Buying a Campervan

This is the third in a series of posts about my 2011 roadtrip around Oz. Check out Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia!

Before embarking on the recent roadtrip around Australia, Heather of theresnoplacelikeoz.com fame and I gave quite a bit of thought to the process of buying a campervan. We really had no idea how much we should expect to pay, what sort of features we should expect or how roadworthy they would be, but after conducting heaps (in other words next to zero) research, we went ahead and bought a campervan. After having travelled in said van and speaking with other campervanners, I’m quite confident now with the state of buying and selling a campervan in Australia and these are my expert (done it once – I’m an expert!) observations.

Roadworthiness

Most of the vans we looked at when purchasing our van looked like bombs. Since that time, most of the backpacker campervans we’ve seen are bombs. We thought ours was bad, but it had nothing on most of the vans out there. Most have a lot of rust, dodgy tyres and bits hanging off them or taped on. This poses a bit of a problem in that many of these are unsafe, but more importantly for people on a tight budget, they are hard to get registered because of mandatory roadworthiness inspections. The only way to avoid this is to pay a lot of money for a van that will easily pass the pre-registration roadworthiness inspection or try and find a dodgy mechanic to pass it for you.

Campervan in Tasmania
Campervan in Tasmania

Registration

In most Australian states, vehicles over 5 years old require an annual inspection to verify that they are roadworthy. If they don’t pass this check, they can’t be registered. The question is, how do most of these vans get registered if they are unroadworthy? Well, it would appear that there are “ways” to pass vehicle inspection checks. Most cheap backpackers seem to be willing to take a few safety risks for the sake of some money. I understand that.

The process of transferring registration from one party to another after purchasing the vehicle is quite simple. You need to make sure that the registration papers are with the vehicle and that the reverse side of these is filled out when handing over the cash as this is how the vehicle registration people know that ownership has been changed. Once this paperwork is filled out, both parties must submit their half of the paperwork to the relevant state registration authority and pay a fee for the transfer (based on sale price – about 5%). It’s quite a simple process.

Mechanical Integrity

Aside from issues of roadworthiness and safety, there are also a multitude of mechanical issues that can arise with an old beat up van. We had to replace our engine before we hit the road because it was so badly damaged. Even a mechanic wouldn’t have been able to determine this prior to it going into a workshop. Most of the vans we’ve seen on the road go OK, but some blow smoke and we’ve heard of countless people breaking down and having to conduct repairs in remote towns.

I guess the point here is that the purchase price of the van is just the start. You are almost guaranteed to have to fork out more money to have it repaired as you go. On top of this, regular servicing will be required as well as run of the mill maintenance issues such as new tyres, wiper blades and cracked windscreens. We saw plenty of vans with pieces of cardboard for windows!

Seats Inside Campervan
Seats Inside Campervan

Features

Most vans we saw were simply an empty shell with a bed and some storage built into the back of them. Most of these vans can seat 2 or 3 people. Ours could seat 5 as the bed could be folded away whereas most beds are permanent fixtures. Most vans also don’t have fridges or external electricity supplies, so keeping stuff cold and charging electronics can be a pain. We regulalry bought ice and used an esky whenever we needed to keep stuff cool and utilised long life milk all the time. We also had a power inverter which allowed the charging of electronics through the car lighter.

So really, none of these vans have any features at all! Most of the stuff inside is just basic camp equiment that can be picked up at Kmart such as camp stove, tent, storage containers, chairs, water canisters and pots and pans. For example, a 3 man tent can be had for $15 brand new as can a portable stove.

Where to Look

There are basically two ways to do this. Either go onto gumtree.com.au and search for vans there or head down to Kings Cross in Sydney and look at all the vans on Victoria Street. There are heaps of them and they all seem to be for sale.

Bed Inside Campervan
Bed Inside Campervan

Prices

So for a featureless campervan that is unsafe, mechanically unsound and an allround nightmare, what would you expect to pay? We had heard $3000 bandied around as a price to aim for and this region proved to be correct for us. Cars with 300,000km+ will generally go for $3,000 and those with 200,000km+ will go for about $4,000. Add fridges, air conditioning and other luxury items and the price climbs VERY quickly to $5,000. Most people are content with the basic deathtraps and hence try for campervans closer to $3,000, although some vans we have seen on the road are definitely not even worth that much. The people inside them have been pretty trashy too. Next time I buy one, I will plan on spending $6k all up. $3k purchase and $3k for repairs up front.

How do the costs stack up to renting a van? Well, let’s just say you did spent $6k in total on a van (purchase + repairs + rego) and sold it for $3k. It cost you $3k out of pocket. Hiring a van is sometimes as cheap as $80 per day. So it would be cheaper to rent a van if you were going for for anything less than 37 days. That’s not really that long. But there is hassle in buying and selling plus the stress of mechanical issues. Realistically, I’d look at renting for anything up to about 45 days. More than that and buying would be my choice. Better than renting altogether would be buying a cheap station wagon and camping… Plenty of people do that too.

So there you have it. My uber-comprehensive guide to buying a backpacker-style campervan. I’m happy to field questions or provide “expert” advice.

12 thoughts on “Buying a Campervan

  1. Excellent post to bookmark. I am surprised by the price though. My friends just bought a converted van here… it had just over 100,000 miles on it but had A/C and such and they paid about $2000 USD.

    1. Yeah, I think it’s a currency exchange issues as most things are more expensive here these days because the aussie dollar is the highest it’s ever been. Unfortunately, for $2000 in Oz you are likely to get a relatively beat up van that will almost certainly have mechanical issues. It will almost certainly have done around the 200,000 mile mark and I’d reckon air-con would have to be out of the question – but you don’t really need that and it chews through fuel!

      The big question at any price is whether it is going to break down as soon as you buy it. There’s a good chance it will need some work, so it’s questionable spending big dollars… I think $3000 is the sweet spot and just hope there are no major mechanical issues. The other thing is selling. To sell the van, it needs to be driveable… Our fear was that the van would break down and we would have to stump up more money just to sell it! It’s just the backpacker way – buy a van, run it into the ground and try and offload it onto another backpacker and by and large, that’s the way it works. My favoured option at this point in time would be to buy a station wagon off a non-backpacker and camp in a tent. But I could be convinced to buy a van again – it was REALLY fun and a great adventure.

  2. Great way to have total freedom while exploring Australia at your own pace. I’d just be worried about breaking down. There are some long stretches of road with very few people on them i’ve noticed, certainly in Queensland!

    1. Yeah, QLD is a big state as is SA and WA. WA in particular is immense. Just from the SA/WA border it’s a good 2 day drive to the west coast. My biggest issue on the whole roadtrip was my fear of breaking down! Every day I thought about it,

    1. Exactly. Campervanning would be so much easier if you could just wear one set of clothes and never have to shower or go to the toilet!

  3. Interesting post. I am sure lots (or is it heaps)of travelers will benefit from your experience, and of course expertise!

    In New York State vehicles are annually inspected even if you buy them brand new…age of the vehicle doesn’t matter.

    Whatever happened to the infamous Paul Heinz? (hopefully Nicole isn’t driving him around town – LOL). He sure looks good in the photos, especially without locust guts!

    1. Ha! Well, here in Oz in most states vehicles need to be inspected annually when there are 5 or more years old. It’s fair enough, I guess.

      Paul Heinz was sold! We had him listed online for a while before someone came to their senses and spotted a great deal. I didn’t think he was going to sell on the day and I was left stranded in Redfern with a long walk to the train station. It was a good day!

  4. This is a great guide! I’ve travelled pretty extensively around Australia but never by campervan – would love to hit the road for a good three months at some point and it’s nice to see that buying a campervan could actually be a viable option.

    1. Yeah, I reckon going in a campervan is a great option. I don’t own a car, so I would consider buying a car next time and camping in a tent. I think you lose a little bit of flexibility in regard to where you can set up, but to be honest, it’s not that big a deal setting up a tent in plain view of people in the burbs. Most people just don’t say anything!

  5. Great advice and info. I am doing research into camper vans and/or car camping as I want to travel this Summer (mainly in Tasmania) – any more tips and info greatly appreciated.

    1. My number 1 tip is this. If you’re going to buy a car or campervan from a backpacker, there is an almost 100% it will have problems because backpackers travel on the cheap and generally don’t keep the maintenance up. If I had my time over, I might consider buying a car from carsales.com.au from a regular person because even though I’m a backpacker, I don’t trust other backpackers. 🙂 The other thing I have done more recently is to hire a campervan which can be very economical in low season.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *