How to buy a campervan in New Zealand

It might be hard to believe, but purchasing a New Zealand campervan and putting it in your own name-- LEGALLY-- is much easier than you would think.  On day one Tyler and I began searching Backpacker Facebook sites looking for vans for sale. 


Tyler checking the underside of the van.

Tyler checking the underside of the van.

Because we arrived in the winter season, we were fortunately in a buyer’s market and thus had plenty of vans to choose from.  By day two we had five visitors scheduled to show up to our apartment and show us their van’s best.


The first was a personally painted 1999 van that was owned by three German girls.  They had spent six months traveling both islands and were very pleased with their vehicle.  I complimented the curtains and twinkle lights as Tyler inspected the rusted doors and tread-less tires.  It didn’t take us long to thank the girls for stopping by and wish them good luck selling their van to someone else.


Vehicle Purchasing Guide

Here’s a quick list of things to look for when purchasing a campervan (per Tyler’s Google education):

  • Look for rust anywhere and everywhere

  • Do the doors slide, open and close smoothly

  • Do the doors lock easily

  • check for oil leaks underneath

  • look at the tire tread

  • there shouldn’t be any rust under the vehicle

  • check the mileage - should be low

  • check blinkers and lights

  • test out the heat and A/C

  • Do the windows go up and down smoothly, if at all?

  • When was the last battery replacement?

  • do the brakes squeak?


Later that day we viewed a 2003 Mitsubishi from a nice French couple.  They were the third backpackers to own the vehicle, which was a plus because it came with three backpacker’s worth of stuff – an inflatable kayak, New Zealand guidebooks in three languages, plates, bowls, towels, and an external battery charger for cell phones and laptops controlled by an impressive switch from the inside of the vehicle (backpackers get pretty creative, ya’ll).  


We both really liked the van, but there were a few concerns.  The tires were low and looked ready to be replaced.  The vehicle was back-wheel drive only and the motor required a belt – something Tyler was informed by Google NOT to get into.  A quick test drive down the block confirmed that this was not our van.  For fun, I offered a very low price for the vehicle and seemingly offended our French sellers.  Oh well, we had many more vans to look at.


That evening a local bloke named Axel, came by and showed us what would soon be our little darling seniorita.  Vanita is a 1998 Toyota Hiace with a clean look and a fresh mattress.  No one has ever camped in Vanita and Tyler and I particularly liked the idea of customizing her to our own needs and savouring the cleanliness that had been lacking in the previous two vehicles.  



Axel had completely custom-built the bed in the back of the van, plus a wash area in the back for cooking and cleaning.  He was smart in that he included a camping stove, pots and pans and some recreational gear, just like the other backpacker vans that were being sold by actual backpackers. It didn’t come with a kayak, but it drove like a dream and she felt very new, despite the year on her registration.

Yup, pretty swanky, huh?

Yup, pretty swanky, huh?

The bed extension can double as a table for eating when not used for sleeping.

The bed extension can double as a table for eating when not used for sleeping.

The back end is complete with a sink, gray water and clean water, plus shelving to be used for whatnots.

The back end is complete with a sink, gray water and clean water, plus shelving to be used for whatnots.


We offered Axel $1,500 less than his asking price, which was $6,600 NZD ($4,400 USD).  He was unsure of our offer at first but when we reminded him, this vehicle wasn’t even around for Y2K and we still had to purchase an external battery and solar charger for my laptop, he agreed to give us the deal.

Thanks for the adorable keychain, Jessica!

Thanks for the adorable keychain, Jessica!



The next day we woke up excitedly claiming to be owners of a new van.  We weren’t homeless anymore!  Take that, U.S. military veteran statistics!


A block away we walked into a post office, filled out a one-page form and voila – the van was properly registered in Tyler’s name.  It was THAT easy.


We weren’t even required to have car insurance in New Zealand – that was purely optional, though we did decide to go with third-party insurance, which purely covers the other vehicle in the event of an accident.  Our traveller’s insurance covered fire and theft so that wasn’t necessary either.


Vehicle Insurance

Why didn’t we get compressive coverage for Vanita?  Surely not because we don’t love her.  It’s just that spending triple what we would pay for third-party only, wouldn’t do us much good.  We paid a relatively small price for the van and if something were to happen, we’d simply get creative or make a new plan.  Vanita isn’t our permanent vehicle and therefore we simply won’t spend thousands of dollars on repairs or replacements should the unthinkable happen to our beloved. Each of these decisions are for each individual backpacker to make on their own, of course.


Our insurance was purchased through AA Insurance.  Their website was easy to use and looked the most trust-worthy in my glossy web-designer eyes.  For two drivers over the age of 25, we pay only $18 NZD per month for the insurance of our lovely Vanita.


Here are a few other recommended backpacker car insurance sites that we looked at:


While we’re on the topic, you may be interested in knowing that we pay only $37 USD per month for traveller’s insurance as well.  This covers medical, accidental, theft and fire up to $250,000.  We use Safety Wing which was recommended to us from multiple nomadic friends and we haven’t had any problems.


Transferring the Payment 

The hardest part about purchasing a van was transferring money from our American accounts to our Kiwi friend’s account.  Venmo was our obvious go-to, followed by PayPal, neither of which are that popular in New Zealand.  A cashier’s check is doable, but like most backpackers, our friend wanted to be paid in cash.  This would be fine but what bank isn’t going to be alerted when you take out $4,400 American dollars in a foreign country.  Even with our travel alerts made, that was a lot of money to pull out in cash randomly. 


Another option was to purchase multiple Prezzy cards, which is the New Zealand version of Visa gift cards. However, Axel wasn’t interested in this form of payment either.


Eventually we used something called TransferWise, a company out of England that Axel had used before.  It was quite painful to set up and took us nearly an hour to complete the process, but it did in fact work.


To make matters more complicated, it should have been an easy transition for me to Venmo Tyler for my half of the payment, but lack of planning interceded.  My Venmo account was set up with my home bank account, while my travel savings money was in a different account.  In order to transfer money between accounts my bank wanted a double-verification opt-in, which comes in the form of a text through the mobile number associated with my account.  This would be fine except my phone number in America was suspended during my time abroad and my cell phone was now associated with a New Zealand number. This happened more than once, on multiple accounts, so consider this a head’s up if you plan to travel overseas and do a lot of online banking like I do. 


Fortunately, I was able to have my mother give me a hand back in the states. She called and changed my phone number so I was able to access my accounts safely once again.


If you plan on purchasing a car in New Zealand, be sure and have your bank situation figured out before you get going.