Write-off cars: Consumers could be at risk of this car-buying mistake

April 09, 2024 by

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Used car buyers are at risk of purchasing vehicles without a complete understanding of their history, as our research reveals that seven out of 10 Brits can’t identify if a car has been in an accident.

Seven in 10 car buyers can’t identify a car that’s been in an accident

Used car buyers are at risk of purchasing vehicles without a complete understanding of their history, as our research reveals that seven out of 10 Brits can’t identify if a car has been in an accident.[1] These buyers admitted to not knowing the meaning of important insurance write-off categories – S and N – which are attributed to used cars.

A category, or a ‘Cat,’ is assigned to a vehicle by the insurer after an accident. Some of these categories mean that a car can no longer be driven on the road. However, there are two categories for vehicles that can be repaired, put back on the road, and resold by the owner.

Cat S refers to a car with structural damage, while Cat N is non-structural damage. Both can be repaired but must pass different checks before returning to the road. Cats S and N replaced Cats C and D in 2017. The Association of British Insurers put the new system in place to try to highlight the structural issues that could impact a vehicle’s safety.

The recent change to the system could be a reason for fewer potential buyers being aware of what an S or N insurance classification means. Older drivers were the least likely to understand the new cats. More than three-quarters (77%) of over-55s admitted they didn’t know what a Cat S or N meant, compared to around two-thirds (68%) of those aged 18 to 34 and 64% of 35 to 54-year-olds.

More men than women were up to date with these write-off categories, with 75% of female respondents not knowing what a Cat S or N meant, compared to 64% of men.

Sellers should declare if their car has been assigned a Cat S or N. Potential buyers are at risk of making a huge mistake when buying used cars if they don’t know the meaning of these categories. Being unable to identify if a car has been written off could leave many used car buyers making uninformed purchasing decisions.

Would drivers buy a car with an insurance category against it?

One-quarter (26%) of survey respondents said outright that they would not buy a used car with a Cat S or N insurance write-off against it, and just 4% said they would. Out of those who knew what a category S or N meant, almost nine out of 10 of them stated they would not buy a car with a Cat S or N.

Slightly more men than women said they would be willing to purchase a Cat S or N car – 17% compared to just 8%. Meanwhile, younger buyers were the least likely to consider this option, with just 8% of 18-34-year-olds saying they would buy a car with one of these insurance categories. In comparison, 15% of both those aged 35 to 54 and those over 55 said they would. This could be due to factors such as potentially increasing insurance premiums, which are usually higher for younger drivers.

Of the respondents who said they would purchase a written-off car, half (53%) said they would only buy a car with a Cat N because it has non-structural damage. This can be anything from damage to the bumpers and roof panel to the engine or seats. A Cat N vehicle does not need to pass an inspection or be re-registered before being allowed back on the road.

In comparison, 15% told us they would buy a Cat S car, but only if it had been repaired to a high standard. These insurance write-offs have suffered damage to the structure, including areas like the chassis and the crumple zone. Cat S cars also differ because they must pass an inspection by an accredited engineer before going on the road again.

Meanwhile, 44% said they’d buy a used car which had either category, stating that this is because they’re cheaper and you can find newer models for less.

Reasons why drivers wouldn’t buy a written-off car

With the majority of motorists stating they wouldn’t buy a car with an insurance category, we reveal the factors that deter drivers the most.

Safety aspects were the top reason for consumers to be cautious about written-off cars. Specifically, the worry of underlying faults due to poor repairs – chosen by more than two-thirds (68%) of Brits who said they would not buy a car with a category. Similarly, a further 59% said they simply wouldn’t feel safe in a car that had been in an accident.

However, financial factors were at play for many Brits, too. In fact, close to half (48%) of potential buyers who would not want to own a car that had been in an accident said they are deterred from doing so because they believe it would increase their insurance premiums. Meanwhile, a quarter stated that they would be worried about how quickly it would lose value. A further 45% believe that these used vehicles would be too difficult to resell.

What to keep in mind when buying a used car with an insurance category


  • You can find newer models for less
  • Cars repaired to a high standard can run just as well as before the incident
  • The depreciation may be less than that of a new car


  • Reduces a car’s value
  • Less appealing to future buyers
  • Some insurers may not cover used cars with insurance write-offs, or premiums may increase

For buyers considering purchasing a Cat S or N car, there are steps you can take to ensure you are as protected as possible. This includes things like performing a check on the car’s history and ensuring you have as much information as possible before buying. Take a look at our guide to choosing a write-off car for more information.

John Rawlings, Consumer Editor at Carwow, said: “We’re passionate about helping buyers to find high-quality used cars, so it’s worrying to see that many people may be falling foul of this car buying mistake. Category cars can offer buyers newer models at lower costs, but buying a car without being fully aware of its accident history can lead to problems further down the line.

“If you’re buying a used car, it’s important to find out as much as possible about the vehicle’s history beforehand. We recommend paying for a car history check, which will tell you a vehicle’s write-off (Cat S or N) status and other useful information. Buying from a dealer rather than a private seller also offers a lot more security for the buyer.”

About this data

[1] All the data used in this report was collected through a survey of 1,000 UK adults via YouGov. The survey ran on 21 February 2024, and respondents were selected at random. All information was taken directly from the results of this survey unless otherwise stated.