makes sure your tires are all facing at exactly the same angle and also one that is optimal with the road using high tech computers and a laser with incredible accuracy. 

On the other foot, bad tires can also impact your alignment, but this is rare. Typically it is normal wear and tear on your vehicle due to uneven roads, potholes, and collisions which knock off a vehicle’s alignment.  It is best to get both a wheel alignment and new tires put on in the same visit to the mechanic. It will protect your tire  investment and save you an extra trip into the shop. 

What Is A Warranty On A Wheel Alignment?

A wheel alignment warranty is not a guarantee that your wheels will not come back out of alignment, they will. A wheel alignment warranty is instead a promise of continued service. Essentially for the life of your vehicle (while you are the owner) you can go in and have your wheels aligned as many times as you want. 

It’s not as expensive as you might think.. I was surprised to find that most lifetime wheel alignment warranties were a little over double the cost of a standard wheel alignment. These may be a good option for someone who drives a lot of dirt roads or if you intend to keep your car for several years. Ask your mechanic if they offer warranties on their wheel alignments!

Where Should I Get An Alignment Done?

I always recommend using a mechanic you are comfortable with, but again if you need to go to a new mechanic for whatever reason it is best to find one either recommended by someone you know or utilize the information at your fingertips on the internet. 

A good mechanic is likely to be highly rated on google. If you are a first time car owner I would call the mechanic and ask questions concerning price, the machinery they use and any warranty they may offer on their services to get an idea. Always go with your gut on this, if a mechanic seems disinterested or sketchy over the phone it’s probably best to find one who you are more comfortable with.  

Once you pick a reputable mechanic most will get you scheduled promptly and the service completed within the same day as drop off. 

Will Bad Tires Effect Your Alignment?

Yes bad tires can definitely affect the alignment of your vehicle but it’s very rare that this happens. Unless you’re driving on bald tires that really jar the suspension of your car you will most likely not run into this problem. 

Time matters here though. If you constantly drive on bad tires your suspension will likely be in pretty rough shape after some time. Alignment is not something that breaks all at once (unless you are in a serious accident) it is something that gradually gets out of whack. 

How Long Will Tires Last With Bad Alignment?

This is a completely relative question and it is the same for someone with perfect alignment. It depends on your driving style, where you live, what type of roads you drive on, how frequently you drive and what car you have. 

The simple answer here is less time than with a freshly aligned vehicle. You do not want to bear the cost of replacing tires that were worn out prematurely and in most cases it is far less costly to have the car realigned. Tires that wear out are also a safety hazard as they become more worn and lose traction. 

Should I Align My Tires Before Or After I Get New Tires

If you are not doing your alignment at the same time as the new tires are being put on and balanced the mechanics recommend having the alignment done first. After you have your new tires they recommend having it slightly touched up. 

It’s in good practice to get these two done at the same time. Align your wheels when you get new tires for optimal results. 

Do I Need A 2 Or 4 Wheel Alignment?

The type of alignment you need is completely dependent on what type of car you own and the variation of suspension the vehicle has. 

You will need a four wheel alignment if you have a four wheel drive vehicle. Or if you have a vehicle that has a front wheel suspension with an independent or adjustable rear wheel suspension. If you have either of these suspension variations all four wheels will need to be aligned with each other to make a rectangle. 

A two wheel suspension also known as a front-end suspension, which is generally less expensive, will typically suffice for most other types of vehicle. So two wheel drive vehicles will only need to have their front axle aligned or adjusted. 

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