A complete guide to car categories

What categories mean on written-off cars.

When a vehicle is written off in an accident, insurers will give it one of four car categories: Category A, B, S, or N. These describe the level of damage that’s been done to the vehicle. 

If your car has been written off, or you’re looking for used cars to buy, it’s important to know what these categories mean. Read on to find out. 

What does it mean if a car has been written off?

If a car has been seriously damaged in an accident, you might hear it referred to as a “write-off” or a “total loss”. This means that the damage is so severe that the insurer has decided that:

  • The car is now unsafe to be driven, or
  • It doesn’t make financial sense to repair it

If you have third party, fire and theft or comprehensive insurance, you will typically receive a cash payout to cover your losses if a car is deemed no longer safe. However, if you only have third party cover, insurers likely won’t cover your losses.

Your insurer will base this amount on the value of your vehicle. You will have agreed this amount when you took out your insurance, and you’ll find the sum in your policy documents.

In the second case, the insurer might not deem the car unsafe, but they may decide that it’s just not worth repairing. Typically, if repairs cost over half the amount of the value of the car, your insurer will likely say repairs are uneconomical. In that case, they’ll refuse to fix it and offer you the payout instead.

How do insurers decide if a car is an insurance write-off?

Sometimes, you might be surprised to hear that your car has been written off. But write-offs are reasonably common, even in cases vehicles only sustain cosmetic damage.

Insurers use their own specific calculations to decide when to write off a vehicle. They’ll look at your car value and work out how much the repairs will cost, based on the workshops, skills, and parts required. 

This means that written-off cars can have a range of conditions. They may be completely destroyed, or only have seemingly minor damage. It’s for this reason that car insurance categories exist. 

What do car categories mean?

Car write-off categories are the official classifications for the extent of damage to a vehicle. They describe whether a car can be used again, repaired, or sold on. 

There are now four insurance categories for write-offs. These can be a little confusing, as they changed in 2017 and people often still sometimes use the older names. The change was designed to focus more on structural issues with a car, rather than just the possibility of its repair.

Let’s take each category one by one. 

Category A

Category A cars are those that have been damaged the most. They’re beyond repair. In fact, they’re often known as “scrap” cars, as they can only be sold for scrap. 

That means that the damage is so bad that most or all of the parts can’t be used. For safety reasons, even the parts that are salvageable must be crushed and scrapped, too. 

Category B 

Category B cars may not be as badly damaged as Category A vehicles, but they’re still not repairable. Some of their parts can often be salvaged, although they’ll need to be removed by an expert. 

Crucially, Category B write-offs can’t be sold as a complete vehicle. 

Category S

One of the categories that was introduced in 2017, Category S cars are those that have sustained structural damage but are still repairable. The “S” here stands for “structural”. 

For example, a Category S vehicle might have a bent chassis, or damage to the suspension system.

This category of vehicles can be bought, sold, and insured. But you will have to tell the DVLA that a car is a Cat S if you intend to do any of these things. Plus, if you want to get it fixed, remember that it will likely be quite costly to do so. 

Category N

The “N” in Category N stands for “non-structural”. Category N cars are those that don’t have structural damage, but only superficial or cosmetic damage. 

This could mean a lot of different things. It could have substantial damage to the bumpers or roof, or there could be a problem with the electrics or engine. However, the frame or chassis will be intact. 

Cat N cars can be repaired, bought and sold, and insured. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re drivable or roadworthy. If you’re thinking of buying one, you’ll want to have it looked at by a professional. 

What are Cat C and D cars?

Categories C and D were replaced by Cat S and Cat N respectively in 2017. Instead of describing whether a vehicle had suffered structural damage, Cat C and D focused on the cost of repairs.

So, in this old categorisation system, a Category C car was deemed a “total loss”, meaning that the cost of repairing it would be greater than its value. Meanwhile, the cost of repairing a Category D car wouldn’t be more than its value. 

These days, you may still find Cat C and D cars on the market, but the terminology isn’t really used by insurers anymore. 

What happens if I write off my car?

If you write off your car, your insurer will retain the vehicle. 

If you have comprehensive insurance or third party, fire and theft coverage, they’ll give you a payout. This is typically the agreed value of your car, minus the excess on your policy. And if your vehicle is a Category A or B write-off, the insurer will deal with the scrappage or the sale of the car for parts.

In this case, you’ll just need to handle some admin:

  • Send the V5C log book to the insurance company, keeping the section that says “sell, transfer or part-exchange your vehicle to the motor trade”.
  • Tell the DVLA your vehicle has been written off. If you don’t, you could be fined £1,000.

If you have a Category S or N write-off, you are able to buy your vehicle back off your insurer. You might do this if you want to fix the vehicle yourself, for example.

Should I buy a written-off car? 

If you’re in the market for a second-hand car, you might see some incredibly cheap deals out there. Sometimes, these are vehicles that have been written off. 

Only write-offs that are Category S or N can be sold. But before you go ahead and buy one, it’s worth thinking seriously about whether it’s a good idea. Follow these tips before you finalise any deal:

  • Ask lots of questions about the damage and repairs. For instance, you’ll want to know what kind of damage was sustained, plus when and by whom the repairs were carried out. Seeing some pictures of the damage might help your decision, too.
  • Get an inspection and history check. You’ll have to pay for an inspection, but it does mean that someone qualified will check the car to ensure it’s safe to drive. A history check will tell you if it’s been stolen.
  • Check how much you’re likely to pay for insurance. Some insurers won’t cover write-offs at all, and others may charge you a lot of money. It’s worth finding out just how much before you make the purchase.
  • Consider buying only from dealers, not private sellers. You have more rights buying from a dealer if something happens to go wrong. Plus, dealers are obliged to share everything they know about the vehicle. 

Is it worth buying a Category N car?

It can be worth buying a Category N car, but vehicles in this class can vary greatly from one another. While some may have some dents or paintwork blemishes, others can have issues with their engine or electrics. 

This means you’ll have to work out whether the car is worth it based on the damage, the price that you’re being offered, and other factors, including the vehicle’s age. But there’s no doubt you can get a good deal. 

Just remember, insurance for write-offs can be substantially higher. So it’s worth checking that before you buy. 

To sum up: Understanding car categories

Car categories are used by insurers to describe the levels of damage of written-off cars. 

Categories A and B are the most damaged, so much so that they can’t be sold. Rather, they can only be scrapped or recycled for parts.

However, Category S and N cars can be bought, sold, and insured. If you’re buying one though, make sure you check the vehicle thoroughly before you agree on a price. 

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