A complete guide to buying a campervan in New Zealand

Travelling around New Zealand by car or campervan¬†is undoubtedly the best way to see the country; you have the freedom to explore at your own pace and see the sights you want to see without having to stick to a strict itinerary. There are so many places in New Zealand that you can’t reach by bus – windy coastal roads, rural towns – so having your own mode of transport really is the ideal option for travelling around.

Renting a vehicle is an unfortunately expensive but very logical choice for those who have a short or limited time in the country. Popular rental companies include Jucy and Escape, though a quick google search will bring up loads of options.

If you’re going to be in New Zealand longer – around three months or more, I’d say – I really think that buying your own vehicle is the best choice you could make regarding your transport for your trip. Buying a vehicle probably seems like a huge commitment, both economically and logistically, but in reality it is usually the best financial option for travellers who are going to be moving around the country for months on end. Staying in campsites and paying for petrol is much cheaper than spending around $20-30 per night in a hostel and relying on bus passes. We spent $2500 on our car, plus around $500 on equipment for it, which, averaged over 4 months of travelling, means it cost us roughly $25 a day (excluding fuel). Plus, you might even get lucky and make back the money you bought it for when you come to selling your vehicle (we did!)

If, like me, you are somewhat bewildered when it comes to making the grown-up, sensible decision of choosing a car that won’t break down in a weeks’ time, and won’t cost you an arm and a leg, then this post might be able to help you. I’m by no means an expert when it comes to buying a second-hand vehicle so if you’re an engineer or just a pro at buying cars, this post will probably be in laymen’s terms for you (sorry!). I’ve tried to compile the best list of advice I possibly can based on mine & James’ experience of buying a vehicle in New Zealand.

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1) Decide what you need the vehicle for

When it comes to buying a vehicle, you basically need to decide what you want between the three following options:

  • a smaller car, which means sleeping in hostels/hotels or camping in a tent
  • a non self-contained campervan or a car that is big enough to sleep inside (built-in bed or air mattress with folded-down seats)
  • a campervan that is self contained (has a toilet and fresh/dirty water supply on board).

What we did:

We wanted a car big enough to sleep in; either a station wagon (estate car) or 7-seater either with a bed frame and mattress in the back, or in which you could fold the seats down and set up an air bed. Neither of us felt I didn’t feel comfortable driving a vehicle as big as a van, and we didn’t want to buy a small car and have to commit to sleeping in hostels or a tent. A big car we could sleep in was our compromise.

Canterbury roads

2) Choose between an automatic or manual transmission vehicle

Automatic transmission vehicles are much more common in New Zealand than manuals! This is something that James and I found strange, seeing as New Zealand is so hilly, with lots of narrow, winding roads. Surely a human is a better judge than a machine on when it’s best to change gear? Either way, we only test-drove one manual vehicle, and decided that the transmission is not something that would sway our decision on buying a car. Put simply, we thought, “if it’s a manual, it’s a bonus!”

What we did:

Our car was an automatic and was so easy to drive, although I did feel like I have less control in it than in my trusty manual Clio back home. For those who haven’t driven an automatic before, it is really simple once you get your head around the fact there is no clutch pedal!

The Devil’s Staircase and Lake Wakatipu

3) Decide between a Petrol or Diesel engine

Petrol is more expensive than diesel in New Zealand (generally about $1 per litre more), but with diesel vehicles you have to pay a road tax on every 400km you’ve travelled. You can save on fuel with an AA SmartFuel Card.

What we did:

This wasn’t something we considered too much when we were looking at cars, since smaller vehicles tend to be petrol anyway. Campervans on the other hand often use diesel. We bought a petrol vehicle.

Arthur’s Pass

4) Consider the amount of KMs the vehicle has driven (mileage)

Whenever you buy a second-hand vehicle, it’s important to consider how far it has already travelled. Sometimes, things go wrong with a vehicle after a certain amount of KM (for instance, cambelts often need replacing every 100,000km or so). It’s also worth remembering that once the car or campervan is yours, you’ll add more mileage to the clock, and it may be harder to sell!

What we did:

Initially, we looked for cars with around 150,000km on the clock, but most of these were out of our price range so we opted for something with a bit higher mileage for a cheaper price.

Otira Viaduct, Arthur’s Pass

5) Make sure the car has passed its WOF (Warrant of Fitness)

The WOF (Warrant of Fitness) is similar to the UK’s MOT – it basically advises whether or not a car is roadworthy. If you buy a car that doesn’t have a WOF, it could need a great deal of work doing to it before it’s fit to drive on the road. Please note that the WOF only covers the essentials (so even if a vehicle has passed its WOF, something may still go wrong down the line. To avoid this further check out #11).

What we did:

When we first went to view the car we bought, it didn’t have a WOF. We agreed on a price once the WOF (plus any necessary work) had been done. We didn’t part with our money until we had proof of the valid WOF (certificate inside the car window + paperwork).

Lindis Pass

6) Make sure the car is registered (has a rego)

In New Zealand, cars need to be registered to the NZ Transport Agency in the owner’s name before they can be driven. No rego = not legal to drive. The registration can be done for 3, 6 or 12 months at a time. When you buy a car, you’ll need to change the rego to be in your name. This can be done at the Post Shop and costs $9. If the car you’re looking at has not been registered, it’s probably a good idea to ask why (probably nothing fishy, but there could be potential criminal offences against the vehicle…)

What we did:

Simple – we made sure we bought a car with a rego!

Stopping at a lookout near Nelson

7) Consider where and when to buy a vehicle

The bigger cities (Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington) tend to be the places where people buy and sell cars, since this is where most travellers’ journeys start and finish. This said, cars are for sale all over the country, from both travellers and locals – a quick look on Trademe or Facebook will prove it!

We found that vehicles tend to be cheapest during Winter and Spring but there’s less choice. Understandably, most backpackers buy their car in Spring, travel through Summer until Autumn, and then sell their vehicles at the end of their travels. If you’re lucky, you could buy a car for pretty cheap in the low season, and sell it for more during the high season.

Please note that if someone has put on their advert that the car is available in a certain city, they probably won’t want to drive a long way to let you take it for a test drive, though many people are happy to discuss and negotiate.

What we did:

We bought our car in early October (Spring) in Christchurch for a fairly decent price after negotiating.

En route to Glenorchy from Queenstown

8) Consider any extras that might come with the car

If you’re going to be camping, you might need a tent and cooking equipment. Most backpacker cars (with a bed in the back) and proper campervans come with lots of camping equipment as they are passed from one backpacker to the next.

What we did:

Our car came with a mattress on a built-in bed-frame, 2 camping chairs and a camping stove that looked slightly worse-for-wear. We negotiated on the price because of the lack of camping equipment.

A kea on the roof of our car by Homer’s Tunnel near Milford Sound

9) Always take the vehicle for a test drive before you buy

It goes without saying, but make sure you have actually seen and driven the vehicle before you hand over the cash. This is going to be your prime method of transport, so you need to feel comfortable driving it, and it needs to be reliable. When you take a test drive, consider if the vehicle has just done a long journey, or if it’s been sat on a driveway for a long time. This may affect how it starts. Never EVER buy a car without seeing it first; it might have problems that haven’t been specified, or worse…

What we did:

We took every vehicle we were interested in for a test-drive before buying, and made sure we met the owners in person to ask any queries.

The road through the Wairarapa

10) Use your common sense

Don’t fall for a scam – There have been reports of people buying cars online (via PayPal or a bank transfer), without having seen the car, only to find that the vehicle doesn’t actually exist: the seller stops contact, deletes the advert or their Facebook profile, and BAM that’s their money gone.

Don’t pay by PayPal – I’m not sure quite exactly how, but some backpackers have reported being scammed by sellers when buying through PayPal. When it comes to paying for the vehicle, I personally think your best bet is to pay in cash.

Trust your instincts – If the seller seems overly hasty to sell the vehicle, avoids directly answering your questions or seems dodgy, just trust your gut and don’t buy the car.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is! Everyone is out to look for the best deal, but be realistic with the amount of money you’re spending. Does $1000 for a self-contained campervan with only 100,000km on the clock sound realistic to you? (The answer is no!)

What we did:

We avoided strange-looking adverts on Facebook, test-drove every car we were interested in, met the owners of the vehicles to ask any queries, and double-checked our chosen vehicle before we parted with our cash.

The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is my favourite drive in NZ

11) Consider having a pre-purchase AA inspection.

This test is done by the AA before you buy the vehicle. They will do a thorough check of the vehicle, much more than the basics covered during the WOF. These tests start at $149 which may seem a lot, but could save you a great deal in the long run! You could always negotiate with the seller on the price, ask them to have the pre-inspection check done, if they are hesitant there might be a reason!

What we did:

We chose not to have this test done and took the risk – luckily we did not have any major problems with the vehicle.

Arthur’s Pass

Useful websites and places to browse vehicles for sale

Below are some useful websites where people sell second hand vehicles:

  • Trademe
  • Facebook groups (search “New Zealand Backpackers” and “Vans and cars New Zealand”)
  • Autotrader (though these were all a bit out of our budget when I looked)
  • Backpacker Board

… as well as some useful places to browse vehicles:

  • Car auctions i.e. Turners – You can browse cars every day, and if you see something you like, you can attend the auction and bid on the vehicle. Some vehicles are also available immediately with a ‘Buy Now’ price displayed.
  • Car fairs or markets – Vehicles at these events are usually reliable as they are checked before they can be sold. I recommend a Google search to find fairs in your area. A good place to start is the one at Ellerslie Racecourse in Auckland.
  • Hostel notice boards – Other travellers often leave advertisements pinned to notice boards in hostels with their details so you can contact the seller to arrange to see the car.

What we did:

We found our car advertised on Trademe and went to see it in person.

The mountains are calling…

And when you’ve bought your car or campervan:

Changing the ownership

The first thing to do once you’ve handed over your cash is to change the rego into your name. You can either do this at any Post Shop and it costs $9. The seller will need to complete their part of the paperwork, which you can then take into the Post Shop with your completed form.

To insure, or not to insure…

We found it really odd that having vehicle insurance is not a legal requirement in New Zealand. However, this didn’t mean that we weren’t going to take out an insurance policy by default. When considering your cover, you have three options: fully comprehensive, third party fire and theft, and third party. I strongly advise you to read through the policy wording before you take out any type of cover.

What we did:

James and I wanted to take out a fully comprehensive policy, so that should any damage occur to our vehicle, the insurance would pay for repairs. Initially we looked into policies with Tower, AA and State, as they offered fully comprehensive cover. However, when we phoned the above companies to discuss taking out a policy, we were advised by each of them that because we didn’t have a fixed address and would be travelling extensively, they were unable to insure us. They recommended the specialised backpacker insurance companies listed below.

(Note: Of course, we could have disregarded this and taken out the policy online anyway, but since James and I have worked in insurance before, we are pretty certain that if it came to making a claim, the insurer may have no obligation to pay out. I am fully aware that other backpackers have probably had no issues regarding the above, but we didn’t feel comfortable paying premiums for a policy that might have been void in a time of need.)

For backpackers third party insurance, we were advised to consider BBH Vehicle Insurance and NAC. But when we looked into insuring our car with these companies, the premiums were much higher and didn’t offer anything more than Third Party cover option. The cost of the premiums plus excess (should we have to make a claim) seemed unaffordable. We therefore decided not to take out vehicle insurance and just hoped that nothing went wrong – luckily nothing did go wrong!

Remember that there is always the risk that something could go wrong with ANY car

Having a pre-purchase inspection should flag up any immediate problems with the car, though after you’ve handed over your money there is still always a possibility that something could go wrong with the vehicle. Things like light bulbs and wiper blades are minor upkeep and tyres will need replacing more often on a vehicle that is travelling long distances.

What we did:

After three months on the road, we noticed an intermittent problem with the speedometer; it would flicker and jump speeds for a few seconds before returning to the correct speed. We had a mechanic look at it and were quoted between $200-$400 for it to be repaired. Instead of having it repaired, we lowered our asking price when we sold the vehicle. We also got a brake light bulb replaced for $15.

Driving along the coastline of the Otago Peninsula

A quick summary of things to check when you go to see a car or campervan:

  • WOF – When is it valid until? Will you need to get it done in the next month or two?
  • Rego – Again, when is it valid until?
  • Tyre tread – If the tread on the tyres looks low you may need to buy new tyres soon.
  • Previous repairs – Has the cambelt or battery been replaced?
  • Oil leaks – Put your hand under the engine to see if the oil leaks out. Also check if the Tarmac (grass won’t work) under the car bonnet is wet or shows signs of a leak from the car. Bear in mind that if the car has only just been driven or parked, the drips may not yet have formed.
  • Exhaust – When you turn on the engine, if black smoke comes out the exhaust which then turns clear, the car is ok. This is what you want. If the smoke stays black, or turns and stays white, there may be a problem with the exhaust or engine.
  • Engine – I’ve got no clue when it comes to looking at the engine, but listen to it – does it sound healthy when the car is being driven?
En route to Milford Sound

Buying our own vehicle was the most logical choice for James and I.

We worked out how much money we had available to spend on a vehicle so knew what sort of vehicle we would be able to afford. We decided that we would rather buy a vehicle big enough to sleep in, than buy a small car and have to camp in a tent every night. I like camping in tents but it can get pretty cold in NZ, especially at night!

I hope that this post can be useful for other backpackers looking to buy a car, though I will admit that I am by no means an expert when it comes to this sort of thing! I actually relied on Facetiming my Dad with questions and queries when we were looking at different cars to buy – so thanks for your help, Dad! And just one last note to anyone looking to buy a car in New Zealand: Although I hope the tips above can help with buying a reliable vehicle, there is always an element of risk involved when you buy any car. My best advice is to trust your gut.

The best view I have ever woken up to: Lake Pukaki and Aoraki/ Mount Cook

Have you travelled New Zealand in your own vehicle? Did you buy or rent a car? Please share your experiences below!

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Abbi x

Note: All photos used in this post are my own.

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4 Comments

  1. How many days did you spend finding a car in New Zealand? After how many days did you found one en in how many days did you sell it?

    1. Hi Nanniek, we found our car after 3-4 days of looking. We started posting adverts on Facebook groups about a month before we were going to be in Auckland (where we sold it) and kept reposting. We spent around a week in Auckland holding viewings for people to take it for a test drive etc. We then had to wait about 3 days before we could hand over the keys as we needed to wait for the buyers to get the money together.

  2. Great article! Thanks for all the helpful info. I had a question about what you (or other sellers you might have talked to) did when they sold their vehicle? I know it’s most common to buy with cash, but when you’re planning to leave the country you don’t want an extra $3000 on you that you’ll have to exchange. Any suggestions?

    1. Hey Corey, thanks for your comment – good question. I know some people asked for the money to be transferred to their bank accounts, but to be honest I wanted to receive the payment in cash, simply because it was more reliable as I didn’t have to wait for the money to come through to my account. If you aren’t planning on closing your NZ bank account before you leave, you could pay the cash into your account. I believe most banks will allow you to close your account from overseas (ANZ do – my account is still open although I’ve left NZ). You can then transfer the money from your NZ account to your home bank account. Cash worked best for me but it depends on what you feel most comfortable with!

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