“Life is a highway and I wanna drive it all night long.”

Buying a car in New Zealand is very much a game of luck, speed, trust and a level of certainty which you do not have. It can be very frustrating. For weeks we had been trawling the backpacker forums, Facebook pages and TradeMe sites to no avail. Actually that’s not true. There were plenty available, hundreds of potentials to investigate, lots of owners getting in contact and messages of interest being exchanged. However every single one fell through. That is, until we found Nessie.

We are the proud owners of a lovely big van named Nessie and are ready to set off and explore New Zealand. However finding her was so difficult that I thought I’d put together some tips if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. So here you go; our backpackers guide to finding a car in New Zealand – from someone who’s done it.

1. Figure out if you want a self contained or not self contained vehicle. Self contained will be much more expensive but has literally everything you need and enables you to visit ALL the campsites. There are restrictions for many non self contained vehicles. However non self contained are cheaper overall, will be cheaper to run with less weight in the car, and are easier to find. If you just want a car for journeys then TradeMe or local dealers are probably your best bet. But most backpacking cars (including our beloved Nessie) come with a bed in the back. Great for quick and easy camping. Some previous owners will have taken out all backseats to fit this in but if you plan to split fuel costs by picking up hitchhikers or other travelling friends I would suggest finding one that fits over folded seats, hopefully with enough room to just chill inside comfortably on a rainy day.
2. Where will you be and where do you want to buy? Auckland is an obvious answer. It’s where you fly into, it’s got the most cars on offer and most possibilities within it. However buying a car from there will be a lot more expensive. We found this with Nessie and with others that we saw advertised. Prices go up when you’re in Auckland so consider buying in other places around New Zealand.
3. How much do you want to spend? Pete and I set a “soft limit” and a “hard limit” (and no we were not re-enacting 50 Shades of Grey!) it just helps keep your budget realistic but flexible enough to go for a good deal when you see it.
4. Try to find travellers native to your own country. We are English and we bought from English people. The money transfer was easier, you loose less overall in the conversion rates and you can have a really good conversation with them during the car inspection to figure out whether they are telling the truth about the reliability of the car.
5. If possible, find someone who knows about cars to join you when you go to view it. Pete and I are not petrol heads and even our native petrol head relatives and friends couldn’t help us much as they’d never heard of the cars we were looking at. However the hosts we were staying with at our work stay thankfully did and graciously came with us to check out the car.
6. Speed is essential. Express your interest in a car, even if you’re not 100% sure. We lost out on so many viewings and cars by umming and aaahing and by the time we got around to Nessie I made sure we were first in the queue to see her. If you see an advert of a car you like, GO FOR IT IMMEDIATELY! You can always say no if you don’t like it.
7. Mileage. It sounds obvious but we have seen cars we loved and almost went for until we took a second look at the mileage. Some of these cars have been touring New Zealand for many years now and have clocked up some serious miles. We were told of one for sale at over 400k! Even if they have run perfectly for the previous owners it’s too much of a gamble.
8. Cambelt vs chain driven. Unless the cambelt has been changed very recently, go for a chain driven!
9. Consign yourself to the fact that you will most likely have to drive an automatic. As an English driver who loves her manual car and is not used to driving an automatic I still lament the difficulty in finding a manual. They are very rare and are often snapped up quickly. So for all those windy, steep and gravelly hills, you will most likely have to tackle them in an automatic.
10. Don’t get sidetracked by all the extras. Yes lots of camping gear sounds like a great money saving addition but in reality it’s the car you are buying. If you want cheap equipment, go to an opshop (trust me on this!)
11. Enjoy the ride! Your new car has the potential to take you off the beaten track, away from bus routes and on to new adventures so make sure you make the most of it and enjoy every second of the road trip.

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