Monica’s mini guide to buying a car or campervan in Australia

The best way to see Australia is to hit the great open road with the freedom of a campervan. Forget the Greyhound or organised bus tours, a real Aussie roadtrip is the only way to do it.

We umm’d and arr’d about whether or not to buy our van for months but it turned out to be the best decision we ever made.

Should I buy or hire?

If you plan to travel via car or campervan for 6 weeks or longer I’d recommend buying. It costs a fortune to hire for a few week, so it’s worth taking the risk and buying.

We bought a VW Transporter for $5,500 which is almost as much as it would have cost to rent for 3 months. We then lived in it for a year and sold it (after driving all the way around Oz) for $5,000. We bought nothing more than a new tire and changed the oil once or twice. Admittedly, we were very lucky. We met a French couple who spent $10,000 on a campervan and the engine blew up after 5 days. Bad times.

If you’re going to rent, check out Travellers Autobarn. Wicked Campers look, well, wicked, but they’re overpriced for what you get.

Where to buy from:

Backpacker car markets

The biggest backpacker car market is in Kings Cross, Sydney, where you will find hundreds of cars being bought and sold by backpackers. The main advantage is that you can find a real bargain, especially if someone needs to leave the country in a rush due to flights or visa restrictions.

Backpacker vans usually come with everything you need from cookers and pots and pans to surf boards and guidebooks. The main downside is that backpackers cover huge distances and don’t look after their vehicles so you’re never sure what you’ll get.

Private Sales

You can find private sales online (like on Gumtree or eBay) or through ads in papers or hostel notice boards. You can sometimes get a better deal and avoid the salesman but this isn’t the best option if you have no idea what you’re looking for in a car.

Car Dealers

Car dealers will usually add a hefty commission onto the price but if you’ve got the cash and you’re looking for something newer or more reliable, this could be a good option. Car dealers will often guarantee to buy the vehicle back from you when you’re ready to sell. They’ll give you a fraction of what it’s worth but it can take the stress out of buying and selling.

What to look out for:

Ask the owner:

  • How often they change the oil? You want someone who changes it when necessary but if it has to be changed all the time, there is definitely something wrong.
  • What has been replaced or fixed recently?
  • When was the last time it was serviced?
  • How many kilometres does it do to a tank?

Check for:

  • Black exhaust fumes
  • Weird clunks and noises
  • Oil leaks

Things you’ll need:

Registration

Vehicles need to be re-registered once a year and the ‘rego’ must be moved into your name within 14 days of buying the vehicle. This is similar to paying road tax in the UK. A vehicle must be re-registered in your name in the same state is was registered the previous time. Getting the rego transferred to another state is expensive and rarely worth it for a backpacker. You’ll need to register the vehicle to an Australian address and if you don’t have one, just send it to a trustworthy hostel.

If your rego runs out while you’re out of state you can renew online. Remember that it can be tough to sell a vehicle in a different state to the one it is registered in.

Pink Slip

A pink slip is similar to an MOT and shows the vehicle passed a safety inspection and is in full working order. It must be renewed every year by law.

Insurance

When you’ve registered your vehicle you get a green slip which will cover injuries to passengers if you are at fault in an accident. Technically, you don’t need any other insurance but you won’t be covered for any damages to vehicles or buildings etc or health care for yourself if you’re injured.

Insurance is much more expensive if you’re under 25 but I’d always recommend having if. Like they say, if you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford a car.

Breakdown Assistance

I’ve just spoken to my Aussie housemates who assured me that ‘only old people have breakdown cover in Australia, no one gets it.’ If you take the Aussie approach, you can purchase roadside assistance when and where you break down for an extra fee. If not, check out 24/7 Road Services.

Top Tips:

  • You don’t need an international driving licence unless you plan to stay in Australia for a few years. We never had any problems with our British licences and my cousin has lived out there for years without one.
  • Driving in Melbourne can be tricky due to the trams. If you’re turning right, for example, you have to get in the left hand lane. Yes, it’s weird and takes some getting used to.
  • Always carry water. Lots and lots and lots of water!
  • When driving in the outback and rural areas, watch out for kangaroos, especially around dusk and dawn. Kangaroos are really stupid and will jump right out in front of your car without a second glance. Hit a big roo and you’ve got some messy road kill on your hands. Roo bars are strongly recommended.
  • You’ll need air-con. I wouldn’t even think about buying without. You will melt.
  • Unless you’re a fancy pants backpacker and have electric hook ups in you’re van, buy a battery powered fan for the nights. Absolute lifesaver. In campsites we’d often sleep with the windows open with mozzie nets up against them but if we slept in the middle of nowhere we didn’t want to do this. We’ve seen Wolfcreek.
  • Make sure you have a gas cooker. This is also needed to boil up water when you’re in the outback.
  • If you’re budget is tight, why not consider a station wagon, which is essentially an estate car. We met a lot of people who slept on an air bed in the back or had plenty of space in it to pack a tent. You won’t have as much freedom but you’ll save money on both fuel and the initial costs.
  • 4WD or 2WD?
  • 4WDSs are much more expensive but if you’ve got the budget I’d go for it. We had 2WD and there were a couple of roads our little old van just couldn’t handle.

Hopefully I’ve answered all the basic questions about buying a car or campervan in Australia. If I haven’t, just leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it.

If you’re wondering where I went, check out my route during my epic Australian roadtrip.

 

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a full time blogger and has travelled around the world in search of the best holidays. Monica lives in Wales with her growing family and now also blogs about travelling with young children!

Comments

  • May 14, 2012

    Wow great tips! I was gonna campervan when I was in Oz but I ended up going solo and couldn’t afford it. If I ever went back (with a friend) I would defo take your advice. great post x

    reply
  • May 15, 2012

    Great tips! This is a popular option in New Zealand as well. Buying definitely sounds like the way to go.

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  • Lindsey
    May 15, 2012

    Great post! One of the things I’m going to miss most when I leave to travel is the freedom to go anywhere that having a car gives me! Hopefully I’ll be able to do something similar around NZ 🙂

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  • January 9, 2013

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, excellent post.
    Planning to buy one perhaps next week. Thanks for the guidelines where to buy. I’ll take heed.

    reply
  • Ella
    September 5, 2013

    I love how overseas they say never to hitch-hike because a crazy person will pick you up and do the dirty/ go to murder town. But here in ‘Straya it’s the opposite, never pick up a hitch-hiker or they’ll get ya. E.g Ivan Milat/ Wolf creek.

    reply
  • Car Rental Singapore
    December 9, 2013

    Yes, you are right that if someone wants to go on trip to Australia then he or she should buy a car or campervan for travelling by their own to whatever place they want. I think it will cost you a high if you rent a car for a week rather than buying a new one. I also want to travel Australia. Actually, I am from Singapore aand it’s my dream to travel the whole world.

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  • January 30, 2014
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  • June 26, 2014

    Great tips! Yes, water is so important for an Australian road trip. I imagine that’s an important thing anything in Australia. Thanks for sharing.

    reply
  • Ed Birch
    September 14, 2014

    Do you ever have any problems getting fuel?
    What is the normal distance between fuel stations on main roads?

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  • September 16, 2014

    Hey Monica, I really love this post. I’m in the same situation right now, I’m undecided whether if I should buy or hire. Very helpful article. Thanks!

    reply
  • Georgia
    October 1, 2014

    How much does it cost roughly per week in fuel?

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  • Anthony
    January 10, 2015

    Hi, really helpful tips thanks,

    how did you find not having a toilet or shower? ive heard you cannot just stop anywhere and sleep but there is sites to stop off at?

    and was it bad for any creatures climbing into the van?

    thanks

    reply
  • Josh
    April 10, 2015

    Great post!

    I’m heading out in June and looking to do a solo camping trip (hopefully pick some friends up on the way) of the East Coast! How much would you need roughly to set yourself up with a can and maybe a months worth of travel?

    My plans to go out with about £3/4000 with the idea of working and travelling.

    Thank you for a great read!

    reply
  • April 15, 2015

    Hey! We are wanting to buy a car in Aus for our roadtrip but are a bit confused about the registration process. Maybe you can help us? Basically we want to buy the car in Western Australia and sell it in either Queensland or NSW – one car we looked at is registered in Southern Australia. How easy is it to transfer a car to another state and then to sell it in another? Any pointers would be greatly appreciated!!

    reply
  • Deanna R. Jones
    April 17, 2015

    I’ve always wanted to explore Australia, but I would rather not stay in a hotel throughout the trip. Using a campervan sounds like a great way to have a place to sleep while also traveling to any part of Australia that I want to see. Knowing what to check for when buying one in Australia seems like a great idea. I’ll be sure to look for black exhaust fumes, weird noises, and oil leaks that may come from a campervan that I may want to buy so that I can get one that works really well.

    reply
  • Jaye
    November 17, 2015

    A couple of points that are really worth noting… Registration of vehicles is state based, and not all states have the same requirements. Roadworthy certificates for example are currently not required in South Australia, and we can get rego in either yearly, or 3 month blocks. Also in SA, we are no longer required to display proof of registration (so no stickers on the windshield) which can cause some issues in other states.
    We do have statutory cooling off periods for car sales now, so you can change your mind within 30 days and return the vehicle for a full refund, but that mainly applies to dealer sold vehicles. Not sure if, or how it could be applied to privately sold vehicles.
    It’s always worth the expense of having a mechanical check done (either through the roadside breakdown services, RAA in SA, or independents)… We have bought many cars cheap because others were scared off by a ‘weird noise’ that turned out to be a cheap fix!
    Also worth noting… Depending on just how remote you plan to travel, diesel vehicles are generally the better option. Fuel availability is generally quite reasonable these days (but fill up when you can, every time you can out bush) but petrol is not a preferred fuel type in some areas, and simply not available in a few! But as a first time backpacker in a camper van you’d be extremely unlikely to be heading into those areas anyway…

    reply
  • Liz
    February 21, 2016

    Thank you for these great tips! Only just started researching for a big trip to start next year and you already answered so many questions that I thought I may have to troll the net for, for hours. Cheers again! Liz

    reply
  • Jerry Jamis
    March 22, 2016

    The choice of base vehicle is important – something reliable and easy to drive is essential, while the availability of spare parts may also be a factor and thats the most important. Monica this is one of the great tip i ever heard so far.

    reply
  • Chris Dunham
    July 9, 2016

    Great article, my only question is, what method of payment do you use? All my money is in a UK bank account, and ATM withdrawal limits would mean it taking ages to withdraw enough funds. I presume private sellers all want cash? If so did you use a money transfer service like Western Union to get a large sum, quickly?

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  • Adam Brimblecombe
    January 11, 2017

    Really good article, will help alot when I go out in September. Going for 8 weeks so thinking this might be the best way to go when i’m out there. How long did it take you to sell the campervan out of interest, and how did you go about selling it? Was it through gumtree again?

    reply
  • Pacotiger
    September 15, 2017

    Does the backpack car market gone to online? Is it available any more in king cross, Sydney? Anybody could confirm if the market is still there?

    Thanks a lot!

    reply

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