It’s every car owner’s worst nightmare — your car starts making a random noise, and you have no idea what it is. Is it a loose screw or something much more serious? If you’re worried, here are a few tips and tricks to help you figure out what’s causing the sound and whether or not it’s a problem that needs to be addressed quickly.

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Where Is the Noise Coming From?

The first step is to figure out where the sound is coming from. Is it under the hood, underneath the car or coming from somewhere outside?

Noises under the hood might be difficult to place — the engine compartment itself can act like a big acoustic sound amplifier. You’ll be able to hear the sound better, but it’s difficult to determine the exact location.

For sounds under or outside the car, try having someone outside the car listen while you drive at slow speeds to see if they can determine where the sound is coming from. Some sounds may only occur when you’re doing a specific action — i.e. your brakes might only squeak when you’re in reverse or you’re pressing them to slow the car, or your suspension might make noise only when you’re going over a bump or pressing on the car’s bumper.

What Is Causing the Noise?

The second step is to determine what is causing the noise. A close inspection can help you figure out the general area of the noise. The internet is your friend in this case — check out sites that collect the sounds cars make, or head over to YouTube to find a video that might help you determine the source of the sound.

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Forums for your particular car model can also be useful because the people posting in them have often experienced the same thing or heard the same indefinable sound coming from their own cars.

Common Car Sounds

Here are some car sounds you might hear — and more importantly, their possible causes:

  • Squeaking while slowing/stopping: Your brakes might need to be looked at, but new brake pads often squeak even when healthy.
  • Hissing under the hood: An air or water leak. If the engine is running, look for air or coolant leaks. If you hear hissing when the engine is off, look for slow leaks dripping onto hot components.
  • Thumping while driving: If it’s coming from one side of the car, chances are you have a flat tire and should probably stop the car so you can address it.
  • Clunking when turning: Your CV axle is failing and should probably be replaced soon.
  • Squeaking or chirping under the hood: You’ve probably got a belt or bearing problem. Check all your belts for wear and check your pulley bearings to make sure they’re free-spinning. A seized pulley can kill a belt faster than you can blink.

Don’t ignore those annoying noises — they could potentially become very expensive problems. A little bit of observation can go a long way toward keeping your car running at its peak.