Buying a Car or Van in New Zealand

Buying a used car when you know little about cars can be hard. Buying a used car in another country can be even harder. And buying a van in another country you are going to then live in… well, you can expect a bit of hair pulling to go on!

But it doesn’t have to be like that!

Come prepared with the ultimate checklist on what to look for, what to watch out for, and to give you the best chance of avoiding the bombs and the lemons!


New Zealand has its own little market going on when it comes to backpacker vans and cars. Vans especially can be sold for far more than they would in other countries.

The supply and demand plays a huge role in this market. The vehicles also have a high turnover rate of owners, many staying for just a few months before moving on.

So making sure to pick a vehicle that's been cared for, is reliable, and won’t die and leave you with a hefty mechanics bill is going to be on the forefront of your mind when arriving.

And if you plan on buying or renting a van, be sure to read up on Freedom Camping HERE!


If you plan on staying 2 months or more it is often better to buy one instead of renting.

While some depreciation to the cars value will happen, you will nearly always get a decent sum back when selling, something which a rental won’t do. However, a rental can give piece of mind if something goes wrong mechanically that it will be taken care of.

So before you arrive, organise your international driver's license, read up on the road rules and conditions, take this little test, and also importantly, familiarise yourself with the checklist below if you plan on buying.

There’s a handy PDF version of the checklist as well!


Read More:

What Does Freedom Camping in New Zealand Mean? How to Freedom Camp Responsibly!

12 Things Vanlife Will Do to You!



The main cities to buy and sell from are Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. You may also find some for sales in places like Queenstown or Dunedin, but the first 3 cities are your most likely entry places into New Zealand and are a great place to start. They are also the cheapest as the further you venture from the main cities, the more expensive it gets!

There are several websites that display car and van ads. Here are some of them:

BEDVANZ specialises in van conversions and buying/selling vans.

Facebook buy/sell groups are becoming very popular as well. Try searching ‘nz vans’ or ‘nz cars’ in your Facebook Marketplace search bar. Many vehicles are also advertised on the main roads.

Driving around to car yards and mechanics is also a good idea and allows you to see the vehicle straight away. Car yards often have warranties to go with the vehicles.

But just like private sellers, there are lemons in the bunch as well!

And lastly, newspapers, community notice boards, and backpacker boards found in hostels can also hold a wealth of potential vehicles.


It’s sad, but nowhere is safe from scammers, even New Zealand. Scammers will often email sellers asking for money transfers or needing help with a long story to go with it. Avoid ANY emails you may receive about buying or selling a vehicle.

Also, it may go without saying, but is worth mentioning nonetheless;


Always test drive and inspect any vehicle you are interested in!


Before arriving in New Zealand, I spent some time making a checklist with a mechanic friend of mine to help make the whole process easier. I wanted it to be as stress free as possible when I arrived and starting looking at potential vehicles!

While you could spend a whole day critiquing every little thing on the vehicle you are looking at, we want it to be an efficient task that anybody can do, even without much mechanical knowledge.

So to help, the checklist below should get you started!

Take your time, check every item on the list, and be happy with your inspection. Be prepared to get on the ground to have a good look underneath.

Of course, it's impossible to know everything about the vehicle, but this list should help you avoid the worst vehicles out there!


► Print out this checklist, PDF version: HERE

► Have a torch or headlamp

► Bring some paper towel for checking the oil

► Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty (for when you lay on ground and look under the vehicle).

► An old towel or small tarp can make laying on the ground easier as well.

You should go through the vehicle checking these things, after which a mechanic inspection (like those offered by AA: HERE) will help put your mind at ease on anything you missed.

A history check (also by AA: HERE) is also worth doing for $20 to make sure you are dealing with the legal owner and no money is owed, among other things.

Both inspection and history checks are highly recommended!


► When arriving for the viewing, try to get the test drive done in the morning on a cold start of the engine. Try to meet the seller at the cars location instead of them driving to you. Cold starts may reveal problems not always apparent once the engine is warmed up. If it has been warmed up, let the engine cool off before starting a test drive.

► Allow 10-15 minutes of driving time on your test drive, making sure to take the vehicle on a hill or steep incline and a highway if possible to test the engine on a hill and at speed.

► After driving, let it sit for another 10-15 minutes and look underneath to check oil leaks (and other leaks) while you do your checklist.

REMEMBER: The vehicle should sound good and drive well. This is the most important thing! If it feels dodgy, it probably is!


► Current WOF (warrant of fitness) and check the expiry date. It is advisable to NOT buy a vehicle that does not have a current WOF.

► Current rego and check expiry date.

► Rust!! Check the body and panels first, then around the inside of doors, and finally under the car and around/along the chassis. If you find any major rust in areas- Do not buy!

► Oil leaks under car the car. After test driving, see if any (or how much) drips down after 10-15 minutes.

► An oil leak at the back of the engine is bad news. Do not buy.

► Sludge in oil can mean it hasn’t been maintained. Run finger under where the oil cap is and note any sludge or discolouration (don’t do this on a hot engine!!!). Do not buy.

► The oil should be clean. Black oil in diesel engines can be common even after oil changes, so don’t panic if looking at a diesel engine.

► Blue or white smoke coming out of the exhaust is bad (engine and cylinder firing issues). Give it a good rev and note the smoke colour. Do not buy if smoke is blue or white.

► Take the vehicle up a hill and listen for ticking or plinking noise. This is related to engine strain and/or engine not firing properly.

► Car pulling to the left or right when driving straight (worn axle or bad alignment).

► Brakes! Check if the brakes work with a good, sharp stop.

► Check handbrake works on a hill.

► Tyres! Check that none of the tyres are bald or have very little tread left.

► Check if timing belt or chain belt has been done or is due. A broken timing belt will stop your travels pretty quick and is very expensive to fix! In fact, this is almost guaranteed to stuff your entire trip.

► Leaks out of joints under the vehicle. Any number of problems, investigate further with an AA inspection.

► Any strange sounds or ticks. They can be minor but could also be a major problem in the making.

► Check all lights work including reverse lights. There should not be any cracks in headlights as these are required to pass a WOF.

► Check all fluid levels you can identify. They always have lines indicating minimum and maximum fill levels. You don’t need to know what they are, just that they are at the right level.

Remember, if you have any doubts with the above items, an AA inspection is perfect to identify them.


► Squeeze all radiator hoses (just squeeze any plastic/rubber hoses visible, when they are OK to touch and not hot). If they are ‘crunchy’, they may need replacing soon and other hoses may be in same state. Leaks and bursts can happen.

► Squeal on startup- belts will need tensioning and in rarer cases, things like mounting shafts/parts could be worn.

► Front and back bounce test. Get the vehicle bouncing, and if it’s still bouncing after you’ve stopped, the shocks may need replacement.

► Seat belts are not worn and work properly.

► General condition of the interior/exterior

Again, if you have any doubts with the above items, an AA inspection is perfect to identify them.

You can download the PDF version of this checklist, simplified for practical use, by clicking the image below:


Once you have inspected it yourself, have checked no money is owed, and done the highly recommended AA inspection, it’s time to negotiate the price.

Everyone selling a vehicle will add extra onto the price for negotiating. This is normal and expected.

Be sure to include any faults you found in the vehicle as considerations of the price. If you can see there are any major upcoming repairs, you can definitely ask for a much lower price! Be confident in your dealings and know that practice makes perfect.

Cash is recommended to avoid any drama. Write up a receipt for the transaction as well.

Once finalized, head to the nearest post office with the seller and do a change of registration. This costs $9 and is very easy to do! By going there together with the seller, it’s the safest way to make sure you have actual ownership straight away.


Congratulations! You have a new vehicle, ready to explore and adventure in New Zealand!

Remember, New Zealand roads are different. Times stated on Google Maps are often not accurate, and the winding roads need special attention to drive safely. The weather also heavily influences the driving, so be sure to check weather and road reports found online before doing long drives!

Visit the New Zealand Transport Agencies website below for more information:

Happy travels and adventures!

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