More than 100,000 written-off cars are ending up back on the road every year as drivers look to cut the cost of motoring and demand for cheaper cars grows.
However, many people buying second-hand cars won’t realise their new set of wheels is a previous write-off until they make an insurance claim and run into problems.
A car is 'written-off' by an insurance firm if the cost of repairing it after an accident is more than the value of the car. There are different categories of write-offs. The most severely damaged vehicles, categories A and B, can’t legally return to the road but category C and D vehicles can be repaired and driven legally again.
Category C cars must be registered with the DVLA and have the words 'previously damaged or repaired' printed on the V5 log-book after undergoing a Vehicle Identification Check (VIC) - however, the VIC check does not test the safety of the car.
The biggest concern for unsuspecting drivers is that the least damaged vehicles, category D, can be fixed and sold without any checks at all. Sellers do not need to inform buyers of the car's history and the log-book does not show that the car has been previously written-off, so the DVLA has no idea how many category D cars there are on UK roads.
Insurer Swiftcover says that last year almost 105,000 written-off vehicles passed checks to allow them back on the road, an increase of more than 10,000 compared with two years ago. However, thousands of written-off cars also returned to the road legally last year without any form of check whatsoever - and even the DVLA does not know how many people in the UK are driving write-offs.
Because of the damage they have sustained, previously written-off cars are usually worth less than other cars and will cost more to repair in the future so most insurers will not cover the vehicle at the normal full market value, while some companies will not insure them at all.
Robin Reames, claims director of swiftcover.com, says more previously written-off vehicles are probably being put back on the road as a result of the economic downturn. He warns: "It might be tempting to buy a written-off vehicle if the price tag is cheap, but the cost of repairing the vehicle again following an accident - especially if the original repairs have not been carried out properly in the first place - means such vehicles are a higher insurance risk, so drivers could end up out of pocket in the event of a claim.”
He adds: "What's more worrying is that many people will buy a category D write-off vehicle without realising because the seller does not have to tell them. And as many insurance companies won't insure category C or D vehicles, it is vital that potential buyers get any vehicle checked out before they part with their money."
Before you buy a second-hand car there are a number of checks you should do.
• Get a vehicle check before purchasing any car. This is the most reliable way of identifying whether it has been previously declared a write-off, as well as revealing whether a vehicle has been stolen, cloned or if there is outstanding finance on it. Checking one vehicle with the RAC costs £14.99 or £19.99 with the AA.
• Ask the seller whether it's a write-off. There is sometimes a lag between a vehicle being written-off and appearing on the database used by vehicle check companies, so question sellers about the history of a car and specifically ask whether it has ever been declared a write-off.
• Check how many owners the car has had. If it’s had a number of different owners in a short period of time, this could indicate that it has passed from the original owner to a dealer or a repairer who is now trying to sell it on.
• Don't lie about a write-off when applying for insurance. If the car's history is not uncovered when a quote is provided but it subsequently comes to light that the owner withheld information and knowingly insured a written-off vehicle, any insurance claim could result in a reduced pay-out or being declined completely.
• If you don’t know about cars yourself, get a friend that does to look the car over to check it’s mechanically sound. Alternatively both the AA and RAC offer vehicle inspections.