What is an insurance write off?

If you’ve been involved in an accident and your insurance provider informs you that your car is a write-off, you're probably wondering what to do. We’ll help you understand write-off categories A, B, C, D, S and N, and how to insure a written-off car.

If you’ve been involved in an accident and your insurance provider informs you that your car is a write-off, you're probably wondering what to do. We’ll help you understand write-off categories A, B, C, D, S and N, and how to insure a written-off car.

Kate Hughes
Car insurance expert
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Posted 29 OCTOBER 2019 Last Updated 25 NOVEMBER 2021

What does it mean when your car’s a write-off?

An insurance write-off is a term used to describe a car that’s either been damaged to the point that it’s no longer roadworthy, or beyond the point that repairs make financial sense. 

It certainly sounds dramatic, but you may be surprised by how often and how easily it can happen - even if the accident didn’t seem especially serious or the damage doesn’t appear too bad. 

Car insurance providers each have their own assessment criteria to calculate repair costs, which are used to determine whether your car is deemed ‘written off’. 

Even if the car looks okay on the outside or has what you might consider to be minor damage (such as a scrape along the side), it could mean it’s heading to the scrap heap if any repairs are likely to cost more than the car’s value.

What happens if my car is written off?

When your car’s written off, you don’t get it back. It’s retained by your insurance provider, ownership of the car transfers to them and you get a pay-out in compensation instead.

But if your car falls into Category S or Category N, then you have the option of buying it back and fixing it yourself. Stick with us here because these categories make all the difference to what happens next. We’ll come back to them later.

You can also buy and sell second-hand cars in these categories. But it’s worth noting these cars may be more difficult and more expensive to insure in the future. Category S and Category N car insurance can be more expensive and difficult to get than insurance for a standard car, and some providers won’t offer it at all.

Why do cars get written off?

Depending on the damage to the vehicle, car insurance providers can decide to declare a vehicle as written off. This is because the car’s repair costs are higher than the car’s value.

Contrary to popular belief, the damage to your car doesn’t necessarily have to prevent it from running. Even minor or cosmetic damages can lead to a car being declared written off, if the cost of repairs still outweigh the car’s value.

This is why write-offs are broken down into a number of categories, to separate the types of damage that can lead to a car being declared written off.

How does an insurance provider decide if a car is a write-off?

After being in an accident and putting in a claim with your car insurance provider, the provider will assess the damage to your car and decide whether it’s classed as a write-off. They’ll calculate how much it would cost to repair the damage and whether this is ‘economical’. Economical is a term they’ll use to weigh up the costs of repairs against the car’s value. If your insurance provider classifies it as a write-off, they’ll pay out your settlement fee. 

An example of a pay-out would be that your car insurance provider values your car at £5,000. You would’ve agreed this as a settlement fee amount when you took out your policy and it will be clearly stated in your paperwork. Check your policy details to find out what your settlement fee is.

When your car is declared written off, your provider will pay out this amount, minus the excess amount on your policy, which varies among policies. For example, your excess amount could be £250, which would leave you with a £4,750 pay-out.

What can I do if I don’t agree with the write-off decision?

If you disagree with your car insurance provider as to whether your car is a write-off, you can dispute this. Be aware, though, that they’ll make their decision based on the car’s current value, not what you paid for it when you bought it.

If you think it’s still worth keeping the car, you could ask to hang on to it, receive your settlement fee, but have the car’s salvage value deducted from your pay-out.

The important thing here is your settlement amount. It’s vital that you’re fully aware of and agree with the amount stated in your insurance documents when you take out the policy. Disputing this amount later will be very difficult, as you agreed to it at the time.

If you’re really unhappy with the valuation provided by your insurance provider, you could appeal to the Financial Ombudsman Service, who may be able to handle your complaint and advise you further.

Car insurance write-off categories explained

If your insurance provider thinks your car’s a write-off, it will fall into a write-off category. Some of these have been updated as per the Vehicle Salvage Code that came into effect in October 2017:

Category A (Scrap)

If placed into this category, it means that your vehicle is too damaged or old for repair. The entire vehicle should be crushed and can’t be used for parts.

Category B (Break)

Cars in this category are also considered too damaged or old to be repaired. The shell has to be crushed. However, as long as they’re removed by an expert, some parts may be re-used or sold second-hand. A Category B write-off can’t be sold second-hand as a complete vehicle.

Category C (Too expensive to repair) 

Cars in this category can be repaired, but those repairs would cost more than the vehicle’s worth. You can continue to use the car if it’s repaired to a roadworthy condition. 

Category D (Total costs make it too expensive to repair) 

In this category, while the cost or repairs may be less than the vehicle’s worth, other costs, like transporting the vehicle, take it over the limit of its value. You can use the vehicle if it’s repaired to a roadworthy condition. 

Category S (Structurally Damaged Repairable) 

These cars can be repaired and only have damage to the structure of the chassis. All Category S cars will need to be re-registered with the DVLA before being put back on the road. 

Category N (Non-Structurally Damaged Repairable) 

Category N vehicles can be repaired. These vehicles have only been damaged superficially and the structural integrity of the vehicle remains intact. There’s no need to re-register Category N cars with the DVLA before taking to the road again, but you’ll need to notify them that your car was written off.

Can I buy my car back if it is written off?

If your car’s declared a write-off but you still want to keep it, it’s possible to buy it back. If it’s classified as a Category S or N, this is deemed repairable, so you should be able to buy it back. Generally, what happens is that the insurance provider will give you a pay-out and sell the vehicle back to you. 

You should let your insurance provider know as soon as possible if you want to do this, because they’ll have a standing agreement with various salvage companies who’ll be ready to take your car away. Once your settlement fee is agreed, your insurance provider legally owns the car, so you’ll need to act quickly before it gets whisked away. 

If you’re seriously considering buying back your written-off car, you should get a mechanic to take a look and make sure it’s safe and worth repairing financially. 

To keep a Category C or S vehicle, you also need to: 

  • send the complete log book to your insurance provider
  • apply for a free duplicate log book. 

The DVLA will record the vehicle’s category in the log book.

You can hold on to the log book if you want to keep a Category D or N vehicle. 

Don’t forget that if you had equipment like children’s car seats or other additional safety devices in the vehicle at the time of the accident, it’s best practice to replace them, even if they seem intact.

What do insurance companies do with written off cars?

It depends on the category of write off. If the damages are categorised as an A or B, the car will be crushed. If your car falls under Categories S or N, your insurance provider can sell your vehicle on, either to a third party for salvage or back to you.

If you want to keep your registration number from a written-off car, you’ll have to apply to use it at a later date or move it to another vehicle. Apply via GOV.UK

How much will I get for my written-off car?

Unless you have new for old car insurance, you’ll get the current market value of your car, not what you paid for it. You can dispute the value with your insurance provider if you’re not happy with what they offer. If you’re not happy at the end of that process, you can go to the Financial Ombudsman.

What happens if I still owe money on my vehicle when it’s written off?

If you bought your car on finance, you need to contact your finance provider as soon as possible to discuss the matter. As mentioned, if your car falls into Category C, D, S or N, you have the option to buy the car back and repair it using your own money (just remember that it will almost certainly cost more to repair than it’s worth). 

It may be possible to use the money you get from your insurance provider to buy another car and keep paying off your finance, but this would need to be negotiated with your finance provider. 

Once you’ve agreed that the car is written off, your insurance provider will offer you the settlement amount for it. As we’ve already discussed, this should have been agreed with you when taking out your policy, so be sure to check the amount before agreeing. Hopefully, the amount your insurance provider pays out will be enough to pay off the outstanding finance on your car, but if it isn’t you’ll be responsible for finding the rest of the money.

You can either continue to make your monthly repayments or contact your car finance provider and make an agreement to settle the amount owed. However, this will usually result in some sort of early repayment charge, so you’ll want to do your sums to find out if it’s worth it or not. One way or another though, you’ll still need to pay off what you owe.

Should I buy a written-off car?

Repaired insurance write-offs can be found for sale second-hand and can be good bargains. However, you might want to get the car professionally checked out before you buy it. 

You should be able to find car insurance for written-off cars; once again, the category will be crucial. When comparing car insurance with Compare the Market, we won’t ask you for your write-off category for a car you’re looking to insure. However, once you’ve found cover you like, you’ll need to contact the insurance provider and disclose any write-off information before taking out the policy to ensure they’ll approve the vehicle to be insured. 

If a car is classified as a Category A or B write-off, it should be scrapped, which means you should avoid it completely. Category B write-offs may well be worth purchasing for parts, but parts only. 

For Category S and N cars, these should be safe to drive once the necessary repairs have been made. Once it’s repaired, you will need it to pass an MOT, to ensure it’s safe to drive on public roads, as well as re-register it with the DVLA. 

When considering the value of buying a previously written-off car, you should keep in mind the potential resale value as well. You’ll likely find that the car holds much less value if you decide to resell. So, while it may be a bargain for you now, keep in mind that you’d likely have to sell it as a bargain too. 

Buying a written-off car can work out as a good deal for some people, but bear these things in mind when deciding whether it’s the right option for you.

Insurance is your safety net

Nobody wants to hear that their car’s a write-off, but having insurance means you should at least get your car’s value if it is. And that’s why it’s so important to use our car insurance comparison service to find the right car insurance policy for you.

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