Buying a Camper Van in New Zealand
Are you looking into buying a camper van / van in New Zealand for your travels? If so – great – it’s a brilliant idea! Do it! 100%. We will write more about van-life later, but this article will give you some ideas about the practicalities of buying one.
We decided before we arrived in New Zealand that we would buy a van for our time there. The theory being, we needed a mode of transport, and it seemed fairly sensible that we may as well try and sleep in it – help manage costs. This is just a brief snippet of our van-buying experience & some useful tips for anyone else looking to do this.
We bought ourselves Luci, pictured below and above. A wonderful 1992 Toyota Estima Lucida (hence Luci). It was hard work finding a half decent van; it was high season and they were selling like hot-cakes. We gave ourselves 2 full days in Auckland to find one, and really this wasn’t enough. We did end up compromising and settling – and everyone will I’m sure – unless you have unlimted budget and unlimted time. Luci cost us £2100 ($3700 at the time), and we sold her for £1800 after driving her around 7000km and living in her for 2 months.
Buying a Camper van vs. renting
First off; let’s get this old chestnut out of the way. Buying a camper van in a foreign country may seem daunting or possibly even not sensible / un-achievable when you’re thinking about it from afar. But if you’re going to be in NZ for a month or more – definitely buy. In high season, a van rental will cost you anything upwards of £500 a week (£2k a month!) – and that’s for a pretty basic van Some of the larger self-contained ones will set you back over £1,000 a week. Our van, for 2 months, including insurance cost us £400 (plus fuel of course).
If you’re buying, then consider these things:
Season & timing
If you’re buying a camper van in high season (December – March) then demand is high. We found this out buying in January. Vans sell quickly and you may have to fight your way to a viewing as the sellers are generally keen to sell – they’ll sell to first offer before you get a look-in. This will be you a couple of months later. If you’re planning on then selling into low season, you need to be prepared to take a hit on the van sale; as demand will be low & it may take a while to sell it. Consider this when determining how much to spend on your van – as you may take a larger hit on a more expensive van. We sold in March, and demand was reasonable. I imagine by April / May it will drop off significantly and you may end up selling to a trader for 50% of what you paid.
Petrol vs Diesel
Diesel is a lot cheaper in NZ, but there’s a Road Usage Charge that you have to pay for separately ($60 per 1000km in 2017), that pretty much cancels out the benefit. That said, you’re covering a lot of distance so a better fuel economy can make a big difference to your transport spend.
If you do get a diesel – check the mileage history carefully – look on www.carjam.co.nz for the car’s history. Diesel vans are far more likely to have been fiddled with. This is because owners can avoid the Road Usage Charge for the fuel by unplugging the speedo… So we saw some vans that had done only 300 kms in the last 10 years – obviously dodgy. Makes it very difficult to judge how knackered the engine actually is.
Self-contained or not?
A van that’s certified self-contained gives you more flexibility on camping areas & free camping; as you have your own water supply and toilet. Our little Luci was not self-contained. We managed to find a number of free campsites around NZ that allowed all vehicle types. Our choices were more limited, but it is possible to camp fairly cheaply / freely if you plan well. The cost of a self-contained van tends to be at least £6,000-8,000 (our van cost $3,700). If you make a larger loss on that van, it will offset the higher camping fees.
Places to buy
- Backpackerboard.co.nz; great site for backpackers to try and sell to each other. Beware of some traders on here – although t hey aren’t ALL bad.
- Trade-me; Mostly traders on here when it comes to camper vans – but again you may find a decent deal.
- Facebook page – This doesn’t have a whole lot on and is just for Auckland, but there’s the odd good advert & they tend to have a smaller audience which makes it easier to buy from.
There are plenty of warnings online against buying a camper van from a trader, but if you check everything thoroughly – this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of rogue traders out there who have mates that run garages and give dodgy WoFs (MOTs). Do be cautious of these; and be sure you can check the fitness of the van yourself or get one of the professional outfits to do it. If there’s an obvious WoF failure on the van (wiper blades no good, light failure, loose steering), but it has a full WoF certificate – walk away as you can’t guarantee it’s safe.
they’re pretty much all Japanese vans – mostly imports. To be honest, reliability of one type to the next will be down to its history – and you’ll see below that you can’t really judge much about that. But I wouldn’t be too fussy about which model you go for; it will just limit your options.
Van set-up & equipment
If you’re going to be living in this for a couple of months, think about a sensible layout. Ours converted from a double bed into a bench, and had a functional kitchen in the back where we could store food & equipment; see below. Ideally get one that has all the cooking and bedding equipment you’ll need – otherwise you’ll spend a fair bit on this stuff and not get it back when you sell. Electronic charging bits and bobs are worth having if you’re reliant on your camera or phone… Be careful with how much you charge things when the engine is off. We pretty much only charged when the engine was running, just to be on the safe side.
Auckland vs Christchurch.
Vans cost more in Auckland & sell for more at the end. If you plan to buy in Auckland and sell in Christchurch – you’ll likely lose more money. Vice-versa and you may make money if it times well.
These vans generally do not have any receipts or mechanical paperwork with them – which bugged me like crazy. Backpacker generations haven’t kept them; many are Japanese imports that lost their history on arrival. So you are buying fairly blind. If you can get one that’s been serviced recently, that’s a good start. The lack of mechanical history means you’ve got to be extra careful to look for symptoms of issues when buying – if you want the van to last, the top 5 items I suggest you check as a priority are:
- Exhaust smoke – blue smoke or thick white smoke / steam. Walk away if you see any when the car is idling, or revved. A bit of white steam or black smoke is fairly normal – especially on older cars. But blue means burning oil; thick white means a head gasket issue. If you think there may be white steam – but aren’t sure – open the engine oil filler cap while the engine is running. It will spit at you a bit so watch out for that, but if there’s steam rising from inside – then walk away – if not – it’s probably OK.
- Knocks and bangs when driving – suspension issues are fairly common as the roads aren’t great in places. An old van will make creaks and groans – but any loud knocks or banging or grinding noises will need work. You may not need to walk away from these vans, but certainly negotiate on price – as you may need to get stuff fixed. CV joints / shock absorbers / bearings are likely contenders – maybe a couple of hundred bucks to fix.
- Colour of engine oil & oil level… If it’s black with evidence of debris or soot, then it’s been a long time since the last service and if debris is thick then the engine has been wearing as a result. However, if the oil is just black, then don’t worry too much if Symptoms 1 are OK. If engine oil level is low; check underneath for leaks and ask the owner if they’ve had to top it up. If it’s a petrol engine – it shouldn’t need ‘topping up’; that signifies a leak, or that the engine is burning oil. Diesel engines will need topping up from time to time as they are meant to burn some of their oil.
- Rust – get on the floor, look under the chassis for any rust or evidence of cover-ups. Look around the suspension mounts too. Surface rust on the body is OK.
- Window seal leaks – difficult to check for – but look at the condition of the rubber on the van. A leak in to the living area could be a real problem if you’re living in it. Ours had a leak in the drivers door, but it was manageable.
Finally – breakdown cover – get some. We didn’t need it – but it’s quite likely you will & NZ can get pretty remote. We got a year’s worth through NZRA for $60. There are some companies that offer short-term cover specific to backpackers; but they rip you off.. $75 for 3 months, or $60 for a year – you can then use the breakdown cover as a selling point when you come to sell… Hmmm.
It’s a great idea, and a cheap way to get around New Zealand, so I highly recommend it – but if you want to be sure (or slightly more sure) it works out for you; then follow this advice 🙂 The last thing you want is for your purchase to burn out, and be forced to rent a van for half your time while the one you bought heads to the tip.