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Car write-off explained

After your car has been in an accident, your car insurance company would usually get it booked in for repairs. But sometimes it doesn’t make economic sense to repair the car. In this case, you might have a car write-off on your hands.

How does the process work, and what happens to your car? Let’s take a look.


What's the meaning of a written-off car?

A car write-off happens after your car is involved in an accident, and can happen in two ways:

  • It’s damaged to the point that it’s no longer roadworthy
  • The cost to repair the car is too great

This could happen as the result of a traffic collision, flood, or fire.

Insurance companies call car write-offs a ‘total loss’. But for this guide we’re going to use the term ‘write-off’.

Depending on the value of your car, a write-off can happen even when there’s superficial damage like a dent or scratch.


How does my insurer decide if a car is a write-off following an accident?

Car insurance companies have their own set of criteria for what counts as a write-off.

When you make a car insurance claim, your insurance company will assess the damage and work out how much it would cost to repair it.

If the repairs cost more than the car’s market value, or a high percentage of it, they may write it off. This is because it’s not economically viable to repair the car in its current state.


What happens if my car is written off and how much will I get?

If your insurance company says your car is a write-off, they keep the car. They should pay you a settlement amount, which is usually the market value of the car.

Your car insurance excess would likely be taken off this amount.

For example, if you write off a car that’s worth £5,000, and your total excess is £250, your settlement would be £4,750.

If you accept the settlement and don’t want to buy the car back, you’ll need to:

  • Send your V5C logbook to your insurance company
  • Keep the ‘sell, transfer part-exchange your vehicle to the motor trade’ section from the logbook
  • Tell the DVLA that your car is a write-off

What happens if my car is a write-off and it's not my fault?

With a non-fault accident - that is, an accident where your insurance company is able to reclaim costs from the third-party, your no-claims bonus should remain intact.

Remember that in the insurance world, 'fault' and 'blame' aren't always the same. 

If your car is written off and your insurer isn't able to recover their costs, you might have to claim on your own policy for the settlement. This could impact your no-claims bonus, regardless of whether you were responsible for the accident.


With a written-off car, what happens to my car insurance?

Your claims history is one of the factors insurance companies look at when working out your car insurance costs.

If you’ve been in an accident – with or without a car write-off – you could see your insurance costs go up.

And expensive claims could drive the price up further. So, if your car is a write-off, you may find your costs go up more than if you had a minor scrape.

If you see your insurance go up after an accident, there are some things you can do to keep your costs in check.

For more information, check out our tips for cheaper car insurance.

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Can I refuse to have the car written off?

If you disagree with your insurer’s decision, you can dispute it.

You’ll need to gather enough evidence to show either:

  • The market value of the car is higher than the insurance estimate
  • The cost to repair the car is lower than the market value of the car

You could agree to keep the car and take the settlement, minus the salvage value. Then it would be up to you to repair the car back to a roadworthy condition.


What are the categories of car write-off?

Write-offs are banded into categories, depending on how repairable they are. Categories C and D changed in 2017 to Categories S and N respectively.

These new categories only apply to newly-written-off cars. So, you could still see cars marked as cat C or cat D when they’re sold.

Category N write-off meaning

The car can be repaired, and it only has non-structural damage. That covers things like lights and seats. You can still buy and sell cat N cars and repair them to be roadworthy.

Category S write-off meaning

The car can be repaired but has suffered structural damage. This covers things like the suspension and chassis. Cat S cars can be bought and repaired, but you have to re-register them with the DVLA.

Category A write-off meaning

The car is beyond repair. You can’t drive a cat A write-off and it has to go to the crusher.

Category B write-off meaning

The car is beyond repair, but not entirely without use. You can salvage parts from cat B write-offs, but the body shell has to go to the crusher.

Category C write-off meaning

The car can be repaired, but it costs more than the car’s value. You can buy a cat C write-off and repair it back to a roadworthy condition. This category is no longer used.

Category D write-off meaning

The car can be repaired, but the overall costs (not just repairs) are more than the car’s value. You can buy and sell cat D cars to get them back on the road. This category is no longer used.


If my car is a write-off, can I keep it?

Normally, when the insurance company writes your car off, they keep it.

If your car is a cat S or cat N write-off, you could buy it back from them. If this is something you want to do, tell your insurer as soon as you can.

Insurers work with salvage companies to dispose of write-offs, so if you delay you risk being too late to get the car back.

Before you commit to buying the car back, it’s worth having an independent mechanic look at the car and estimate repair costs.

Then you can decide if it’s worth your while having the car back to repair.

After that, you can keep it or sell it on.


Is it safe to buy a cat N or cat S used car?

Cars that are cat N or cat S must be declared if they're being sold by a dealer. They can often look like a bargain, but you should be careful and check them thoroughly before buying a car that was written off.

Category N cars have suffered non-structural damage. This could be just a door panel or headlight fitting that was considered uneconomical to repair by the insurance company.

It can also cover cars written off due to flood damage, for example. It even covers cars that have had damage to the steering or brakes.

It's best to run a HPI check to find out exactly why it was written off. Then get a professional to check it over to make sure it has been repaired to a safe condition.

Category S cars have had structural damage to the chassis or frame. They must be repaired with professional equipment, but there isn't a legal requirement for the work to be checked before the car goes back on the road.

So if you're buying a cat S car you should definitely get a professional to check it over before parting with any cash.

It's also worth noting that some insurers don't cover cat N or cat S cars so your insurance costs may go up

You should check with your insurer or get a car insurance quote before you buy to be sure.


What happens if my car is on finance and it’s declared a write-off?

If you have a written-off car that's still on finance, things get a little less straightforward.

The final payout that you get from the insurer could end up lower than your outstanding debt to the finance company.

This could mean that you have to keep making payments on the loan even though you don’t have the car anymore.

Or your car finance lender might ask you to pay back the outstanding amount in full.

From here you have a few options:

  • Negotiate with your insurance company to give you a higher settlement. You’ll need to provide evidence that the car’s market value is higher than what they’ve offered.
  • Call your finance lender and see if you can come to an arrangement with the outstanding amount.

If you’re worried about this happening, one option would be to consider gap insurance.

Gap insurance is a separate policy to your car insurance. It’s designed to cover the gap between the car’s market value and what you originally paid for it.

This could help cover any outstanding cost from your car finance.


Can I keep my private reg plate if my car is a write-off?

If your car has a personalised number plate, you can apply to the DVLA to take it off the car before it goes to your insurance company.

It’s worth telling your insurer as soon as you can that you intend to keep the reg plate.

Applying to keep the plate will set you back about £80, and you can apply online.

The DVLA may need to inspect the car before taking the plate off.

Once the plate is removed from the car, you’ll get a V778 retention document from the DVLA.

You can use this to put the private plate onto a new car if you wish.

For more information, visit the GOV.UK website.


Do I need to tell the DVLA about the write-off?

Yes, if your car is a write-off, you must tell the DVLA. You can do this by visiting the GOV.UK website.

You’ll need:

  • Your insurance company’s name and postcode
  • Your car’s reg number
  • Your V5C logbook. Specifically, the 11-digit reference number in the ‘sell, transfer or part-exchange your vehicle to the motor trade’ section

If you don’t tell the DVLA that your car is a write-off, you could face a £1,000 fine.

If your car is a category C or S write-off and you’re keeping it, you’ll also need to re-apply to the DVLA.

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