An accident damaged car could be anything from a minor bump to a full insurance write-off, and while fixing minor problems may be relatively straightforward and economical, what happens when the insurance company has paid out the value of the vehicle and written it off?
Should you still consider buying it then?
The short answer isn’t so short. For the typical buyer the negatives usually outweigh the positives, but that still may not necessarily mean a flat ‘NO’; the key to it is understanding what you’re buying, and why you’re buying it. And if you're buying a car from a private seller, there are additional precautions to keep in mind.
Car insurance write-off categories
For many of us, the phrase ‘write-off’ or ‘total loss’ conjures up images of accident damaged vehicles that are unrecognisable; we imagine the panels have melded into one crumpled sheet of metal, making us wonder, “How did the occupants escape that?”.
The reality can be somewhat different though; light panel damage, interior damage, flood damage or even just broken glass or headlamps could be enough to push the insurance company to writing off a vehicle. With all of the added tech built-in to a modern vehicle, the visible or structural damage to a written-off car may be extremely limited.
It’s generally accepted that a typical car will be written off when the repair exceeds 50% of the value at the time of damage. It’s worth knowing that an insurance company will also consider the likelihood of squeaks, rattles and trim damage (and the cost to put right) when valuing a repair.
In October 2017, the insurance industry introduced new categories for when a car should be written off, replacing the old ‘Cat C’ and ‘Cat D’, to try and ensure that dangerous vehicles are kept off the roads of Britain. They are as follows:
|Car insurance write-off categories|
|Category A||Scrap. Not suitable to be repaired, must be crushed without any parts being removed or recycled.|
|Category B||Break. Not suitable for being repaired, must be crushed but usable parts can be removed and recycled.|
|Category S||Structural, repairable. The vehicle is repairable, by a qualified and competent person, but damage to the structural frame or chassis has occurred. The insurer (or owner) has decided not to repair the vehicle. A repair shouldn’t be attempted on a DIY basis.|
|Category N||Non-structural, repairable. Similar to Category S, in that it can be repaired by a competent or qualified person, the damage isn’t structural. The insurer (or owner) has decided not to repair the vehicle.|
Is it worth buying an accident damaged car, and safe?
Truth be known, purchasing an accident damaged, written off, or salvaged car needn’t be the disaster that some might have you believe, providing you know that the car has been marked as a write-off, and you’re buying it with full disclosure. There are some things to consider as an extra, that may not be quite so crucial with a normal car:
Before making a purchase, you should speak with your insurance company first—let them know of the situation and ask if insuring it would be a problem for them, or if they’re likely to load your premium for the privilege. Cover for an accident damaged car might cost more than you'd pay to insure a car with a clean record.
Even if your current insurance provider won’t cover the vehicle, it doesn’t mean that all insurance companies will take such a hard line; search for alternatives and get quotes, especially from the big car insurance companies as they might have more appetite. Price comparison websites and direct insurers will let you get a quote for a car you haven’t bought yet, which can be especially handy when you’re considering buying a written-off car.
Even if you ‘know a thing or two’ about cars, it’s worth getting a full mechanical inspection, carried out by a qualified engineer. Don’t take an MOT certificate as proof of roadworthiness or safety compliance; not only can an MOT certificate be forged, but the Ministry of Transport test has been designed to look for select things, which of course doesn’t include a full mechanical inspection of other components.
Be aware that the market value of the vehicle will be significantly reduced, even once fully repaired. This means that you should be able to buy the vehicle for considerably less than non-written off cars, but of course the knock-on effect is that you’ll only be able to sell it for less—even if that’s twenty years later, the write-off status won’t diminish.
It could also impact any future negotiations with car dealers—many dealers won’t accept a write-off (no matter how well repaired) as a part-exchange.
Why you should buy an accident damaged car
Putting all the negatives aside, buying an accident damaged car could still be a sensible choice, under certain criteria.
If you’re looking to purchase a write-off to make money by repairing it and selling it on, it’s harder than you think and the profit margins are tight—you really should only consider it as a business, doing volume, but doing it well.
For a private buyer, it’s a little easier. Typically, you’d look to buy an accident damaged car if it’s something specific, something that you’ve had your heart set on and either can’t quite run to the prices of the undamaged cars, or want certain specification or trim. Aside from rarity value or finance, there’s little reason to choose a write-off over a regular car.
With that said, providing you’re fully aware of the car’s history, the potential pitfalls with insurance, and aren’t looking to flip it for a profit, then equally, there’s usually very little issue with choosing one.
What if you buy a write-off unknowingly?
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 states that any goods purchased should be of ‘satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described’. What this means in reality is that you do have some recourse should you unknowingly purchase an accident damaged car, even if the seller themselves didn’t actually know, although that’s under two different laws.
If the seller knowingly sold you a written-off car without declaring it, the seller is, in effect, in breach of the ‘as described’ section of the CRA. If the seller wasn’t privy to the information, then it comes under the ‘innocent misrepresentation’ section of the Misdescriptions Act. In either case, you shouldn’t be left out of pocket.
Buying a used car can be troublesome, even for a seasoned pro. If you’re in anyway unsure about a vehicle or seller, either walk away or call in an expert to inspect not just the mechanics of the car, but the paperwork also.