How to Tell If Your Starter Is Bad [6 Warning Signs]

By Jed Lehman •  Updated: 05/19/22 •  12 min read

If you are wondering how to tell if your starter is bad, you are in the right place.

The starter in your vehicle is responsible for starting the vehicle’s engine. If your starter is not functioning properly, your engine may only start some of the time, or even worse, it may not start at all.

Having a bad starter can leave you stranded, so it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of a bad starter. Additionally, a bad starter can have similar symptoms to other car problems (like a dead battery), so being able to differentiate starter problems from other problems is very helpful.

The good news is that we’re here to help. We’re going to take you through everything you need to know about starters and what the symptoms of a damaged starter look like.

We’ll also cover how to troubleshoot starter problems and uncover what the cost of repairing a starter can be.

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What Is a Starter?

Starters come in many shapes and sizes, and the power source can even vary. For example, some starters are electric, while others are hydraulic or pneumatic. The most common starters found in modern vehicles are electric starters, though, because they’re easy to repair and cost-effective.

How Long Do Starters Last? 

The lifespan of a starter depends on several factors, but many starters can last for the lifespan of the vehicle.

Some starters can fail before 100,000 miles if cars are started often or if other problems arise. For example, an engine that overheats can cause the starter motor to overheat and break.

How Much Does It Cost To Replace a Starter? 

The cost of replacing a starter depends on whether you want a brand new starter or a rebuilt starter.

Getting a starter rebuilt is less expensive because many of the parts used to repair the old starter are already present.

What Causes Starters to Have Problems?

Starters have problems for several reasons, and some are more common than others. A starter motor can also begin to have problems if a vehicle is started in colder climates.

Below are the most common causes of starter problems:

These are a handful of the problems that can cause a decline in starter function. With some of these issues, a simple fix can restore a starter.

Symptoms of a Bad Starter

When your starter is on its way out, there are several symptoms you can check for. A bad starter can have one or more of the following symptoms, so it’s important to pay close attention to what happens under the hood when you attempt to start your vehicle.

Depending on the symptoms, you can also determine how serious the starter problem is. Here is how to tell if your starter is bad.

1. Engine Doesn’t Turn Over 

The most common symptom of a starter failing is the engine not turning over. Engines turn over when the starter motor turns over the crankshaft, which starts an engine’s combustion cycle. If you place your key in the ignition and nothing happens, it could be a starter problem.

The same problem can also occur with push-to-start vehicles. Keep in mind that the engine not turning over can also be caused by other problems like a battery that’s out of juice, spark plug issues, and even fuel injection problems.

As a result, you should jump-start the vehicle and take it to a mechanic for a complete electrical inspection, or have it towed.

2. Noises When Attempting To Start the Car 

When you start a vehicle, it’s common to hear some noise. Usually, you’ll hear the starter motor attempt to turn over the engine (it sounds like cranking).

While some noise is normal when starting the car, if you hear grinding or whirring noises, it’s an indication that the starter motor is having problems. Your vehicle might start, even with these noises, but ignoring them can cause damage to the crankshaft and flywheel.

3. Car Starts Sometimes But Fails To Start on Other Occasions 

If a car starts fine sometimes but fails to start the next time, it can be a starter problem. A starter works by sending electrical current through the starter relay. When a starter is working properly, it sends full electrical current through the relay, but if there is an issue, it won’t send any electricity through the relay. When this issue occurs, it’s typically an electrical problem and not an issue with the starter motor. Still, you should take your vehicle to a technician to be sure.

4. Starter Continues to Function After Starting 

A serious symptom of a bad starter is the starter motor running after the engine is running. Typically, the starter motor starts the vehicle and then shuts down.

When the starter motor is damaged, it can get stuck in the “on” position, which can damage your flywheel, crankshaft, and transmission. You can determine if the starter motor remains on when the engine is running by listening to sounds in the vehicle’s cabin.

If you hear the same noises you hear when starting the car when the engine is running, it’s a sign of a serious starter problem.

5. Smoke From the Engine Bay 

Smoke from the engine bay is another sign of a bad starter. What makes the smoke that comes from the starter different from other smoke in the engine bay is that the smoke will be present when the engine is off. Attempting to start a car that won’t turn over too many times can cause the starter to overheat.

When the starter overheats, you can smell smoke from the vehicle’s cabin, and you’ll notice smoke coming out of the bottom of the vehicle.

A blown fuse, a problem with the ignition switch, or an electrical short circuit can all cause smoke to come from the starter.

6. Problems at the Flywheel  

The last symptom of a bad starter to look out for is the starter engaging but the engine not turning over. In most vehicles, the starter is connected to the flywheel using gears.

If any of these gears becomes damaged, it can prevent the starter motor from turning over the engine, even if the rest of the starter is working properly.

Gears from the starter that become stripped or dislodged can also cause similar issues. In these cases, the starter needs to be replaced or the gears need to be fixed.

Other problems can also be a sign of a bad starter, but these are the most common symptoms that you can identify quickly.

How to Troubleshoot Starter Problems 

There are several methods you can use to troubleshoot starter problems. Starter problems are hard to identify, but there are a few things you can do to test the starter and get the engine running. These steps are listed below.

1. Check the Battery

Before checking the starter for problems, turn your attention toward the vehicle’s battery. Examine the terminals carefully and check for corrosion. Corrosion on batteries looks like acidic foam that covers the terminals. You can use a mixture of water and vinegar to remove the corrosion from the terminals and doing so might solve the issue.

When checking the battery, you should also check the connections. Make sure the battery cables are secure and that everything is connected to the terminals.

If cables are damaged, we recommend replacing them. Once you’re done with the battery, attempt to start the vehicle again. If it starts, there’s a good chance you have a battery problem and not a starter problem.

2. Tap the Top of the Starter

If the battery was not the cause of your vehicle not starting, it’s time to turn your attention back to the starter. Grab a solid object and tap the top of the starter.

Make sure you tap the starter gently because you don’t want to damage the starter or get it stuck; a stuck starter will make it more challenging to replace the starter.

Tapping the starter can be effective because it can force the electrical components to come into contact, which is required for the starter to work properly. However, tapping the starter is merely a band-aid solution; unless the main source of the problem is addressed, the problem will return.

3. Play With the Shifter

Sometimes a simple electrical problem can prevent a car from starting. If you have a vehicle with an automatic transmission, play around with the shifter and try to start the car when it’s in a different setting. Some vehicles might start when the gear shifter is placed in neutral instead of park. If this is the case, there’s likely an electrical problem that’s keeping the starter from functioning properly.

You can also troubleshoot a vehicle that has a manual transmission in the same way. With a manual transmission, move the shifter into different gears and attempt to start the car. If the vehicle starts in 4th gear but not in neutral, there’s a good chance it’s an electrical problem.

Troubleshooting a bad starter will only get you so far. Once you know it’s an issue with the starter, make sure you take the vehicle to a professional technician.

Other Issues That Cause a Car To Not Start

While starters cause an engine to turn over and start, it’s not always the starter that prevents engines from starting. Several other issues can cause an engine to not start, and addressing these issues first can save you an expensive trip to the mechanic.

Dead Battery

When a car is not starting, you should always start with the battery. Car batteries are designed to last for a long time, but sometimes the battery can fail.

A battery that has a lot of corrosion can also cause a car not to start. If your vehicle can start after being jumped and starts without problems after the car is jump-started, it’s most likely a battery or alternator problem that’s causing your vehicle not to start.

Unfortunately, if the battery can no longer hold a charge, it will need to be replaced.

Alternator Problems 

Another problem that can cause a car to not start is an issue with the alternator. The alternator is responsible for charging the battery when the engine is running, and it also supplies electricity to a vehicle’s accessories. If an alternator is not working properly, the battery can die and the vehicle will fail to start.

An alternator that doesn’t work can also cause engines to stall when they’re running. Alternator problems are tricky to identify, but you can always use a multimeter tool to test the alternator’s terminals. You can also test your vehicle’s accessories; if the high beams are dim or if the radio doesn’t get power, it’s likely an alternator problem.

Bad Fuel Pump 

Another problem that can cause problems with an engine starting is a bad fuel pump. The fuel pump is responsible for sending fuel from the gas tank to the fuel injectors, or carburetors.

When a fuel pump stops working, the engine can’t get the fuel it needs to start. In some cases, an engine will run for a few moments before stalling. Some other signs of a bad fuel pump include engine sputtering, power surges, and damage to the fuel injection system.

To prevent the fuel pump from getting damaged, we recommend having at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your gas tank at all times.

Wrapping Up 

The starter is a crucial component in modern vehicles. Without the starter, the engine can’t turn over and won’t start. While other issues can cause a car not to start, a starter problem is more noticeable because you typically hear unusual noises when turning the key to start a vehicle.

Fortunately, replacing a starter is not too expensive, and identifying starter problems before the starter motor breaks can save you money. If it’s too late for your starter, though, we always recommend taking it to a professional mechanic for repairs.

Jed Lehman

Jed Lehman is a born gearhead who has been working on cars since he could crawl. He inherited his love for auto from his grandfather who owned a maintenance shop in Carlsbad, California. Jed is the driver behind Gearshift, and started this site to provide straightforward, helpful automobile information. From maintenance tips to product reviews, you can find it all here.