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Should I buy a Cat N or Cat S Insurance Write Off?

Started by Mirez, March 12, 2022, 08:02:39 PM

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What does a 'category' car mean?
A category N or category S vehicle simply means it's been involved in an accident and the insurance company has decided not to repair it - that's all. It doesn't mean it's any more or less dangerous then any other vehicle on the road. Indeed as you'll read here, buying a category N or S car can be a great purchase with big financial savings but you need to be aware before looking at one of these 'bargains'.

Should I consider a Cat N or Cat S write off?
It's a question that often comes up when you see a cheaper car for sale that's a Cat S or Cat N and when you ask, people will often say "Stay well clear" without any justification or evidence as to why other then it sounds scary and therefore must be bad right? Let's try something, pick one:

Vehicle A has done 30,000 miles and has never been written off, its up for sale at £20,000
Vehicle B has done 25,000 miles and was a Cat N write off, it's up for sale at £17,000

Which would you chose? If you've been swayed by the naysayers then it's vehicle A surely? Well one of the most important things to remember is that all the vehicles the insurance company decided they would repair won't have any marker on them at all. Indeed Vehicle A was fairly new and of high value when it was involved in an accident, some quite significant damage was repaired by a body shop and the car put back on the road without any record being kept. This is the first reason why you should consider buying a Cat N or Cat S vehicle. You've picked Vehicle A but underneath it all is a vehicle that would have a Cat S had it been a little older, or had a few more miles... worth thinking about! Of course, plenty of vehicles have never been involved in any accident but the point to note here is that insurance companies don't record their repairs so ruling out buying one that has been recorded doesn't make much sense! Doing your research and going prepared is what this post is all about.

Who decides what category a vehicle will be?
A claims assessor normally decides which category a damaged vehicle should be in. Whilst they are trained when it comes to this, it should be noted that they are don't get a lot of time per vehicle and sadly, frequently, make mistakes. Its not uncommon to see minor structural damage when repairing a Cat N vehicle and likewise, no structural damage at all on a Cat S. The industry is also rife with stories of mis-categorisation for personal gain, government requests to write off older diesel/petrol vehicles and sub-contracted assessor jobs where the facility selling the crashed vehicles can assess it on the insurers behalf... in short, on paper a Cat S is worse then a Cat N but don't rely on that!

What are the insurance categories and what do they mean?
In the UK, cars that are involved in accidents are often written off by insurers who choose note to repair the car. These cars are assigned a category depending on the type of damage and those categories are:

Let's get the 'nasties' out of the way, unless you are involved in the motor salvage industry you shouldn't ever come across these two as their sale is restricted to the public. These are the categories that scrap yards bid on or where they are disposed of from road agencies. In most cases the vehicle will have suffered extensive damage although flood and fire vehicles often also end up in these categories.

Category A - As bas as it gets - Normally bodily fluids are involved, the car MUST be crushed as-is so you rarely see much about these.
Category B - Structure is heavily compromised, vehicle can only be broken for parts and not put back on the road. These are the heavily smashed up cars you see in salvage yards being broken for parts. Here are a couple of examples of Cat B cars:

CatB2.png  Catb.png 

Next we have two old categories, replaced in 2017. Cars in these groups were able to be repaired however the cost to the insurance company would have been more then the value of the vehicle.
Category C - Heavily damaged and uneconomical to repair
Category D - Lighter damage but still uneconomical to repair

Then there are some 'odd' categories as well, these are infrequently and sporadically used:
Category F - Fire damaged. Most fire damaged vehicles end up in Cat N or Cat S instead.
Category U - Unrecorded. Includes vehicles that weren't insured at the time of accident, fleet vehicles which have suffered mechanical failures and some private vehicles. Their unrecorded status means they don't show up on registers such as HPI.
Category X - Stolen and Recovered, usually no damage or very minor damage. Vehicles have normally been recovered after the insurance company has paid out.

Finally we have the two categories you are probably here to research:
Category S - Structural Damage
Category N - Non-Structural Damage

Let's talk about those in more detail, firstly:

Why didn't the insurance company want to repair it?
Let's look at this car as an example:

Surely it's not been written off for that? Well yes, this example is a Category N write off. Fairly minor isn't it? Surely it wouldn't be that much to repair? Well here lies the main problem as to why so many cars are written off, insurance companies are duty-bound to make the car 'as before'. All panels have to be new and OEM (Made by the manufacturer, not aftermarket). If we were to price up the parts to repair this car:

Tailgate Assembly - £882.21
Nameplate - £11.51
Bumper - £282.66
Bumper Insert - £52.02
Parking Sensor - £62.91
Mud Flap - £31.10

Let's call it £1300 for the parts. We need to have the bumper and tailgate painted now, let's call that £600. Finally we need a body shop to repair the metal work and fit all these parts, at £75 an hour and seven hours that's about £500 so a total repair cost of £2400 on a car worth about £3000.
Only now can we see why insurance companies write so many off!

Who can buy and repair category S or N vehicles?
There are companies that specialise in repairing Cat N and Cat S vehicles, there are enthusiasts and amateur mechanics that repair them at home to a great standard and then, like anything, there are your 'get rich quick' dodgy people who repair them cheaply, poorly or often both! Basically anyone can buy them and anyone can repair them, this is why you need to careful when choosing a category write-off and make sure you do your inspections well.

How can I tell if a vehicle has been involved in an accident or is a Cat N or Cat S?
One way is a vehicle history check, more commonly referred to by brand name HPI. If a vehicle has been assigned a category then a history check will have a record of when and what type of damage occurred. Category S vehicles will also have this tag recorded on the V5 log book although Category N vehicles don't carry any annotation on the V5.
Of course, as we said at the start of this guide, insurance companies repair cars daily without any record and those vehicles won't appear on the HPI register!
You can also ask! Vehicles dealers / garages are obliged to tell you a vehicle is on the register as either a Cat N or Cat S however this isn't the case with private sellers, where the onus is on the buyer to fully understand the vehicle. Of course you can ask and legally a private seller must tell you, but only IF they know. The reality though is proving someone knew a vehicle was a write off is very tricky so it's always worth doing a history check if buying from a private seller. One of the cheapest, reliable sites for performing history checks is Total Car Check - Total Car Check - Vehicle History Check

Category N vehicles in more detail:
Generally Cat N vehicles can be repaired fairly easily since the damage should be constrained to cosmetic damage. Most manufactures have bolt on front wings, doors, tailgates, bumpers and of course mechanical parts like the suspension or driveline are all replaceable as well. Only damage to the rear quarter panels (the sides of a vehicles at the back), the roof and the rest of the body would require repair to the damaged panel as opposed to replacement.

Category N varies significantly, let's look at some real world examples:


Cat N.png





You can see that some are written off, as in the case of the third example, for such minor damage that you wouldn't even need to carry out any repairs if you could put up with the look! Then we have a couple written off purely for glass damage and then a couple of light impact front end impacts would require a fair few panels and parts to be swapped.

Looking at these, you can see there isn't anything that would likely be challenging to repair however in the case of the glass damage, specialist materials and skill would likely be needed. All of the examples are likely to have been repaired and the vehicle put back on the road and it's doubtful that without a HPI check, the new owner would ever know.

Category S vehicles in more detail:
Cat S vehicles mean they have suffered Structural damage, one or more parts of the main structure of the car have been compromised. This is where you need to be more careful since it's likely the repair will require specialist tools and knowledge that a home DIYer or amateur mechanical probably won't have! Let's look at some examples of Cat S write offs:





We can see the level of damage is a fair bit more and will require those specialist skills and equipment. If done correctly, Cat S vehicles can be safely put back on the road but it's far more important to understand what was damaged and who repaired it.

However it's also worth noting that damage to any part of the structure is considered a Cat S. A 50p sized dent on one of the sills for example, sustained in an accident would make it a Category S so again, don't rule them out, just ensure you obtain pre repair photos and carry out thorough checks to insure repairs have been done to a decent standard.
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I bought a bmw e92 330d cat N a couple of years back,admittedly I knew the history as it was from my brothers fleet. His house got broken in to and keys taken to steal the car. Was missing for a couple of days until the police caught the tea leaf going to sainsburys in oldbury.

The salvage company marked every single ding and scratch at my brothers request so it was written off. He got a decent payout plus the car which I had off him for peanuts essentially. Cracking car it was too all I needed to do was an ABS sensor and a machine polish. Ended up selling it for for about £1k under what non cat cars were going for a year later which still showed me a healthy profit.
Personally I wouldn't be put off a cat s or n car so long as price is right and I have had a good check over of it.