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Buying A Backpacker Car

“Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. Andy Dufresne, headed for the Pacific.” – The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

There’s a classic scene at the end The Shawshank Redemeption where Andy Dufresne, the films protagonist, is shown driving his shiny new convertible down the coast of Mexico. The glistening sun off of the azure Pacific and the curious smirk on his face form a very intentional contrast to the awful conditions from which he had just recently emerged.

And while it’s totally unlikely that you’ll adopt a pseudonym and abscond with warden Nortons’ money, drive down much of the coast in New Zealand and you’ll have your own personal Andy Dufresne and the Pacific moment.

“Cars are soooo cheap!” said no backpacker ever. Unless they’re in New Zealand. Then it might just be true. For many, a great set of wheels can be found at some great prices.

Like anything in life, you must do your homework. Understanding the smells, the leaks, the sounds, the conversations you have with the buyer, they’re all fundamental to getting a great deal. But if you understand this, and with just a bit of luck, there’s no reason why you can’t buy a car for $1,200 (double that for a campervan) and then sell it at the conclusion of your trip for something similar.

If you’re serious about buying a car in New Zealand or Australia, a great place to start is here: backpackerboard.co.nz. They put together a very comprehensive article on what to look for when buying a car. Stuff like inspections, licensing and insurance laws, and just really good stuff to know.

I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’ll give my personal experience in an effort to give some perspective to potential buyers.

Step 1: The Decision to Buy

I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand with the intention of working, perhaps taking a few trip before then. I never once thought about how I would travel around. Having just recently quit my desk job and sold most of my stuff, acquiring more assets liabilities really wasn’t a big priority. But still, less than one week after my arrival I was camping out of the back of my 1992 Subaru Legacy station wagon. Funny how things so quickly change.


Spend any time in an Auckland or Christchurch hostel and you’ll quickly realize that the majority of backpackers buy their own car. More often, friends pool some money together in a collectivized effort to get on the road. In something that is truly unique to New Zealand, the math behind the purchase works.

Car rentals can be found for about $30/day. While in the short term a rental is obviously better than buying, if you plan on spending more than two or three months in the country a car purchase is really worth it.

$30/day for a rental x 3 months =  about $2700. And it’s money you’ll never see again.

Now consider a purchase. $1,200 purchase price + $500 insurance and registration + $500 repairs = $2200. I won’t include gas because it is not included in the rental price either. Assuming you can sell the car upon departure for $1,000, and there is definitely a market to do that, you can spend $2000 less than renting. Quite a substantial difference.

For someone who was planning eight months in the country, this argument was quite persuasive. But I’m a skeptic living a Hobbesian dream. I just knew that something will go wrong. I had to dig deeper.

What about buses, hitchhiking and rides in exchange for food? Can’t I just take those? Sure. But two big issues appear.

Fist, convenience. Getting in your car first thing in the morning and going off to the next destination is much better than waiting half the day for the bus. Better still, New Zealand is one gigantic anthill of dusty roads, foothills and beaches to be explored. If you want any chance of reenacting your own version of Lost, you just can’t take the bus. And because of it I could relax in the evenings with a beer and sunset like this:

Mount Cook and the view from my tent.
Mount Cook and the view from my tent.

But the second reason is even better – camping. By sleeping in my car or more likely, pitching my tent somewhere straight out of Middle Earth, I literally saved hundreds that otherwise would have been spent on hostels. From time to time I did feel like the deadbeat thrice divorced dad living out of his car. But I couldn’t care less – there’s a certain ineffable freedom that comes with eating baked beans and potatoes out of the trunk of your car.

Step 2: So what will it all cost?

For convenience I’ll put all the prices in US dollars. Not including gas, I spent $2,200 dollars over the course of 10 months.

NZ Car expense1

A few things to note. The price I paid is pretty standard and most 15+ year old cars with around 250,000 km will sell for about the same. If you’re buying in low season (May-October) you might even get a better deal.

Registration and insurance. First, registration. This is required by NZ law and a 6-12 month registration will cost about $200.

Second, insurance. As backwards crazy as it sounds, all auto insurance is optional in New Zealand. Even third part coverage! Now, it would be a bit foolish not to get it, but I guess the logic is that New Zealand is all mountains and sheep so if you were going to hit something it probably wouldn’t be anything containing people. Or something like that. Either way I manned up and bough a 12 month policy for about $400. For me personally, knowing I was covered if I caused a 50 sheep/car pile-up gave me peace of mind.

Oh, right! Don’t forget about camping! New Zealand is designed for the outdoors. In fact there’s entire books and maps detailing every campsite in the country – of which there are thousands. Most government run camping grounds charge around $3/person per night. Substantially less than a hostel. Sometimes hostels are great, but camping in New Zealand is certainly something to take advantage of.

For some reference, I spent three weeks over the summer driving the entire South Island of New Zealand. And while I wasn’t taking all the excursions and adventure trips available, I still did everything I set out to do for a budget of about $250/week. Most of the money I saved came from not camping my way around.

Step 3: Repairs

Let’s be blunt. You’re buying a car with more than 200,000 km. It will likely be some 15 year old Japanese import so at least you know the quality is there, but it’s still a total roll of the dice. Just like walking into the clinic after a drunken hook-up, you just need to cross your fingers and hope for the best.


Just one look at my ride and you know something is going to go. At a minimum, you’re going to change the oil and probably replace a belt or tire. That’s $200 right there. I replaced two tires, a clutch cable and brake pads. Certainly not any major repair work by most standards and yet still I spent around $600. Major engine and transmission work is a possibility but if you do your due diligence before purchasing this threat certainly becomes less likely.

But don’t be put off only because of the potential of an impending breakdown. Parts are ubiquitous and cheap for most Japanese imports. Replacing brake pads and fan belts is just part of normal wear and tear and likely to happen but just about any car. It’s car maintenance 101 really. Change and check the oil regularly. Hear a sound? Check it out. Tightening a belt is easy. Waiting until it breaks and then screws up a whole bunch else is hard.

Just go ahead and ignore that stupid look on my face.

Step 4: Selling your beautiful ride

True, there’s definitely a buyers markets if you’re selling in high-season, but don’t try and time your trip simply around the possibility of what you might be able to sell your car for.  Summers in New Zealand are amazing. Long hours of daylight, generally light jacket weather and plenty of sun. The winters? Not so much. Cold and dark if we’re being honest.

I was able to sell my car for 80% of the purchase price in high season, or about $800 USD. Considering how many miles I had put on the car and how it had served me over the past 8 months it was definitely a good sale.

I hate cars; more expensive than girlfriends and a lot less fun. But if there’s any exception to the rule, New Zealand is it. This tiny country tucked away in the southern corner of the Pacific is has everything for several months of carefree living. Truly, I’ve never felt so rich while being so poor.


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