Is it ok to buy a write-off?

Looking for a good second hand car but don’t have a lot of budget to play with? Join the queue – there are lots of people across the UK doing exactly the same thing. 

You need a quality car but at a rock-bottom price and, looking through the dealer ads and classifieds, you come across what looks like a reasonable bargain, although there are strange letters included in the car’s description: Cat S or Cat N.

The alarm bells start ringing, and for good cause, because it means the car you’re thinking of parting with good cash for, is an insurance write-off.

However, all is not lost. Just because your dream used buy has been declared a write-off, it doesn’t mean it has been smashed to pieces, turned into a fireball and is now an irreparable death-trap. Certainly, a write-off has sustained a degree of damage but often that can be fixed and the car returned to the road in perfectly good condition. So you might find yourself asking, is it ok to buy a write-off?

It comes down to how much the repair will cost and whether the insurance company thinks it is worth doing considering the total value of the vehicle. There are four different categories of write-off: two mean that the car can never return to the road while the other two signify that it can.

What is important is that, if a car is declared a write-off, the DVLA licensing authority must be informed and a note of this goes against the car’s records. That doesn’t mean the vehicle isn’t worth saving though, and many specialists are prepared to do just that.

What are the insurance categories?

In 2019 the insurance industry supported a national change to the write-off categorisation and came up with four new classes: A. B, S and N. The move was backed by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) who said ‘the purpose of the Code is to protect the public, detect and deter insurance fraud and other criminal activities’.

Category A: Scrap

Cat A cars are write-offs that have been so badly damaged that they must not be repaired and should, in fact be crushed so that even their parts – if there are any left – can’t be used. Serious fires, or where emergency services have cut the roof off, are examples of Cat A wrecks.

Category B: Break

Cat B means the level of damage on the car makes it unsuitable for repair, but there might be some usable parts to be recycled for use on another vehicle. This happens where a car has been struck from behind, for example, but the front end is undamaged. There would be plenty of parts available which can be employed rather than wasted.

Category S (formerly called Cat C): Repairable Structural

A Cat S write-off will have some structural damage which does not put the car beyond repair. While it can be fixed safely, it’s likely to take quite a bit of work and therefore attract high costs, of possibly more than the value of the motor. But it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to buy the damaged vehicle and repair it to a safe and legal standard.

Category N (formerly called Cat D): Repairable Non-Structural

Cat N cars have sustained even lighter damage and nothing’s happened to the actual structure of the vehicle. This will include the car’s body panels, lights or wheels that can easily be replaced. There might be some other parts, such as steering or suspension, that need changing and this can push up the cost, which could explain why the insurer has decided to write it off.

Should you buy or avoid?

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider buying a write-off as they can often represent excellent value. You will only ever be considering a Cat S or Cat N car but even then, there are several thorough checks you should make first.

Used dealers must tell you if the car you like is a Cat S or Cat N and they should also declare it in adverts. However, some private owners might not be quite so forthcoming. This is why it’s worth getting an independent car history check. Motorcheck includes write-off and even scrapping checks in every £9.99 ‘Single Report’ it carries out.

There’s no problem with buying a car that has been professionally repaired with new panels, a headlamp assembly and perhaps a spray job. But make sure you’re happy with the remedial work if the steering or brakes were affected by an accident. An independent mechanic can assist you here.

Remember also that if a car has been caught in a flooding incident it can end up being classed as a Cat N write-off. Once the vehicle has dried out and been professionally cleaned, flood damage is hard to spot – but it might have got into the starter motor, steering mechanism or brake assembly and caused damage. Look for tell-tale signs such as a musty smell about the interior, damp carpets or more condensation than you’d expect inside.

So is it for you?

Not all written-off cars need to be avoided, but you should approach any potential purchase armed with all the facts – and that will mean having some professional checks done to make sure your potential purchase has been brought back to a safe and appropriate standard.

A written-off vehicle will often cost more to insure than a non-damaged one and some insurers won’t offer cover at all. And bear in mind that a car’s history follows it around so, if you ever come to sell your Cat S or N car, you might have to settle for a discounted price – just like the one you negotiated when you bought it.

Buyers intending to hold onto their car for a long time will find a write-off could be the perfect solution for them. But others will write off the idea immediately.