What is a Cat C car?

Crashed and repaired: Cat C cars are cheaper to buy but have a shady past

BuyaCar team
Mar 1, 2017

When insurers consider that a car is too damaged to be repaired safely or economically after a crash, then they write the vehicle off and settle the customer’s claim.

But the car doesn’t just disappear: it’s categorised according to its damage level and sold on at auction for a knock-down price. In some cases, the vehicle goes straight to a scrapyard. But in others, it can be bought, repaired and sold.

Buying a repaired write-off without realising it can be a motorist’s worst nightmare. Here’s what you need to look out for.

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Car write-off categories


Insurance assessors decide which category a written-off car falls into 

Some write-offs are completely unrecognisable as cars. Others might have minor damage to an expensive part, which means that it’s not economical for an insurer to repair them, but may be cost-effective for a garage to do so with second-hand components.

To help distinguish between the types of write-off, the insurance industry created the Code of Practice for the Disposal of Motor Vehicle Salvage in 2007. It defined four categories of write-off, from A (the worst) to D (the least serious). All write-offs that fall into these categories are recorded on the motor insurance fraud and theft register (MIAFTR).

The category a car falls into is decided by the insurer’s inspecting staff or an independent engineer chosen by them. It is not decided by an outside party.

Category A and B cars are too damaged to be repaired and must be scrapped. Cars that fall into Category C are often referred to as ‘Cat C cars’.

BuyaCar does not sell cars that have previously been written off.


What is a Cat C car?


Some Cat C cars have sustained major crash damage

Cat C cars are what insurers call a repairable total loss: the cost of repairing them is greater than the car’s value. That’s unlike a Cat D car, where the cost of repairing the car is less than the vehicle’s pre-accident value.

All vehicles classed as Cat C have been damaged. Cars could fall into this category if they have been flooded, damaged by fire or been involved in a crash where the airbags deployed.

Under the Code of Practice, Cat C cars aren’t so badly damaged that they can't be made safe, at least by a respected and professional repairer, but the system does not provide any more detail.

So on a fairly new car, the damage may be quite extensive with airbags deployed, although it won’t affect the main structure of the car underneath the bodywork.

Old cars may only sustain minor damage before being classified as Cat C write-offs because they are worth less. The cost of supplying, painting and fitting a new door could be more than the value of the entire car.


Older cars can be Cat C write-offs after minor damage


Why wouldn't an insurer have a Cat C car repaired?

Because it is cheaper not to do so. By not processing the claim an insurer will save on the cost of their customer’s hire car, on like-for-like replacement parts, manufacturer-approved repairs and even on simply administering the claim.

These are all costs that a competent independent garage or mechanic can avoid if they repair a vehicle – particularly if they use second-hand parts that many insurers don’t consider. This may mean that they can repair a vehicle for a fraction of the price of an insurer.

If fitted correctly, these parts can return a car to its pre-crash condition but there’s no need for Cat C cars to be inspected to prove that they are roadworthy.

The government has also abolished the requirement to check the identity of Cat C cars, to ensure that they aren’t stolen vehicles that have been disguised with the identity of a written-off car.


Is a Cat C car safe to drive?

Because Cat C cars don't require an official safety inspection before being returned to the road, you may not really know how safe the car is until it’s in an accident.

For example, some unscrupulous repairers cut corners by not connecting the airbags, or removing the airbag warning light. Replacement adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency brake sensors may not have been recalibrated, which is an expensive process usually carried out by a main dealer.

A previously flooded car could also have issues that appear later on such as structural corrosion, persistent smells in the cabin and electrical problems.


How do you avoid buying a Cat C car?

Approved used cars have undergone history checks to ensure that they have not been written off. Choosing one of these is a straightforward way of avoiding Cat C vehicles.

If you’re buying independently, then a dealer or motor trader is meant to tell you if the car is a write-off. Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008) they cannot conceal important information. Meanwhile, under the Sale of Goods Act, they must take all reasonable steps to check a vehicle’s history.

There are fewer safeguards in a private sale. A private seller does not have to declare the car is a write-off but they should so do if asked. If they don't and you later discover the car they sold you has been written off, you could issue a county court claim, although you’d have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they knew about the car’s history.

The risk of unknowingly buying a previously written-off car is one reason why a history check and vehicle inspection are recommended for private buyers.

How to buy a used car online - the complete guide


Should I buy a Cat C car?

A Cat C car costs less than a vehicle that hasn't been damaged - sometimes as much as 25% less. But you have to weight the saving against the unknown quantity of a car with a crash history that may never be known and whose safety will have a question mark hanging over it.

Because its write-off status is permanent, it will always be a Cat C car, so if you sell it, the vehicle will be worth less than one that's identical apart from the crash history.


How easy is a Cat C car to insure?

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says most insurance companies will cover a Cat C car but you are likely to pay a higher premium. The insurer will check your car’s history when you make a claim and could invalidate your cover if you did not declare it was a write-off.


Who polices the insurance write-off Code of Practice?

Insurers decide which category a written-off car should fall into. This could create a conflict of interest because they are also the ones who will benefit from a higher sale price if a vehicle is classified into a low category (C or D).

According to the Association of British Insurers, which represents the motor insurance industry, the code is about to be reviewed with the help of Thatcham Research, a leading automotive research company.

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