Backpacker’s Guide to Buying a Car in New Zealand

Buying a car sucks.  It sucks even more when you're in a new country with limited access to your cash funds and a strong itch to get on the road.  I’ve lived in Chicago for seven years so I have not been a car owner in quite a while.  Even the car I drove as a teenager in Nebraska technically wasn't mine so I wasn’t really involved or aware of any of the buying processes you have to endure when you get a new set of wheels.

People kept asking me if I was nervous to move to New Zealand, to which I responded I was only nervous about two things:  buying a car and running out of money.  Everything else, I reasoned, I would figure out on the way. 

There’s a stereotype that women are not savvy when it comes to buying, owning or maintaining automobiles.  I hate to play into stereotypes so I did as much preparation as possible prior to my departure.  This included a trip to the used car lot in Salida, Colorado where an odd salesman named Erik taught me everything I need to know about buying a car, or at least everything I need to know about looking like I know what I’m talking about when buying a car.  This was immensely helpful.  If you are going to be buying a car as well and have limited car knowledge, I highly recommend you call your local dealer, explain you’re moving abroad, and ask if you can view/test drive some of their higher mileage cars to get a sense of what you should expect. With any luck, you’ll get the info you need while only have to endure a little bit of mansplaining. 

Test Driving Checklist

Miscellaneous items:
If you can bring a second person along, do it. They might notice things you don’t catch. 
Always test drive.  If you can, take the car on faster speedways (100km+) and up some hills. 
Ask about the car’s history and be skeptical of the answer.  If you decide you like the car, buy a history report to get some additional info: Is there any money owed on the car?  Is the odometer inconsistent?  Is the car reported as stolen?  

Ask about the Warrant of Fitness.  Is it up to date and when does it expire?  Same goes for the registration.

If you decide to purchase the car, ask for a pre-purchase inspection, especially if this is from a private owner (not a dealership).  This inspection will cost you money but you will save in the long run they can point out major flaws before you buy the car.  AA dealerships are highly recommended.

If you buy, make sure the certification of registration (showing you as the current owner) is completed and submitted to the post office.
Mechanical Checks:

If you are going to be driving a lot in remote places, make sure the tires are up to snuff.  You should be able to feel the wear bar if you put your finger in the tread.  If the tread is worn down all the way to the wear bar, you need new tires.  Another trick is to stick a match head in the tread.  If the match head is completely covered, the tires are fine.
Look for any cracks or balding in the tires.  If the tires or eroding and cracked, walk away or ask for new tires.
Feel the rotors for any deep grooves.  
Look to see if the tires are directional.  If they are, be aware you cannot rotate your tires.  Likewise, make sure the tires are the same size in the front and the back. 
Look for any cracks in the rims. 
Make sure the spare tire, jack, and wrench are included and where they are located.  

Under the hood:
One of the odd tips Erik gave me was to look at the bolts on the side of the frame under the hood.  If the paint has been rubbed off, this means the car was in an accident and they had to remove the bolts, which caused the paint to come off.  This wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker for me since I was looking to buy a car from the 90s and I suspected any car that old would be likely to have sustained some accidents.  

Check the cam belt.  If it is cracked, run away or ask for a new one. These are expensive to replace.  Ask the seller when it was last replaced in your car.  This is the only belt in your car and it costs thousands of dollars to repair.

Check the oil.  If the car had been running shortly before you checked the oil, wipe the oil from the measuring stick and dip it back into the oil to get an accurate reading.  Oil should be clear and not black.
Ask when the battery terminal was last serviced/replaced and look for any corrosion. 
Look under the car for any leaky spots.

Driving Checklist:
If you let go of the steering wheel, does it pull the car to one side or another?  If so, there’s is likely a problem with the alignment.
Is the transmission slow to gear up?  
In a safe and isolated place, slam on the brakes to test their responsiveness
Push and pull every button on the dashboard.
Test the AC/Heat.
Test the locks.
Test the windows.
Are there any odd lights on the dashboard?
If you want to test for all wheel drive, find an uphill gravel road, stop the car, then hit the gas.  If the wheels are slow to grab on and spin out a bit, the all-wheel drive doesn’t work.  If it’s working correctly, it should immediately move the car forward.
If you have a second person with you, have them get out while you put the car in park and rev the engine.  Be wary if they see any dark smoke come out of the tailpipe.

If the car you’re looking at passes all of these checkpoints and you’re ready to buy, congratulations.  The rest is fairly easy, but there are some things you should know before jumping into things.

Have easy access to cash:
Learn from my mistakes.  Make sure you have plenty of cash (or access to it) before you buy/agree to buy.  in my case, I was waiting for my US money to clear the bank and be deposited into my NZ account which took 3-5 business days.  I agreed to buy the car before the cash had been transferred and since both the dealer and I was on a timeline, I was put in the precarious position of borrowing $500 from some week old friends.  Don’t be an idiot like me.  You might think it will work out when you get there.  It will, but it will take longer than you’d like.  Bring enough cash to either change to NZ dollars or set up a bank account and transfer your money before you go.  Both would be one million times better than I what I did.

Get Car Insurance:  
Car insurance is not mandatory in New Zealand, but it’s a good idea to at least get third party insurance so if you do cause an accident, your insurance will cover the party you injured.  Insurance is cheap so just do it.  I insured myself through AA and it cost me $219 NZD for 12 months.  You can also get their roadside assistance for $99 (for backpackers) which is like AAA in the US.  They pick you up if you have any issues, fix flats, jump batteries, etc.  If they can’t get you on the road on the spot, they will tow you for free.  

Gas (Petrol):
Gas is expensive here.  If you can afford to sacrifice the additional space, you’d be doing yourself a favor if you bought a smaller, fuel-efficient car.  I know those camper vans look dreamy, but I can’t even imagine their gas bills.

You’ll notice diesel is cheaper than petrol, but diesel cars also have some additional costs that even out the overall expenses.  

Where to Buy:
I bought my car from  This is the equivalent of Craigslist in the USA but seems a little less dodgy.  Either way, exercise caution and question everything.  If the sale doesn’t feel right, you always have the right to back out.  

Alternatively, you can buy from one of the many weekend car fairs. These fairs are organized for independent buyers and sellers.  I believe sellers have to pay to participate, but it’s free for buyers.  They have mechanics on site to check out the cars.  I do not know if you are able to test drive before buying or not.  Either way, be sure to have cash in hand if you are interested in buying.

You can also buy from a dealer.  I ended up doing this although I meant to buy from an independent seller.  Turns out the post I saw on Trade Me was from a dealer.  It worked out just fine, though.  The price was right on the car and he even brought the car to me to test drive and finish up paperwork.  He organized a new WOF before he changed the title as well, which was an added saving for me.

Some people buy from word of mouth.  A French roommate of mine in the hostel had another French friend who was finishing up his trip so he bought the car, sight unseen.  Most hostels also have advertisements posted from other backpackers trying to get rid of their cars.  I found these cars to be a bit pricier and not exactly what I wanted so I didn’t ask to view any.

Driving on the Left:
Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who is accustomed to driving on the left.  Maybe you’re like me and Googled “How to navigate New Zealand roundabouts” months before you left (hello anxiety).  I’m here to testify that it’s actually not that bad.  I didn’t even run into that many roundabouts and if you do come across one, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Just follow the pack and keep yourself close to the middle line.  Same goes for city driving.  it requires a little focus at first but if you just follow the cars ahead of you, you’ll be just fine.  Driving in the country is harder for me because I am less focused so I instinctively want to turn and revert to the right lane.  Luckily there usually no one around when that happens.

Perhaps the most perverse part about backward driving (yeah I said it) is the inexplicable switching of the windshield wipers and the blinker.  Why on God’s green earth was it ever necessary to switch these two things?  This has been the source of 99% of my car driving frustration in New Zealand.  I just want to signal my intentions to the follow road dwellers, but instead, I end up turning on the windshield wipers every time, sending me into more of a panic than is necessary.  It’s so cruel.  

For reference, these are the specifics for my car:

Year:  1994
Make/Model:  Toyota Rav4 (2 doors)
Fuel Type: Petrol
Transmission: Automatic
Price paid: $2,700 NZ dollars
Insurance:  AA ($219 NZ dollars) 
Car Ownership document: $9.00 NZ
First tank of gas: $93 NZ 

Good luck.  Put on your best poker face and happy hunting!

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