If you're travelling New Zealand for longer than a month or two, you might want to consider buying a car or campervan. Given the huge number of backpackers coming through New Zealand, there are very often cars or campervans available for a relatively cheap price.
We wouldn't recommend buying a vehicle if you're going to be backpacking in NZ for less than two months, as you likely won't want to waste valuable time looking for a suitable and well priced vehicle. If you're here for longer than a couple weeks, it will likely work out to be cheaper than renting long-term as you can sell the car on before you leave. Outside of the potential economic benefits of buying a vehicle for your trip, exploring NZ with your own wheels affords you heaps more flexibility. You'll have the freedom to go where you want, stopping for photo-opportunities when you wish and inevitably getting further off the beaten track than if you were traveling via bus (such as Stray).
If you think this might be the right option for you, read on for some tips and things to consider before making the purchase.
Finding a Car in NZ
There are no shortage of older and well priced cars and campervans to be found around New Zealand. Not surprisingly, many of these have been passed down from backpacker to backpacker – sometimes leaving you with a really great deal, and sometimes leaving you with a lemon.
You’ll likely have the most luck looking for your van in one of New Zealand’s population centers: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch. Odds favor them being cheaper in a city where there are more options – also, as these are often the entry/departure points for backpackers and working holiday makers, there are more likely to be good deals to be found here.
One of your first stops should be the bigger hostels in the city. Hostels will nearly always have noticeboards listing heaps of things for sale, including cars. If you're keen to find something that is less likely to have been owned by a backpacker, you should check New Zealand's online auction site – TradeMe.co.nz. You can check out Car Fairs in many of New Zealand’s larger cities. These will have a much wider selection of cars, trucks, and vans, which aren’t going to be specifically geared towards the backpacker. Many of the minivans you find will be geared toward the backpacker - and chances are these will be converted to makeshift campervans with sleeping facilities, cooking supplies, maps, guidebooks, and anything else you might need on the road.
Things to consider before you buy …
The first thing you should do is check to see that the vehicle has a current Warrant of Fitness (WoF): All vehicles on New Zealand’s roads must undergo a test to ensure they’re safe for the road. A Warrant of Fitness essentially says that your car or van is roadworthy and safe. Older vehicles must undergo a WoF inspection every six months.
If the vehicle you're looking to buy has a WoF that expires soon, we suggest you stipulate that the owner put a new WoF on it. We suggest going to a local VTNZ for this where it should only cost around $50 assuming the vehicle is in good shape. If there are repairs to be made, you'll know this before buying.
Even if the car or van you're looking to buy has a recent Warrant, we suggest bringing it to a VTNZ where they can perform a pre-purchase inspection for about $150. A certified mechanic will let you know the condition of the car and whether or not you should expect any mechanical issues down the road. $100 is a small price to pay if it saves you getting 100 kms out of Auckland and having your new purchase break down.
Registration: Similar to the WoF, all cars on New Zealand roads are required to be registered. While not a huge expense, it will cost you about $100 for every three months of registration. Check to see how long the car or van you’re buying is registered for. If the registration is expiring soon, you'll want to budget to get it re-registered on expiry – approximately $300 per six months.
Gas or Diesel: One of the first things you’ll notice about fuel prices in New Zealand is the stark difference between the price of diesel and gas. Diesel is significantly cheaper. While it might seem you'll save heaps of money with a diesel car/van, in reality, you don’t end up saving any money. In addition to a Registration fee, on a diesel you’re required to pay road user charges for each 1,000 kms you drive.
You've Found Your Vehicle, Now What?
After you’ve paid for your new wheels, a quick trip to any Post Shop will allow you to finish the deal. You’ll need to file for a change of ownership which will cost you about $10. You’ll need to list an address on this form, but the address of the hostel where you’re staying will do.
Believe it or not, insurance is not mandatory in New Zealand. Nevertheless, it's highly recommended you at least get third-party insurance to protect you from any damage you might inflict on someone or something else.
How much you spend will depend on a number of factors. If you’re buying at the start of the summer, you’ll pay significantly more than you would in the middle of the winter. Either way, you can expect to pay $4000 or more for an adequate car or campervan with sleeping facilities.