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What is a car insurance write off?

If your insurer's told you that your car's been written off, or you're wondering whether to buy a heavily discounted Cat N used car, this guide is for you.

We'll explain everything you need to know about car insurance write offs, including the different categories and whether you should buy a written-off car.

What is a car insurance write off?

Crashed car being inspected

Your car might get written off by your insurers after it's been in an accident or gets damaged. If the damage is so bad that the car cannot be repaired safely, or that the cost of repairs exceeds a certain percentage of the vehicle's value, the insurance company will write it off.

Typically, the car will then go off to be crushed and your insurance company will cut you a cheque equal to its market value before the damage. Written-off cars are separated into four categories based on how badly damaged they were. Sometimes, write offs from less serious categories can be legally returned to the road if they've been professionally repaired, and you can choose to buy your written-off car back from the insurance company to have it repaired.

Car insurance write off categories explained

Car crash scene at night time with police car in background

There are four write-off categories ranging from the most serious, Cat A, to the least serious Cat N. Here's what they all mean:

What is a Cat A write off?

Category A write offs are cars with damage so severe that they must be destroyed and can never return to the road. Cars with Cat A status are deemed so unroadworthy that it's forbidden to resell parts from that car – even if they appear undamaged.

What is a Cat B write off?

Cat B is one step down from Cat A. The car can never be made roadworthy again and its shell needs to be destroyed, but it's legal to sell undamaged parts from that car for use as spares for other vehicles.

What is a Cat S write off?

Cat S indicates that the vehicle has suffered 'structural' damage. This could mean the car's frame or chassis was damaged in a crash, or that its crumple zones have, well… crumpled. Despite the damage, however, the insurance company can legally sell it to a salvage company, which might decide to professionally repair the car and resell it.

What is a Cat N write off?

Cat N is for cars with 'non-structural' damage. This usually means the cost of whatever cosmetic or electrical repairs the car needed were deemed uneconomical by the insurance company, and it opted to write the car off rather than repair it. Like Cat S, Cat N cars can be repaired and resold to the public.

What is a Cat C or Cat D write off?

Cat C and Cat D were the previous least-serious write-off categories. They were replaced by Cat S and Cat N respectively in 2017.

What happens when a car is written off?

A crane with a pile of crushed cars

You'll be told by your insurance company whether your car is a write off after they've had the chance to inspect it. Once this happens, your insurance company will effectively become the owner of whatever remains of the car, and they'll send you a payout equal to its market value before it was damaged.

If the car was written off with Cat A or Cat B status, it'll be crushed to prevent any risk that it gets unscrupulously repaired and put back into circulation. Write offs with Cat S or Cat N status will usually be sold by the insurance company to salvagers. Those companies will either sell parts from those vehicles or perform the necessary repairs to make the whole car roadworthy again.

Should I buy an insurance write off?

Man on phone by car with bonnet open

Our recommendation, for the vast majority of buyers who just want a reliable, safe vehicle, is to avoid buying a written-off vehicle. A write off can be temptingly cheap but, unless you're a trained technician, it can be very hard to determine whether that vehicle has been properly repaired. Repaired write offs could have underlying problems that aren't immediately obvious and might not hold up as well if they're involved in another accident.

That said, if you are in fact a trained technician, and are confident in your ability to fully inspect a car and whatever repairs it's undergone, then you might want to consider buying a written off car. You'll save money compared to buying an undamaged example and, considering you'll probably already have the skills and tools needed to properly maintain the car, will be able to keep it running well.

If my car is written off, can I keep it?

Man pushing car

You'll only have the option to keep your written-off car if it's given the less-serious Cat S or Cat N flags – or Cat C and Cat D, for cases before 2017. In this case, you take the payout from your insurers and then buy the written-off car back from them with that money. Cars with Cat A or Cat B flags must be destroyed as they're deemed too unsafe to return to the road in any form.

If you buy back the car, you can have it professionally repaired and put it back on the road – although the DVLA might need to inspect it for roadworthiness first. This might be a good option for older cars, where the damage itself isn't so severe but your insurer's given the car such a low valuation that the repair is deemed uneconomical.

If my car is written off, am I still insured?

Car driving away

No. As far as your insurance company's concerned, the car is no longer roadworthy and, thus, shouldn't be driven on the road. That means you won't be insured to drive it and, generally speaking, it won't even be in your possession at this stage, anyway.

Your insurance policy might entitle you to a courtesy car during this period, so make sure you speak to your insurer if this is the case.

What happens if my car on finance is written off?

Driver being shown damage on car

A car on finance must be insured just like any other vehicle, so the first part of the process is broadly the same as if you owned the vehicle outright. You first inform your insurers about the accident and await their inspection and verdict. If the car is written off, you'll receive a payout just as you would if you owned the car. The payout money can then go to repaying any outstanding finance on the vehicle.

You might find, however, that there's a shortfall between the amount you owe to the finance company and the payout from your insurers. This will leave you paying any extra money owed to the finance company out of your own pocket. There's not much you can do in this case, but you may be able to push back against your insurance company and argue that your payout was too low, or possibly negotiate an agreement with your finance provider.

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Your car insurance write off questions answered