Oct 132010

Buying a Backping car, New Zealand Although it may seem crazy for a lot of countries, many long term budget travellers and backpackers in New Zealand buy used cars or campervans (motorhomes or smaller) to get around. There’s a huge choice of vehicles imported from Japan, auto and manual, diesel and petrol, and cars and vans. Optional (but recommended) insurance is cheap and it opens up a lot of unique places to stay on route. Here’s the lowdown to help get the banger of your dreams. (grab a coffee – its a long article!)

Season to Purchase

Many backpackers are dumping cars in their droves at the end of summer or winter and hostel noticeboards are overflowing with motors. If you arrive at this time of year, just before the masses, you’ve a good chance of grabbing a bargain and relieving a traveller of their temporary home before they fly out the following day.

Buy Wisely : Backpacker Cart Mart or Online?

Auckland and Christchurch both have well established backpacker car marts. Although they are well established there are very mixed reports from them often at the extreme viewpoints in both directions. If you buy from them, buy as though you were buying privately with the same checks and don’t be naive (see the later section on background checks).

There are also loads of car markets either catering more towards backpackers, or more for locals.  There’s a list of these at the end of this article.

One big advantage of buying from a backpacker is that you’ll often get everything you need to hit the road included from stoves to seats and I’ve even seen snowboards and boogie boards being thrown into the sale.  Kitting out your car or van with stoves, cutlery, pots and pans could add quite a bit onto your budget (but if you need these things, head to The Warehouse!).


If you’re lucky you could pick up a car from a few hundred dollars if you arrive at the right time and get lucky, but usually something this cheap could easily cost you the same again or more in the long run.  For $1000-2000 you should be able to pick up a decent car, and $2000 upwards for a van.

Buyback Schemes

You could check out schemes like KiwiBuyBack if you don’t want the hassle of going and selecting a car, and you’ll get 50% of the purchase cost back when you sell it back to the them at the end of your trip.  We’ve not heard any reports about this service (but that doesn’t mean its bad!). If you pick your own car well using this guide it will probably cost you more, but you may save some time and have some come back if you buy a warranty.

Choose Wisely : Skoda or Subaru?

You could pick up a car here from a few hundred dollars, and a van from around $1500 up. If you’re lucky it will be well used, but not abused. If you can afford to splash out a bit more then get more picky, avoid shabby conversions consisting of a sheet of plywood and……well, some screws (although many backpackers are more than happy with this setup and they are the most common). Consider buying a Subaru or Toyota so you can resell to the local market as well as travellers when you’re leaving. Do what I did on my first visit : Choose wisely, buy from a backpacker and sell to a local, and you too could be flying around in a Subaru 4×4 for $2000, using it for 10 weeks, and selling for only $300 less. That’s like renting a car for $30 a week! On my current trip to New Zealand I was hanging around for longer and wanted a bit more luxury so I waited around for a professionally converted Toyota HiAce van with proper units.  Although the price would have been out of reach of most backpackers, I bought the van in Wellington from a local couple who were upgrading, it had low mileage and I’m confident I’ll get most of my money back when selling it in Auckland.

Custom Build

DCRAIG_20100725_186_web If you have had a look around for a camper van and can’t find what you’re looking for and have a bit more time you could consider buying a ‘blank’ van. This is a van that hasn’t been converted in any way such as well serviced ex-tradesmans van and converting yourself, or using a specialist company such as Vantastic Interiors in Auckland.  This may end up being a bit more expensive as you’ll have to buy all the stoves, cutlery etc on top of your costs, but you could end up with a van that’s much easier to sell, and in better condition.  This option is better if you are hanging around a city doing temp work and have time to play with, although some people have managed to convert vans using their downtimes at working at places like WOOF’ing farms which have had wood and equipment to use.  I’d only recommend this if you have an appropriate background.

Background Checks – Don’t Buy A Lemon

Some statistics say 1 in 3 cars in New Zealand have issues with them.  LemonCheck will do a background check on the vehicle for $25 with a registration plate or VIN number.
CarJam will give you a summary history online including irregularities with mileage readings etc and more comprehensive reports from $5 (ownership).

Both of the above services are worth a quick check and can prepare you with questions before you call the seller – e.g. ask them to explain why the odometer has decreased by 30,000km!

WOF, Rego and RUCs

A ‘WOF’ is a 6 monthly Warrant Of Fitness which you need to certify your vehicle as road legal.  A WOF will cost up to $50 plus any work that needs to be done to meet the criteria.

A ‘Rego’ is a registration fee (like road tax in other countries) and the cost varies for petrol and diesel.   Rego’s can be bought in 3 month increments.

’RUC’s are Road User Charges and are only applicable to diesel vehicles. The RUC is around $41 per 1000km over and above the pump prices, almost eliminating the cost saving of diesel (although currently it’s still around 10% cheaper). Buy a vehicle with a long WOF, Rego and RUCs in credit and it’ll save you splashing out over the first few months.

Location – Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington?

Many travellers arrive in Auckland and finish their road trip in Christchurch. Travellers tales say that backpacker cars and vans are generally cheaper in Christchurch, although an Auckland garage owner will of course tell you otherwise. If you arrive in Christchurch just before the end of winter you’re increasing your chances of grabbing that bargain banger.

Reselling your vehicle

When the time comes to leave New Zealand and have the choice, considering where you’ll sell your vehicle.  Many of the same considerations should be made as when you’re buying the vehicle but with some of them reversed.  As an example, if you try to sell at the end of winter in Christchurch you’ll be selling with the rest of the people who have spent a winter season here, and there won’t be many people arriving as most travellers will arrive in Auckland.  The old trade off of supply and demand will be there so you may only get rock bottom prices for you vehicle.  Of course if you follow the advice above you’ll have a better chance of advertising on Trademe etc and sell to locals, especially if you have bought a vehicle that’s in better condition, or a brand like Subaru.

Many people make the mistake of selling at the last minute and hanging around to try and get the best price, or dumping it quickly for peanuts.  This is when splashing out a few hundred extra bucks could make all the difference.  Be realistic about your selling price – you’d rather have 10 people calling you than them thinking it’s overpriced.  Of course if you want to you could buy a banger then end up hanging around Auckland for weeks trying to sell it if that’s what you want.


It’s true what you hear on the grapevine – car insurance is optional in New Zealand, but you’d be a bit crazy to scrimp on the cost of this.  There’s a relatively high proportion of uninsured drivers in New Zealand and if you have an accident you could loose all your funds invested in your transport.  The roads here can be a bit different as well and there’s a few strange driving regulations that may catch you out.  You can call around the main insurance companies, but the quickest and easiest way is to check out BBH Insurance which have a tailored policy and can be taken out online.  BBH is the same crowd that has the hostel network so they know what people need and it’s cheap and easy.

Notification Of Sale or Purchase

You must inform the New Zealand Transport Agency about your new purchase within 7 days.  Note that there is very little paperwork for car ownership, which is why the vehicle checks are quite important.  You should complete a form which is available from the New Zealand Post offices with the seller and new owner details, and they will send it off on your behalf.

Where to buy : Car Markets and Online

If you’ve read this far you must be serious and considering purchasing a vehicle for your trip.  Although there are no specific garages mentioned below, as you’d expect there are many around.  Unfortunately many of the garages selling cars are on the outskirts of the big cities making them harder to get to without transport – unless of course you’re going to buy a new Mercedes Benz.  Here’s a good selection of places to start looking :


Hostel noticeboards will give you the best selection of used backpackers cars but beware – they may have travelled around New Zealand several times with limited maintenance so ask all the right questions.  Keep looking at them constantly as good ones will be snapped up within hours.  If you stay at a quieter hostel pop over to the big ones like Base and YHA as that’s where most people will advertise.  Some hostels will have specific folders for vehicles for sale rather than place them on a noticeboard.

Nationwide :

Backpacker Board Car Sales allows backpackers to list their cars and vans for sale but you’ll have to keep an eye on it as there’s no automatic alerts available. A new site to us is Backpack Car which had a variety of cars and vans listed when we looked.

Auckland :

  1. DCRAIG_20100725_184_web Backpacker Car Market Victoria Street – just down from the playing fields in an small open air car park across from Victoria Park Market (corner of Hasley St / Gaunt St).  On Saturday morning, this market is geared towards backpackers.  On site inspection services are available.  Get here on Saturday early to get the first viewings and before people try taking their car to Ellerslie the following day.
  2. Ellerslie car mart – harder to get to at Ellerslie race course in SE Auckland.  On every Sunday and geared more towards locals but will have something for everyone. Arrive early from 8am to get the first look as by late morning it will die down and all the good ones will be gone.  On site inspection services available for around $140.
  3. Turners Auctions – You’ll be sharing the viewing with dealers at this one but its still possible to pick something up.  Check online for reports and what stock is coming up.
  4. Backpacker cart market – Just off ‘k-road’.  Very mixed reports on the grapevine but some people love it.  Inspection services available but you may be better off getting an independent check performed.

Christchurch :

  1. Christchurch Car Market – tailored for backpackers and in a central location.  You can also see some cars they have for sale on their site.
  2. Turners Auctions – as above as they have a site in Christchurch as well.
  3. Backpacker Car Market – as above, operated by the same people.

Wellington :

You’re not doing yourself any favours by looking for a car here as there isn’t really a backpacker market for vehicles as such – most people will buy a car in Auckland or Christchurch.  You may get lucky as you’ll still see cars and vans advertised in hostels but you may have to look in the same places as locals.  Some locals park cars for sale beside the pier up from the airport roundabout on Evans Bay – you could try looking there at the weekend if you can get there (#2 bus gets you close and its a nice place for a stroll).  Turners have auctions sites on the outskirts of Wellington.

Online :

This is one of the best places to look for a bigger range and better quality but you will still see cars and camper vans advertised with all gear required for your trip around New Zealand (which could save you a fortune kitting yours out!).

  1. TradeMe – every kiwi’s favourite site.  EBay doesn’t get a look in in New Zealand! Set up alerts if you know what make and model you are looking for and you’ll be emailed as soon as they are advertised.  Some backpackers will also advertise here as well as on noticeboards.
  2. Autotrader  – as it says in the title!  Allows you to set up email alerts.
  3. Sella – classified listings in New Zealand


Backpacker Board Car Sales
Backpack Car – ads for buyers and sellers
TradeMe – New Zealands favourite website
Ellserlie Car Fair, Auckland
Backpacker Car Market – Auckland and Christchurch
Christchurch Car Market
Sella – online ads site
Vantastic Interiors
Turners Auctions
KiwiBuyBack – 50% of your car purchase price back at the end of your trip
BBH Insurance
AA Car Inspections
CarJam – online car history
LemonCheck – online car history
New Zealand Land Transport Agency

We really hope this has given you a comprehensive guide of how to go about looking for your backpacking car or campervan when you arrive in New Zealand.  If you’ve read this far,  it may seem daunting as there is a massive list above but the hostel noticeboards, auctions and Trademe are the best resources – the rest is just to prepare you and help you get the majority of your money back when it’s time to resell.  If you are on the ball and check regularly you’ll get some transport sorted in no time.

If you like this article, or have any further additions that should be made above, please let us know via the comments below.  If you’ve decided buying a car is too much effort, it’s not really but you may want to check out our article on what you need to know about hiring a campervan in New Zealand.

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