What is a Cat S car?

If you ever trawl through a used car market, you'll often see cars labeled as Category S, but what does it mean? And why should you be wary?

BuyaCar team
Feb 16, 2021

If a car that has been damaged in an accident or by a flood or a fire is too expensive to repair, it may be written off by its insurer. There are four categories of write-off: A, B, S and N.

A Category S (or Cat S) car is one that has suffered structural damage, but it is still repairable. Despite it being repaired, the car’s salvage category remains with the vehicle for life, which reduces its appeal and makes it cheaper to buy.

A major flaw in the code is that there is no legal requirement for repaired salvage to be inspected and judged safe for the road. For this reason, it’s difficult to know if the write-off you’re buying has been properly repaired and is safe to drive.

Beyond safety, dealing with Category S cars is risky in several ways. This label will affect the cost of insurance, the price of buying the car, and also adds doubt to the possibility of selling the car in future.

This is why BuyaCar does not sell written-off cars, whichever category they fall into, and we recommend caution to ensure that any car you're looking to buy is not registered as a Category S vehicle.

Why do insurers write-off Cat S cars?

Structural damage is very expensive to repair and insurers are always balancing that cost, plus others including administration and hire car charges, against the value of the car before the crash. If the former exceeds the latter, they’ll pay the policy holder a settlement figure and write off the car.   

Who repairs Cat S cars?

Independent garages and bodyshops with specialist equipment repair Category S cars. They tend to have quite low overheads because the cars cannot be sold for the same prices as those not recorded as write-offs.

Many are reputable garages but the fact that their work does not, by law, have to be independently inspected, means consumers cannot be entirely confident a repaired Category S write-off is safe for the road.

Can I drive a Cat S car knowing it is safe?

As mentioned above, the absence of any controls on repair standards means you can't be absolutely sure a repaired Category S write-off is safe to drive. The best advice is to get it independently inspected and at the very least, put it through an MoT test at a garage independent of the dealer selling it. The majority of issues that would make the car unsafe to drive would be identified during an MoT.

Could I buy a Cat S car without realising it?

Important information about a car cannot be concealed from you by a dealer – and that’s the law. So check the paperwork thoroughly and if you have any suspicions, check its history with a vehicle information company such as HPI.
If you buy from a dealer operating a car maker’s approved used car scheme they will have done these checks for you.
You’re on much less safe ground when buying privately. The seller must be honest but if they aren't and you take them to court, they could always claim they didn't know the car was a write-off and get off scot-free. To be on the safe side, run a HPI check on the car.

We run HPI checks on every car we stock at BuyaCar.

Is a Cat S car cheaper than a non-write-off?

It certainly should be. The stigma of being a write-off hangs around a Category S car like a bad smell, making it difficult to sell. Its price needs to reflect that.  
But while it may be cheaper to buy, it also has to be priced low to sell when you’ve finished with it, so really, you're no better off. In fact, you’re worse off because now you have the problem of persuading your buyer the car is safe.

Will I have to pay more to insure a Cat S car?

The short answer is yes. Insurance is all about risk, and Category S cars are risky things to insure. Their previous and present condition are uncertain, and the car’s market value is unclear if it’s written off a second time.

Most insurers will consider covering a Category S car, but at a much higher price than a car that has not been written off.

Other categories

Category A: Car may not be repaired, and must be crushed.
Category B: Car may have its usable parts recycled, but it also must crushed.
Category N: A write-off that has not sustained any damage to its structure, and which may be repaired and safely returned to the road.

What is a car’s structure?

The car’s structure is defined by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), one of the organisations behind the salvage code. It also defines the term ‘damage’ as any structural part requiring realignment to its original dimensions or replacement. A car's structure comprises:

  • Fire wall / front bulkhead
  • Front header rail
  • Side cant rail
  • Rear header rail
  • Rear cross member
  • Rear inner wing
  • Rear wheel housing extension
  • B-post (part of the centre pillar)
  • A-post (part of the front pillar)
  • Front upper wing support
  • Front Inner wing
  • Front chassis leg /welded cross member
  • Rear chassis leg
  • Sill

Note: major components including the steering and suspension are not classified as structural.


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