Used vans: is it ok to buy an insurance write-off?

It’s one thing buying a second-hand van for your business – especially when you’re looking for a bargain – but is an insurance write-off OK to consider?


Looking through the classifieds or searching the used van websites, you might come across a vehicle with some strange letters included in the description: Cat N or Cat S.

That might ring an alarm bell with you and it’s certainly worth checking out, because it means the van you’re considering is an insurance write-off.

In the same way that cars are dealt with, when a van is damaged in an accident the insurance company responsible will consider how much it will cost to repair it (if that’s even possible). Usually, if the repair bill will be more than the replacement value of the vehicle they will write it off and give it a category letter. But that doesn’t always mean it’s a lost cause.

A written-off van does not necessarily mean it’s a dangerous death-trap with broken and irreparable parts. It can often signify that there has been some damage but that the impairment has been put right to bring the vehicle back up to standard again.

It shouldn’t be difficult to spot a write-off because, by law they have to be classified as such by the DVLA licensing authorities and the category letter S or N will be added to the van’s V5C log book records.

What do the insurance categories mean?

At the end of 2019, the insurance industry backed a national change to the write-off categories to leave four classifications, A, B, S and N, which conform to a code of practice produced by and supported by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) & Lloyd’s Market Association (LMA).

This code sets best practice when disposing of motor vehicle salvage to ensure that damaged vehicles are correctly categorised. The ABI states that ‘the purpose of the Code is to protect the public, detect and deter insurance fraud and other criminal activities.’

If an insurer has written off a van, ownership passes to them, the owner is paid out and the van is given a category which is entered into the Motor Insurance Anti-Fraud Theft Register (MIAFTR). The categories mean different things:

Category A: Scrap

Cat A vans are so badly damaged that it is not suitable to be repaired in any way, and must be crushed without any parts being removed and re-used.

This is applied to the most badly damaged vehicles, such as those that have suffered a major fire or where emergency services have had to cut away sections of the vehicle to rescue people trapped inside. The extent of the damage means that it is not considered safe for any part of the vehicle to be used again.

Category B: Break

Cat B means that the level of damage makes a van unsuitable for repair. However, after inspection by a qualified person, certain usable parts can be recycled and re-used on another vehicle.

This category often applies to vans that have suffered heavy damage in one area but are untouched elsewhere such as in a head-on collision, where the front half of the van is extensively damaged but the rear end is largely intact.

Category S (formerly called Cat C): Repairable Structural

A Cat S write-off has sustained some structural damage, but is not beyond repair. It has been inspected and judged as a repairable vehicle, which has sustained damage to any part of the structural frame or chassis. While it can be repaired safely, it’s likely to take quite a bit of work.

The insurer has decided not to repair the vehicle because the cost of the repair is likely to exceed the market value of the vehicle, however it is perfectly legal for someone to buy the damaged vehicle and repair it to a safe and legal standard.

Category N (formerly called Cat D): Repairable Non-Structural

This category denotes a repairable vehicle that has not sustained damage to the structural frame or chassis. In other words, damage to external panels or components that can easily be replaced, although the cost of doing so means that the insurer has decided not to repair the vehicle.

There may be some safety-critical items that need replacement (such as steering or suspension parts), but the underlying structure of the van is undamaged.

So is it worth buying, or worth avoiding?

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t consider a write-off as they can often represent excellent value. But there are several thorough checks you should make first.

Cat A and Cat B van write-offs should never appear on the road again and must be destroyed once any salvageable parts have been removed (for Cat B). But Cat S and Cat N vehicles can be repaired and re-sold. You must tell the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) if your vehicle has been written off by your insurance company or you could face a fine.

A Category N rating can be applied even if a van has quite minor damage. For example, the price of a door panel, complete bumper or even an electric mirror or headlamp assembly, plus fitting and painting, can be decisive in making the cost of repair uneconomical on a van that’s not worth a lot anyway.

Older vans which have been put into Category N are sometimes bought back by their owners after the insurer settles and sold as an easy repair job for a buyer who is prepared to fit second-hand parts, or the user can simply choose to live with cosmetic damage which doesn’t affect its MOT certificate. However, Category N vans can still be classed that way when the steering or brakes may have been affected by an accident so those should always be checked.

If a van has been caught in a flooded area and become waterlogged it could fall into Cat N categorisation. Some private sellers could neglect to mention this, as once a vehicle has been dried out and professionally cleaned, flood damage can be very hard to spot. However, items like brakes, starter motors and catalytic converters can be affected by water damage and could fail at any point.

Warning signs for a van that may have been flood damaged include a damp or musty interior (or lots of air freshener), damp carpets in the footwells or more condensation than you’d expect on the inside of the windows.

Buying a Cat S or Cat N van

There are no set used values for Category S or N vans. Vehicle history checking companies which also provide valuations, often won’t give values for Cat S or N vans, so they become literally what a buyer is prepared to pay for them.

Not all written-off vans need to be avoided, but you should approach any potential purchase armed with all the facts – and that will mean having some professional checks done to make sure your potential purchase has been brought back to a safe and appropriate standard.

Used van dealers are obliged to declare that the van is a Cat S or Cat N and they must also declare that fact on any advertising. And, as any vehicle history check will flag up whether the vehicle is an insurance write-off, most traders will publish those results too, although that shouldn’t stop you doing your own research using a specialist agency.

Category S vans will need to have been repaired with professional equipment replacing, for example, the ‘crash boxes’ which are destroyed in a low speed impact. However, there is no legal requirement for the repairs to be inspected before the van returns to the road, so you have no guarantee that they have been conducted to a suitable standard. If you’re about to invest thousands on a Cat S vehicle, a professional inspection is essential.

Find out also what the written-off van will cost to insure as not all insurers will even offer cover and those that do, are likely to charge a higher premium.

And remember that if you ever come to sell the van, its history will follow it, and you’ll probably have to let it go at a discount – just like the one you got when you bought it.

Still happy to consider a written off van?

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t as long as you know the pitfalls and are prepared to have all the correct checks done before parting with your money. For some van users it can be a wise and economical choice, especially if they’re not planning to sell the van on any time soon.

But for others, the whole idea will just put them… right off.

Tom Johnston
Tom Johnstonhttp://johnstonmedia.com/
Tom Johnston was the first-ever reporter on national motoring magazine Auto Express. He went on to become that magazine’s News Editor and Assistant Editor, and has also been Motoring Correspondent for the Daily Star and contributor to the Daily and Sunday Express. Today, as a freelance writer, content creator and copy editor, Tom works with exciting and interesting websites and magazines on varied projects.

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