Could buying a category S or N write-off ever be a bargain?

  • Insurance companies overhaul damage classifications
  • Category S and N take the place of C and D
  • Damaged repairable cars can be bargains

An insurance write-off is usually best avoided, but do your homework and there are bargains to be had, because many older vehicles classed as category N (non-structural) have little wrong with them that can't be rectified.

Some category S (structural) cars can also be repaired by engineers with the right skills, but will retain that marker forever - making them less appealing to many buyers, and potentially worthwhile if you're prepared to take them time to check the car out thoroughly.

Being classed as a repairable insurance write-off occurs when the cost of repair is deemed to be uneconomical, and that figure may be as low as 50% of the car's value. On older cars of low value, that means that minor damage can cause a total loss - even though it could be running perfectly and that the damage to it is minimal.

What is Cat S?

A category S vehicle has been determined to have structural damage (where the car's frame or underpinnings are damaged).

What is Cat N?

Category N has no structural damage, with just bodywork or 'bolt-on' parts requiring attention.

Both can be repaired, but category N will present fewer potential headaches. Previously these were described as categories C or D respectively; the new system makes it easier to associate the category with the level of damage.

Insurance write-off (total loss) categories:

  • Category A write-off- These vehicles are usually burnt-out and they must be totally crushed including all spare parts
  • Category B write-off  - These vehicles cannot return to road and the shell must be crushed, but their spare parts may be salvaged and sold for spares
  • Category S write-off  - Repairable, but cost of repair is more than value of car. Has been determined to have some sort of structural damage (previously category C)
  • Category N write-off  - Again repairable, but it would cost more than the car's value to fix. Shouldn't have sustained any structural damage (previously category D)

Insurance categories for other damage:

  • Category F car - These vehicles have minor fire damage and the insurers have decided not to repair them
  • Category X car - These vehicles are repairable and have minor damage

Should I buy a written-off car to repair?

Blue crash-damaged Mk1 Ford Ka

Buying and repairing a category N write-off - also referred to in the insurance trade as a total loss - can be a savvy option if you are planning to keep the car until the end of its life. Many perfectly serviceable cars are written off for items such as damage to headlights, bumpers or bolt-on panels which which have a high cost as new retail parts from a preferred repairer.

Those same parts can be bought secondhand for popular models, and if you have the skill and time - or an affordable mechanic - you can save thousands over the retail value of an undamaged car.

However, sourcing your repairable car will require some patience. Easily overlooked items like damaged glass or rubber seals can increase the cost of repair significantly. Structural items could look fine, and pass a visual inspection but be out of alignment, causing issues with fit or even the car's handling and safety. If you want to take this route, it is important to be as familiar as possible with your chosen car in an undamaged condition, and bear in mind that the costs of properly checking the alignment of the body and suspension could make it cheaper to buy an undamaged car in the long run.

Which written off cars make the best buys?

The older the car you're looking for, the less severe the damage needed to write it off; in fact for many nearly-new cars, the salvage prices are rarely low enough to make the repair worthwhile, as the damage needed to write the car off is extensive.

The perfect find is a cared-for older car with low miles and minor cosmetic repairs needed, such as bumpers, headlights and door skins. Low-speed frontal impacts are preferable to any form of rear impact, as the majority of cars include bolt-on structures behind the front bumper.

Damage to the rear, even superficial, can often involve damage to the boot floor and rear panels behind trim.

For newer or high performance cars, vandalism may be preferable to accident damage, as the structure of the car is unlikely to have been subject to stress.

Is it easy to make money on written off cars?

Regardless of the car you've chosen, if are thinking of repairing then selling it on, forget it: you are unlikely to get profit out of it. Most potential buyers will be wary if they are uncertain of the full extent of accident damage and although you can get insurance for write-offs, it is difficult to find cover without paying a higher premium.

Indeed, vehicle remarketing expert CAP said it cannot give values for category S or N vehicles: 'There is a lasting impact on these vehicles. We wouldn't be able to give a value; no figure can be put on a cat S or N. The vehicle could have zero value for one person but could be worth £1,000 to another.

'CAP expects that a category S or N would alienate the vast majority of buyers as many would not want to take the risk on a vehicle that has been classed as a write-off.'

Given the impact on residual values, the increased effort of finding a buyer - simply buying a good example well will be the cheaper option in the long run.

Should you buy an accident-repaired car?

When looking for the best prices on secondhand cars the category S or N write-off shouldn't be completely ignored.

If the car is structurally sound and replacement parts have been fitted well, then a Cat N car could be just as good as an undamaged model with significant savings, and a cat S write-off can be repaired safely with the right specialist knowledge and facilities.

Motoring organisation The AA says the write-off should not be written off.

An AA spokesperson told Parkers: 'Category S and N may be uneconomical for an insurer but this may be because the part is worth the same value as the car. The only reason the insurer may not have stumped up with the cash is because they would buy a new part and that plus labour may cost more than the value of your car and this is why they would write it off as a category S or category N.' 

Always get a history check when buying a car, particularly if the deal looks too good to be true. Although a repaired car may be good value it is only worth buying if you know the history - an undisclosed write-off will cause you problems in the future.

Cat S or C write-off cars - should you invest? 

Silver crash-damaged Mk1 Audi A5 Sportback driving up a recovery truck's ramp

If a background check or seller identifies a car as category S or category C, the vehicle will have had structural damage that has subsequently been repaired, which includes the potential for airbag deployment. Modern car bodyshells are designed to disperse accident forces throughout the shell to protect the occupants, and an improper repair could compromise both the safety and the longevity of the model you're looking at.

Extensive interior and electrical work is involved in repairing the damage from airbag deployment as well, meaning squeaks, rattles and trim damage are highly likely.

A repaired category S vehicle means rock-bottom prices, and if you carry out all the necessary checks it could be worth investigating. If you are confident that whatever has been damaged and repaired has not affected the safety of the car you might have a real bargain on your hands.

We'd recommend only buying category S or C cars that you can pay cash for and essentially, afford to lose the money. Financing a premium repaired car because it's a tempting price leaves you open to other problems, such as shortfalls in GAP insurance or no available cover, in the event of unemployment or write-off.

Still want to buy an insurance write-off?

If you are thinking of buying a write-off then make sure to follow this easy step-by-step guide as it could save you a lot of time, money and heartache.

  • You need to tell your insurance company about it - if you don't they may refuse a claim. It may not affect the premium, but it is likely to reduce the payout
  • Have a mechanical inspection carried out to ensure it has been repaired to a high standard - an MOT certificate is not sufficient
  • The market value will have been reduced considerably by the write-off - expect a considerable reduction
  • You may have some difficulty selling the vehicle in the future. Dealers often won't accept them in part exchange and the market for it will be limited. A potential buyer will also have the same concerns in the future as you do now

Can damage be unrecorded?

There is no official unrecorded category: it usually means the owner of the damaged vehicle only had third party cover, can't make a claim and can't afford to carry out the necessary repairs. They probably haven't told the insurers and haven't informed DVLA, so it doesn't appear on Vehicle History Checks.

They can be repaired quite cheaply if the damage is superficial, but we would recommend a full inspection before buying an unrecorded damaged car - and documenting your repairs thoroughly if you want to sell a car you have repaired.

Will a written-off car cost more to insure?

There's no concrete answer for this; some insurers may choose to increase the cost, but ultimately the risk is the same if the car has been repaired to the proper standards.

If in doubt, you can always get a free price comparison from sites such as Mustard or Compare the Market, and check the rates for the actual car you are buying.

The most common impact on insurance of a damaged/repaired car that is recorded is that your pay out in the event of a total loss will be lower, reflecting the car's reduced market value. This also lowers the threshold at which repairs are uneconomical. At the cheaper end of the market, the impact is small, but if you're looking for a bargain premium car such as a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, the difference in value could make it worth buying a car with clean history in the long term.

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