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Q: Tire turns side to side by hand

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I was getting my oil changed, and was told that I need the lower ball joint replaced. When the mechanic told me this, it was not upon visual inspection, but because he could turn the tire side to side, not up and down, by hand. Is this a ball joint issue, or another issue?

My car has 141000 miles.
My car has an automatic transmission.

Ball joints have to be loaded (partial weight of car put on them) during a very specific diagnostic that varies a bit from car to car. Unless the looseness due to wear is gross and thus very obvious, you can’t tell anything reliably unless you use the Factory Service Manual for your specific vehicle and test exactly as instructed in the Manual. It doesn’t sound like the mechanic showed you any test protocol. On some cars, you can’t even really test a ball joint as installed because you have to use a torque wrench to measure the turning resistance of the ball stud and that means the ball joint has to be separated from the control arm to test. Generally, if you hold a wheel in free air (vehicle off the ground) at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, as you seem to be describing, and attempt to rock the wheel back and forth (make sure steering column is locked) there should be no free movement at all in the tie rods ends or the ball joint(s). While holding at 9 and 3 if there is movement, it’s often in the tie rods (there’s an inner and an outer tie rod, by the way), not so much the ball joint. At any rate, it sounds like you should get a second opinion and really if "a" ball joint is suspected to have excess wear the whole front end should be evaluated. The problem is, if "a" ball joint is replaced, typically the car will have to be realigned but to do an alignment properly, the entire front end has to be in acceptable condition with no other worn parts. So, the optimal and wise thing to do is get the entire front end properly evaluated at one time. If you desire you can request a ball joint replacement/inspection but when you make the request indicate that you’re looking for an inspection of both sides and all front suspension components.

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