If a car is involved in an accident and sustains enough damage, an insurer may deem it to be a ‘write-off’. However, this term has several different elements to it – and they can be confusing at times.
Depending on the severity of the damage, it may be acceptable and perfectly legal for a car that has been written off by an insurance company to be repaired and returned to the road. Whether or not it’s a wise idea to buy a car that has previously been written off is a different story, however.
In this article, we will look through the ins and outs of a car insurance write-off and explain what it means to you.
What does a ‘write-off’ mean, exactly?
When a car is ‘written off’, it means one of two things. Either the vehicle has been damaged beyond repair and can’t be returned to the road, or it could be repaired to an acceptable standard but it isn’t cost-effective to do so (the cost of the repair is more than the value of the car).
Insurers will likely hand you a cash payout in either situation. In certain cases, you may be offered the chance to buy your car for its scrap value, which may be no more than a few hundred pounds. This may be of interest if the car is rare or unique, or you are interested in repairing it yourself, but won’t be of use to most people.
When will my insurer write a car off?
Most obviously, a car insurance company will declare a car to be written off after an accident resulting in significant damage. The insurance assessors and repair centre will make this decision. Once a car has been declared a write-off, its status cannot be altered.
An insurance company may write off a car if it has been stolen and not recovered after a certain period of time. The insurer pays the owner for the value of the vehicle, which is written off. Even if the car is subsequently recovered, it will still be classed as a write-off regardless of its condition. These cars may often only have light damage, and will usually be declared as a ‘Cat N’ (see below).
You are required to inform the DVLA that your car has been written off. If you don’t, you could face a £1,000 fine.
What are the insurance write-off categories?
There are four different levels of write-off, depending on the extent of the car’s damage. They are as follows:
A car deemed a Category A (known as ‘Cat A’) write-off is one that’s destined for the scrapper and has been deemed completely unsafe to appear on the road, even if it appears to have some salvageable parts. This happens after the most serious of incidents – for example, a serious fire – where the car’s damage is so extensive that the only safe solution is to scrap the whole thing.
The entire car (or what’s left of it) must be destroyed, with no part of the vehicle whatsoever allowed to be used on a public road again.
When a car is declared ‘Cat B’, this means its body shell must be destroyed, although other parts can be salvaged for reuse on other cars. This generally happens when the car has suffered severe damage to one area but another area of the car is unaffected, such as a head-on collision that destroys the front of the car but leaves the rear untouched.
The core structure of the car (body shell and any structural components) must be scrapped, but non-structural parts like panels and trim pieces can be stripped off and used again if they have not been damaged.
Formerly dubbed ‘Cat C’, what is now called ‘Cat S’ is a car that has suffered structural damage but is not terminally broken. Though it doesn’t need to be scrapped, it does require specialist professional repair before it can be used on the road again. The repairs will almost certainly be very expensive, so will usually cost more than the car is worth.
Although the car has suffered structural damage (such as damage to a crumple zone), if the vehicle is properly repaired then there is no reason why it won’t be as safe as it was prior to the accident. Cars are built in a very modular way, so even fairly major components can be replaced or repaired without affecting the rest of the vehicle – if the job is done properly.
However, it’s important to be aware that there is no legal requirement for the repairs to be inspected before the car returns to the road, so you have no guarantee that the repairs have been conducted to a suitable standard.
‘Cat N’ means a vehicle has suffered damage that is non-structural but has been deemed too expensive to repair by the insurer. Cars under this are usually fixable, though non-structural doesn’t necessarily mean driveable — as it could indicate a fault with its electronics, steering, brakes or other mechanical components.
In a Cat S or Cat N write-off situation, the insurance company will usually pay the owner the market value of the vehicle and send the car off to be auctioned. Depending on the nature of the damage, it may be stripped for parts and the remainder scrapped, or it may be bought by a business or individual who will repair it and put it back on the road, which is perfectly legal.
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Even light damage can lead to a write-off
A car does not need to have a lot of visible damage to be declared a write-off. The slightly damaged blue Mini in the image below was actually my car and was declared a Cat N write-off last year, even though the damage looks very light and the car was still driveable. An old lady drove into it while it was parked in a supermarket car park, a collision at probably less than 10mph.
The Mini needed a complete new front bumper assembly (which obviously needed to be painted) and the black plastic wheel arch assembly. Although some minor damage to the bonnet is visible under the left headlight, the real problem was that the whole bonnet had been moved ever so slightly in the impact, which damaged the hinges and mountings. That would mean a new bonnet, which as you can see incorporates the headlights and grille. There was also some scratching to the front left wheel and a cut on the tyre sidewall, which would require a new tyre.
The cost of all those repairs and new parts was easily more than the value of a 14-year-old Mini Cooper, so the insurance company declared it a Cat N write-off. It was bought from a damaged car auction, repaired and sold by a used car dealer a month or so later.
Should I buy a written-off car?
Buying an insurance write-off can be a risky business. Even though a Cat N or Cat S car is legally allowed to be repaired and continue its life on the roads, there is no formal inspection requirement to ensure that the repairs have been carried out to an acceptable standard. This is particularly important for a Cat S car, which has suffered some level of structural damage.
If you’re buying from a used car dealer, they are obliged to declare that the car is a Cat S or Cat N. It must also be clearly stated in any advertisement. On the hand, if you’re buying privately, there are no such safeguards. It’s always worth the £20 or so to get a vehicle history check, which will tell you if the car has previously been written off.
If you’re considering buying a car insurance write-off, a Cat S or Cat N car should be considerably cheaper than a similar car that hasn’t been written off. To give you an idea, the Category N Mini above was advertised by a dealer (after being repaired) for about 25% less than the payout I got from the insurance company. If you allow for a bit of haggling in the purchase, the buyer probably paid at least 30% less than an equivalent car.
Of course, you might save some money if you buy a Cat S or Cat N car, but you’ll inevitably lose it again when you come to eventually sell the car down the track. Plus, you may well find that your car insurance premium is higher because the car is a former write-off. Overall, you might not end up saving very much at all.
While getting a mechanical inspection is a good idea when buying any used car, it’s especially important for a write-off. These vehicles may have been in relatively serious collisions and suffered unseen damage, so paying the extra for a professional to properly check the chassis and underpinnings is a great idea.
The real risk is buying a car that’s been poorly repaired. Personally, I wouldn’t touch a Cat S car regardless of price, but if you are considering it then at least be very aware of what you’re doing.
This article was originally published in April 2019, and was last updated in April 2020.