Buying a secondhand car is set to become a lot clearer.

A new way of categorising crash-repaired vehicles will give secondhand buyers a clearer picture of the history of their car, says the Department for Transport. 

Starting this month, an update to the Salvage Code means repairable cars that have sustained structural damage will have their V5C marked with an ‘S’ and the message: 'This vehicle has been salvaged due to structural damage but following a technical evaluation declared suitable for repair.'

Independent car safety body Thatcham says the new changes to the code shift the focus from repair cost to the actual condition of the car, in order to give the buyer a clearer indication of what they're getting. Of course, what the safety experts really recommend is a professional inspection and a detailed look at the car's history.

 

As it will take time for the change to filter through to the secondhand car market, a number of suggestions have been put forward to buyers in the meantime:

  • Test drive the car
  • Check the service and MOT history
  • Get an independent inspection
  • Confirm the history via a checking service

While selling cars that have been written off by insurers isn't illegal, the current Category C and D system isn't the most clear. While they will always be considerably cheaper given their status and history, it isn't always guaranteed that they've been repaired to a high standard.

Some insurers may even refuse to cover the car and those that do will certainly ramp up the price. An inspection certificate will help, but the process of insuring a previously written-off car will likely never be easy. There's also the less important issue of the stigma that tends to surround the purchase of previously crashed cars.

'The real risk with buying a write-off is paying good money for a vehicle that's been badly repaired and is a danger to drive, or worse still, should never have been put back on the road in the first place,' says Neil Hodson, managing director of car history check firm HPI. 'If a write-off hasn’t been properly repaired, any price is too high.'

However, Hodson admits that 'there are write-off categories that, if repaired professionally, offer good value for buyers'.

DAC Graham McNulty from the National Police Chief Council has welcomed the news: 'These steps will not only protect the public further through the additional safeguards preventing unsafe vehicles returning to the road, but also help to detect and deter criminal activity.'

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