How we bought a van in New Zealand

Only one click on the “Buy now” button and it was done – we bought a van.
Here’s a little tale about what we were looking for, how we found it, cars that crossed our path, and what we decided on.

When I came to New Zealand the plan was for me and my companion to get a van to travel around the islands. This is the most common way of traveling when you’re a tourist. Buying a van you are probably able to get away cheaper than renting one. Not that it will be cheap one way or the other.

Normally you might want to reserve one at one of the million camper van sellers in Auckland or find one in the first few days after you’ve landed. Since we’ve got family over here that gave us a roof over our heads we were not in a rush to find a van but decided to travel after the Christmas holidays.

Now– one of the main issues with buying a van seemed to be: I don’t know anything about cars, let alone vans in a foreign country. Back in the day I got my drivers license right away when I had the chance, drove the car of my parents on rare occasion, until I moved out, and then kind of did not drive at all for all the years I’ve been living in the city. I’ve never felt the need to buy a car so I did not look into it.

Needless to say, I could not have been in a worse position to make an educated guess about the state of the cars we were going to look at. Neither of us, really. I was left wondering if other people find themselves in the same situation at all.

Lucky me, the Internet is here to help. There’s really just two main resources I’ve been using to learn about doing an inspection when buying a car. Some videos from ChrisFix on YouTube and some free Dog & Lemon articles. And I think that gives you a good starting point.

We set a budget of 6.500 to 7.500 NZD (3.870 – 4.480€). My first budget was technically 5.000 NZD but we came to the conclusion that might not be going to happen.

Then, of course, you want to figure out what the cars you’re looking at are actually worth. At least during the last weeks we were looking there seemed to be a high demand. I expected that to normalise when the season is coming to an end at the end of February. But who knows anyways, certainly not me after being in the country for a month.

What helped with getting a base line on current pricing on mostly non-camper-vans was the Trade Me price guide and the website Dog & Lemon also says that a good rule of thumb is that a car in New Zealand looses 40% of its value in the first year and 20% every year after that – but it’s a sellers’ market…

After some research we were set on finding a van that was of the year 2000 or younger, since that meant you only have to get a required Warrant of Fitness once a year, rather than every six months, and definitely a milage of less than 300.000 km.

As we began to scout out “the van” we were presented with two options:

Option a) Buy a ready-made self-contained camper van

Self-contained campers give you the ability to freedom camp in a lot of places all over New Zealand and therefor come with a lot of… freedom. There’s tourists selling their camper after they’ve been around the islands, or companies and individuals that turn vans they buy into camper vans, sell them, buy them back, sell them…

You don’t have to be self-contained if you’ll just be staying on camp sites, but it’s really nice to have. We certainly wanted to have that. Dropping at the very beginning of the high season, the vans we started looking at seemed quite overpriced for age and milage they’ve been doing. We also were not in the best location to snatch up vans from people leaving the country. In Tauranga, where we’ve been staying, there’s not that many tourists coming through that already want to sell their van. Prices in Christchurch also seem to be cheaper than in Auckland.

Some travellers make a good effort on keeping all the service history together and looking after their car, since they want to sell it afterwards. Still, with owners changing in a high frequency there might be important bits missing or the car is simply not a very good price for value. Since we were and still are not quite sure how this van is going to be used in the upcoming year we certainly were looking for something that would not just be going for the next few weeks and months, but living beyond that.

I found the best place to look for other people trying to sell their camper van Facebook Groups revolving around that topic (for example this one) and the Facebook Marketplace. What also seemed alright but not as frequented was the backpackerboard noticeboard. There were a lot of articles saying you might also want to check local backpacker hostels for offers, but I actually never did that. There’s also a car fair in Auckland that must be interesting if you’re in the area.

Some first hand experiences

So we looked at three cars that were all self-contained. The first one being the nicest: a Nissan Vanette from 2001 (which apparently is a rebadged Mazda Bongo/Ford Econovan) with 260.000 km – it had loads of repairs done already and came with all the camping stuff you needed as well as a new WoF (Warrant of Fitness) and self-contained certification. We learned about the car from someone who simply made contact with the owner by walking up to her, asking if she was selling her van.

We bailed out due to the price, tho. The woman set it at 8.000 NZD and even would have come down to 6.700 NZD. But we were holding on tightly to our budget (which, at the time, was 6.000 NZD). We really did not want to overpay, out of principle. We did not intend to low-ball anyone, but be realistic about the value of the car and not give in to the so called “Dreamers” counting every penny they put into the car, wanting to get every penny back. Looking back I kind of think that was a good van to go for. It would have been a hassle free travel van, well looked after, ready to go.

After that we went to see a Mitsubishi Delica from 2001, 223.000 km, priced at 7.200 NZD. It was not very well maintained, despite that in a stunning mechanically good condition and nothing major to be noticed in terms of rust. The build was as simple as they get. With an expired WoF that the owner still wanted to do and us awaiting a self-containment re-certification in the time we wanted to be travelling in, it was simply too much of a hassle. The guy put that van on Trade Me later on for 6.500 NZD, which I think haggling down to 6.000 NZD, would be an okay price.

And last but not least (well, kind of) a Mitsubishi L300, also from 2001, 298.000 km, priced at 8.500 NZD – really overpriced! Tho it was alright build out this car was not in good shape. One of those things you learn in the videos about inspecting a car is that it’s not a good sign when the car blows out blue smoke when starting it – which it did. And it certainly is a bad sign when you think there’s parts covered in oil under the van. Their story about selling the car was also not that confidence-inspiring. Walked away from that without looking back.

I felt rather patient, thinking if we just wait it out a little the right fit will cross our way. Then again, there was another option:

Option b) Buy a used van and build it out ourselves

Besides looking at ready-made camper vans I was observing what was happening in the market of what I will call now “normal vans”. Fitting out a van supposedly costs around 1.000 – 1.500 NZD if you’re doing a simple job to just get the self-contained certificate. And since we’re in a static location with some tools, shops and materials available we’d be able to do it. Again, that would be with no experience whatsoever guiding us.

We decided to go to a local U-Sell, which is basically a car park where people rent a spot to sell their car. There was a very interesting Nissan Vanette from 2009 that only ran 96.000 km. Yes, there was a hook. The van was fitted with two cooler units. The owner wanted to get rid of the van with the units in it for 10.000 NZD. We considered it, but we were not sure where or how to sell those coolers, didn’t know if there is even a market for that, tho they are definitely worth good money.

At least we had a nice chat with the guy running the place, who was outstandingly helpful. He said the kind of stripped van we are looking for is roughly worth 5.000 NZD, tho often priced quite higher.

On the very same day we saw a listing on Trade Me about a stripped van that was… very red. But also a Mazda Bongo from 2012, 170.000 km, for 5.500 NZD. We were wondering where the catch is. So we went to take a look and have a test drive at the used car dealer that sold it. The hook, for me anyways, was the horrendous paint job the owner has put the car through to let it shine in his business colours. Yes, it was really putting me off. That kind of neglect when doing a paint job, I just can’t comprehend. Also, we were worried that there was something covered up like rust and scratches.

Otherwise the car seemed quite find, was surprisingly young and had a reasonable milage. We had a big discussion about whether or not to buy the car, going through motions of anxiousness and nervousness, since we’ve never bought a car before and had fear of making the wrong decision. Not making one would be worse, right? Few hours later, with no more energy for discussion, we came to the conclusion that I have to suck it up, not be that picky and sceptical about the paint job (really, it’s everywhere!), and we should buy it. It was a good combination of specs that should last us for our travels and some more before something should come up. And that’s all we were really looking for.

The only concern now is the inside dimensions that seemed to be quite smaller than usual due to spacing below the van for the double back wheels and spare tires (I assume).

Oh, well, now we’re taking on the challenge to do the simplest camper van build for as cheap as we can get and hit the road! Not exactly what we planned for but certainly a task I do not mind taking on.

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