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What are Cat S and Cat N cars? Complete guide to insurance write-offs

Cat S and Cat N cars can look like a tempting deal, but they come with a catch. We explain everything you need to know about insurance write-off cars

Cat D cars, Cat C & insurance write-offs: complete guide

If you’ve ever shopped for a used car, you may have come across the terms ‘Cat S’, ‘Cat N’, ‘Cat C’ or ‘Cat D’, usually accompanied by a temptingly low price tag. These terms, along with the umbrella term ‘V car’, are used to label cars that have been ‘written off’ by an insurer. But what does ‘insurance write-off’ actually mean?

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All cars carrying a ‘Cat’ label have sustained some sort of damage, significant enough for the insurer to write off the car. Insurers will write off a car if the repair costs are deemed to be too expensive in relation to the car’s value, or if the damage makes it impossible to repair the car to road-worthy standards. Depending on the severity of the damage, the insurer will categorise the car under one of the ‘Cat’ terms above.

Two people talking over a car brochureQuestions to ask when buying a used car

While you may be tempted by the lower price of an insurance write-off car, there are some important things to consider before handing over your hard-earned money. Most importantly, you must be aware that the car has sustained some form of damage, so the quality of the repair should be thoroughly investigated. The ‘write-off’ status of the car will also have a detrimental effect on its future resale value. We discuss the other key factors in the guide below.

What is an insurance write off?

When a car is involved in an accident car insurers have a choice to repair a vehicle and return it to the road using one of their approved and trusted repairers, or to not repair the vehicle.

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In most cases, an insurer will write off a vehicle if the cost of repair exceeds 50% of the market value of the car, meaning even minor damage can result in a write-off. When this happens, the owner receives the market value of the car but doesn’t get the car back.

Crash damage

When the insurer decides not to repair a vehicle, it categorises the damage so anyone who purchases the vehicle in future can understand the extent of repair needed. If it is deemed the vehicle is a Category S or N (previously known as C or D) the vehicle can be purchased on the open market. When the car is subsequently repaired and returned to the road, it will carry a Cat S or N tag until it is permanently removed from the road – a note regarding this is written on the front page of the V5 under ‘special notes’, and some used car sale websites, such as Autotrader, will automatically mark the ad with a write-off category if you list the car up for sale.

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Those wanting to prove their vehicle has been repaired to such a high standard that the car is not discernible from one without a record of damage can do so by successfully passing an advanced inspection. This removes the vehicle from the ‘condition alert register’ to the ‘condition inspected’ register. It should be noted that the history of the accident does not override the previous category and it will still have a record of its previous insurance write-off, albeit not as an alert. An HPI report can show three different categories under a vehicle accident history:

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  • Clear – The vehicle has no history of ever being written off
  • Condition alert register (VCAR) – The vehicle is written off with an unknown quality of repair
  • Condition inspected – The vehicle is written off with high quality repair

It is important to note that a condition inspected categorisation does not entirely remove the past accident status of the vehicle – it will still carry the Cat S or N tag. Also, this will only update the HPI report, and is not guaranteed to update other reports such as Experian.

What are the insurance write-off categories?

When insurers decide to write-off a car, they place the car in one of four categories depending on the severity of the damage. The four categories are:

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  • Category A – The car is for scrap only. The car cannot be repaired and parts cannot be salvaged.
  • Category B – B stands for ‘break’. The car cannot be repaired, but it can be broken for spare parts if the insurer deems it economical.
  • Category S – The car has sustained structural damage. If professionally repaired, it can be returned to the road.
  • Category N – The car has sustained damage, but it is non-structural. It can be repaired and returned to the road.

What is a Cat A or Cat B car?

Neither Category A nor B cars (Cat A and Cat B) can ever be returned to the road. A condition inspection will not be carried out on this type of car for this reason, so repairs should not be undertaken for this type of salvage title.

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A Category A car is judged as having such severe damage that they are not only beyond repair, but no parts can be salvaged either. These cars are condemned to being crushed and destroyed so no component can be used again.

Written off cars scrap yard

Category B cars are beyond repair, but the B stands for ‘break’, meaning that some of the parts may be taken from the car to be reused on other cars. Though these parts may be usable, the car itself as an entire unit may never return to the road. Often, if it doesn’t make financial sense to break the car down for parts, the car may be treated in much the same way as a Cat A car and recycled in its entirety.

What is a Cat S or Cat N car?

Category S (Cat S) and Category N (Cat N) are used to label written-off cars that can be returned to the road once they have been repaired to an acceptable standard.

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Category S is assigned to cars that have suffered structural damage. This is significant enough to mean a repair shouldn’t be attempted on a DIY basis.

Category N refers to cars that are not structurally damaged, but require the replacement of safety-critical components related to the steering, braking or suspension.

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Even cars with minor damage can be declared a Cat S or N – something that’s particularly common if it’s a much older car of lower value. This is because the cost of processing the insurance claim and repairing the car is more likely to exceed the car’s value.

Some vehicles, including classic cars or niche models of special interest, can be allowed to be repaired ‘irrespective of extent of damage’, as long as it’s safe for them to return to the road.

Should I buy a Cat S or Cat N car?

For the majority of car buyers, we would recommend erring on the side of caution and staying away from Cat S and N cars entirely. While they are generally cheaper than a non-write-off, and can therefore look like good value, they could carry hidden faults if not repaired to a high enough standard. Search hard enough on the used market and you’re likely to find a good deal without having to resort to an insurance write-off.

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That being said, many insurance write-offs will have been professionally repaired and will be indistinguishable from a non-category car. If you’re comfortable with the added risk of purchasing a Cat S or Cat N car, it’s vital to make sure that any accident damage has been fully repaired to the required standards. A third-party inspection is essential – we’ll provide more detail on these below.

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It’s imperative to remember that once a car is written off as a Cat S or Cat N, this marker is permanent and cannot be changed. Additionally, Category S and Category N cars are worth less than an equivalent car that has not been written off, meaning you’ll get less when you decide to resell it.

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Car repairers, dealers or those who are particularly mechanically-minded can purchase a Cat S or Cat N car directly from a salvage auction, and carry out the repairs themselves. If you’re thinking of buying a damaged car to repair it, you’ll need to have a good idea of the costs involved – there might be additional unseen damage which could lead to higher costs.

If you're buying for personal use, resale profit probably isn't a factor. If a salvage vehicle holds particular interest – perhaps it's a model or specification that you've long been searching for – a repairable Cat N or Cat S car could make sense even if the cost of repair means it ends up saving you only a little money compared to an undamaged car.

Is it safe to buy a Cat N or Cat S car?

When buying a categorised car, there is a risk of ending up with something that has been poorly repaired, potentially making it less safe. However, finding a well-repaired example can prove to be good value. Thorough research and inspection of a potential purchase is absolutely essential if you want to buy a categorised car, so while it could come with its rewards, it’s advised to always know exactly how much work will be required.

Can I sell a Cat N car or Cat S car?

It’s legal to sell a Cat N or Cat S car as long as its status is declared. If you’re a dealer, this declaration must be clear, even if the car has been repaired to its pre-accident condition, but if you’re a private seller the rules sit in a slightly grey area – if you’re asked about the Cat status you must declare it, so it’s best just to make it clear from the outset in any case. A car bearing any write-off marker will be worth far less than one with a 'clean' history, even if the damage was minor and fully repaired to a high standard. Many buyers simply aren't comfortable with a history of damage.

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Declaring a car's Cat N or Cat S status is essential, whether selling it or part-exchanging it. If you don’t, the new owner could sue you for damages.

What about Cat C and Cat D?

Category C (Cat C) and Category D (Cat D) are the old categories from the previous categorisation system that have subsequently been replaced by Cat S and Cat N, although the new works in a slightly different way.

Introduced from 1 October 2017, the new Cat S and Cat N system assesses the severity of the damage and whether the repair is actually feasible. The old system only took into account the estimated cost of repair. The definitions for the old categories are:

  • Cat C – The car can be repaired and returned to the road, but the cost of the repair exceeds the car’s pre-accident value.
  • Cat D – The car can be repaired and returned to the road, and the cost of the repair does not exceed the car’s pre-accident value.

The amended system is intended to help inform used-car buyers if a car has previously suffered significant structural damage that they must be made aware of. This is becoming increasingly important as the complexity of modern cars means they may be written off because of electronic issues rather than structural damage that is considered beyond economical repair.

What is a write-off engineer report?

We recommend having a third party inspect any vehicle that you are looking to buy no matter its former condition. For a car that has been previously written off this is even more important. Repairs carried out may have been done by an insurer-recognised garage or may have been ‘condition inspected’, but it is still better to have a respected organisation take a look. After all, a vehicle may have been damaged five years ago and repaired impeccably, only to have been poorly treated or further damaged since.

Write-off repair

Will I have to pay more to insure a Cat S or Cat N car?

You should also be aware that some insurers may insist on an engineer's report or inspection prior to offering cover for a Cat S or Cat N vehicle. This is not a rule throughout the industry and insurers understand the marketplace for repairs well. It is even possible that the company you insure your car with may have previously written it off.

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If you find a seller referring to their car as ‘condition inspected’ with the certificate and HPI report to back this claim then it is unlikely an insurance company will require further inspection. Though, it’s always best practice to contact them and be sure.

What does the law say?

It is important to understand your rights when purchasing any vehicle and avoid any grey areas that may appear. If you are buying from a motor trader they must inform you of any and all information that is pertinent to the vehicle. This includes its previous status as a write-off. However, we should stress that records used across the motor trade industry are not always 100% accurate. If you find that you’ve purchased a vehicle and it is not as it was initially described, you should contact the seller immediately and flag your concerns.

The law when buying from a motor trader

We advise you to always do your own checks as the Consumer Rights Act 2015 is clear to protect you. While some honest traders may immediately try and rectify any problems, others may be less willing. To avoid the potential headache and cost of pursuing a dodgy dealer, a third-party check and doing your own condition report using a company like HPI could be integral to making sure you get your money’s worth.

The law when buying privately

Private sellers have no law stopping them from selling a previously recorded, or presently written-off vehicle without informing a buyer. You could buy a Cat S or Cat N car without realising it, and sellers may claim they were unaware, essentially acting without complete knowledge.

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However, knowingly selling a car that is not roadworthy and not informing a buyer could lead to further action against a seller, especially if it were to cause death or injury. A buyer may also choose to take civil action against a seller resulting in a court case.

Frequently asked questions about Cat S or Cat N cars

We answer the most common questions relating to Cat S and Cat N cars.

How much damage does it take to write off a car?

The answer to this can vary depending on what has been damaged. For instance, major electrical damage could be seen as a write-off, while some minor structural damage could equally be seen as a write-off – it depends entirely on how safe it is to take it back on the road. According to Nsure Insurance, if a vehicle’s repair costs exceed anywhere from 50 and 70% of its total value, it could be written off.

Can you drive a car if it’s a write-off?

If a vehicle has been written off it will not be insured, so it’s not possible to drive it on the road. In fact, as you’ll see below, you won’t normally even have access to your vehicle if it’s declared a write-off as it will usually be retained by the insurance company.

What happens if insurance writes off my car?

Once a car has been written off, your insurer will pay you a compensation amount and the ownership is switched to them. In the instance that you choose to raise a dispute and intend to remain as the vehicle’s owner, you must discuss this with your insurance company as this could be an option if it was stated in your insurance policy. However, the window of time you have to do this tends to be quite short, so it’s best to have this discussion sooner rather than later to assess your options.

Do written-off cars cost more to insure?

Cars that have been declared a write-off, repaired and put back on the road typically cost more to insure. Insurance providers tend to see them as more likely to cause issues in the future, regardless of how well they’ve been fixed.

Do I need to let DVLA know if my car has been written off?

If you’ve written off your own car, it’s mandatory to tell the DVLA about what has happened and the status of the vehicle. Failure to do so could yield a fine of as much as £1,000. Equally, you are expected to make sure that the name and address on the log book remain correct. 

What is a total loss vehicle?

Total loss claim is, in essence, another way of saying ‘write-off’. It means when a car has damages equivalent to more than its current market value, and is the less common way of referring to a vehicle that’s written off.

Advantages of buying a Cat N or Cat S car

  • Potentially big savings – If you choose to buy a Cat N or Cat S car that has been repaired to a high standard by a reputable firm, you may have saved yourself a lot of money rather than opting to buy a perfect example.

Disadvantages of buying a Cat N or Cat S car

  • Lower resale value – A Cat N or S car will always have that label, which buyers can see if they carry out an HPI check or look into a vehicle’s past, and it will always have a lower resale value than a car that’s never been in a serious accident.
  • Insurance could cost more than usual – If a car has been damaged and repaired, insurance companies may see it as being a higher risk, resulting in a bigger bill. Always get an insurance quote before doing the deal.
  • Warranty may no longer be valid – any warranty on a car that’s been written off is likely to be void due to the damage it’s sustained, so if it goes wrong, you’ll be responsible for covering the costs.
  • Risk – there’s a risk that the car may not have been repaired to a high standard, and the car’s condition and functionality could be compromised in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. This is why it is essential to carry out a third-party investigation prior to purchase.

Looking to make big savings on the used car market? Read our guide on the best used cars for under £2,000 or find out all you need to know about the best way to finance a used car and how to check if a car has outstanding finance.

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