Among the questions we get asked the most now that we are back in Australia we have this one:
How to buy a van in Australia?
The answer is complex and there are many aspects to be considered. Therefore we decided to write down everything we learned during our first year in Australia, in order to help you taking one of the most important steps if you too want to travel on-the-road across this wonderful country.
OUR AUSTRALIAN VAN: PENNY!
We recently landed in Australia for our second year of Working Holiday Visa, and we immediately rejoined our van “Penny”.
Penny came along with us during our first year from the far north-east to the south-east of the country. Altogether over 15,000 kilometres covered on-the-road! For months we lived in our van, crossing huge Queensland from Cairns to Brisbane, arriving in fabulous Sydney in New South Wales, passing by Canberra and Adelaide too, and eventually reaching Melbourne, in Victoria.
We can really say we had a taste of the Australian on-the-road dream!
First things first, let’s start by choosing the van that suits your needs better.
TYPES OF VAN
We take for granted that if you are reading this post you’ll already be fairly determined in buying a van to travel around Australia without breaking the bank, as many travellers and backpackers coming from overseas do.
In this guide we do not talk about jeeps/off-road 4×4 vehicles, nor about RV’s/caravans.
Let’s analyze the most common and affordable types of van.
The word “van” is specific to those vehicles with large space behind the front seats where to store various tools. When this space is transformed into a living area, we get a camper-van.
We have vans of different kind, like:
A classic mini-van in which a bed has been set.
Space is generally very limited, you can’t stand up, the bed structure is fixed.
This is the cheapest type of van, and also the one with less living space. You definitely need camping chairs and a table to eat, plus some equipment to cook outside your van.
Often in this kind of van an improvised kitchen is set up in the back. You’ll have to keep the hatchback open to use it.
PROS: cheap to buy. Easy to drive in cities, convenient to park in under 2mt covered parkings.
CONS: very limited indoor living space.
Hi-Tops are those models with a high roof or one that can be raised, like ours.
Classic vans used to have a “pop-up” roof which makes them extremely versatile. Low and agile when closed, high and spacious when open.
Some modern Hi-Tops are built straight away with a fixed higher structure.
Space within the van doubles up, you can easily stand. Besides they have a day living area convertible into a night area thanks to a sofa-bed.
Depending on the arrangement created by whoever customized it before you, you’ll have cabinets, drawers, shelves, and a table inside your van, but even a fridge, a gas-stove, a sink and water tanks in more elaborated Hi-Tops.
PROS: good living space, versatility.
CONS: Fixed Hi-Top models are over 2 meters high, making the vehicle is less agile.
Models over 5 meters long are halfway between a van and a camper, hence the name.
Usually the owner who took charge of transforming the van into a home on wheels studied the project in detail and included every kind of comfort in the camper-van.
The inside is very spacious and there’s room for various comforts as in a proper camper or RV: sinks, fixed tables and seats, sofas, electric circuits to power lights, lamps, traditional or microwave oven, toaster, and even a bathroom with shower. Without mentioning one or more beds of good size. Clearly the price raises, we are talking about 4 zeros figures.
PROS: a proper home-on-wheels. Plenty of comforts.
CONS: high prices and bulky vehicle.
First of all you don’t need to be an expert mechanic to buy and handle a van.
Obviously experience helps taking wiser decisions, but this doesn’t mean that if you’ve never bought a car in your life you can’t buy a van in Australia.
For us Penny has been and still is our first ever bought and owned vehicle. Sure, you at least have to know where’s the engine (it’s below the seats in our van!) and take care of your van with regular checks, both by yourself and at mechanic shops.
You’ll learn everything as you go, avoid anxieties and paranoia for your mental health’s sake!
The essential steps are:
- Check your certificates
- Inspect and test the vehicle
- Agree for a price and payment method
- Get the papers signed from both parties to ensure transfer of ownership
- Head to the department of motor vehicles to register your van
Do you know REVOLUT? Open your free account online to send&receive money without hidden fees.
RWC (ROAD-WORTHY CERTIFICATE)
Before purchasing a van blindly, it’s vital that the previous owner supplies you with a recent RWC (Road-Worthy Certificate), preferably obtained a few days earlier, that guarantees the vehicle’s eligibility to be on the road.
The RWC chapter would deserve its own post, however in this article we focus in a general way on what to take into consideration before buying a van.
Let’s sum up saying that no vehicle is allowed to travel in Australia without a valid RWC released from an authorized mechanic shop. It’s the seller’s job to pay and get the RWC, you shouldn’t be paying it when you are buying. Be careful not to be scammed.
The Registration o Rego, as you’ll get used to say in Aussie slang, is the document certifying the registration of the vehicle in one of Australia’s states.
Each state has its own laws about Rego, slightly different one to the other. This can make things complicated when buying for example a van with a Queensland plate outside from that state.
Anywhere you are, if you buy a van with a plate of a specific state, you will have to register it in that same state within 14 days from the date of purchase (as for now the only exception is Western Australia, that allows Registration transfer online, reason that makes WA-plated vans more appealing).
Every vehicle must have an active Rego in the name of the owner. That’s why, after signing the papers stating the transfer of ownership, you’ll have to head to the department of motor vehicles in the state of which your van’s plate belongs to, in order to transfer the Registration to your name.
TECHNICAL SPECIFICS OF THE VAN
The technical details weighing on a van’s evaluation are several, among which we mention:
99% chances are that your future van will have already done once or multiple trips around Australia. Make peace with it!
You’ll find vans with over 300,000 kilometers on the odometer (ours had 322k), even more than 400 or 500k if they are particularly reliable or if they had vital parts changed like the engine or the timing belt.
It’s not easy to find someone selling a van with less than 200,000 km’s. As a matter of fact we have never seen any for sale under 100,000 km’s!
Not everything is in the numbers though, a van that has covered more than 300,000 km’s isn’t to be rejected without prior inspection. Our dear Penny, despite her 340k km’s under her belt now, hasn’t had any major issues during the last 2 years and 20,000 km’s of travelling. We just had to replace the battery once it reached its cycle’s end.
YEAR OF MANUFACTURE
This is an important fact too, however not fundamental.
Vans prior to 1990 are considered vintage by now, but they’re often way more enduring than younger models. As for modern cars, more technological vans too break down easily when something’s wrong.
On the contrary older vans have 7 lives, and spare parts for a good old Ford or Toyota will never lack in Australia (European brands are less frequent and could end up taking long time and expensive shipping costs for spare parts coming from overseas, in case of breakdown).
Having said that, a recent van will surely have likable accessories as air conditioning, seats and interiors of fine quality, power steer, electrical windows, and better thermal insulation.
DIESEL OR PETROL ENGINE
This is an aspect to keep into consideration, since a diesel engine has naturally a longer life.
A diesel engine that has covered 300,000 km’s has many more to go ahead. It could go double than that, 600k, or even up to 1 million in particular cases (hopefully ours)!
On the other hand a petrol engine with 200,000 km’s on the clock has most likely already passed halfway of its life, or is about to do so.
Talking about fuel price, it’s quite variable in Australia, depending on where you are. It ranges from 1.25$ per liter in suburban areas to even 2.5$ a liter in The Outback!
Generally speaking, diesel is slightly more costly than petrol down here, however this isn’t a fixed rule.
AUTOMATIC OR MANUAL TRANSMISSION
Here we go back to the new vs old matter. That is: despite being easier to drive a car with an automatic transmission, it is more subject to malfunction and more expensive to fix compared to a traditional manual gearbox.
Don’t get too scared of a manual transmission if you have never used one, most of the times in Australia you’ll find yourself driving along very very long roads staying in 5th gear for hundreds of kilometers!
ELECTRICAL SYSTEM AND OUTSIDE OF THE VAN
Remember to check that lights, windows, batteries, air conditioning and radio work correctly, and that all doors open flawlessly.
Coming to the body of the van, rust is usually the most common issue for older vans. Make sure there isn’t too much of it and that it’s been treated with anti-rust product.
Wheels are to be inspected too, tyres with reduced tread will soon have to be replaced (a new tyre costs about 100$, up to 300-400$ for 4).
Don’t forget to ask to see emergency tools as the jack, the warning triangle, the spare tyre, etc.
Something that can make a van’s price increase is the fact whether it is well equipped or not. We are not talking about glasses, pots and kitchen paper, even though you’ll read many ads listing every single item in the van, fork by fork!
What makes the difference is the presence of a fridge, a second battery, a solar panel and portable gas stoves, things that when already there and in good shape can make you save a lot of money.
Keep in mind that a van worth 4,000$ may be a good deal, however you could end up spending another thousand or two if you want to equip it properly.
After having checked all mechanical and non-mechanical parts of your potential future vehicle, it’s time to test it on the road. Ask the owner to take a test drive and examine the van’s driving.
Important aspects to evaluate are: engine pickup and power, breaks, gears, handling, road holding on straights and on turns.
We were surprised and hesitant after realizing that Penny had no power steer… But in the end we convinced ourselves in spite of that. And now Edo always has fit arms when driving the van in areas with lots of bends!
WHERE TO LOOK FOR?
Now that we know what to look for, we can think of where to look for it.
Nowadays it’s easy to find ads on the internet. Firstly on Facebook, on the different groups like “Backpackers Australia” or Backpackers relative to the city you are in. Otherwise on pages as Car Buy&Sell Australia or similar.
Also, groups by your nationality like “Italiani in Australia” can be a resource.
Outside Facebook, Gumtree is a popular website where you can scroll through tons of ads and contact owners directly.
Moreover, you can find classic paper ads and phone numbers in hostel dashboards.
It goes without saying that you should always agree to meet in person and never pay a deposit in advance.
WHEN TO BUY A VAN IN AUSTRALIA?
Many travellers leave Australia in winter, that is between May and September. Some find themselves having to sell their van in a hurry due to the urge of leaving the country, and that can lead to finding good deals.
Generally speaking, if a seller has little time available he will have to lower the price.
WHERE TO BUY A VAN IN AUSTRALIA?
Similarly to the seasons question, statistically a good part of backpackers end their travels in destinations considered “final”, above all Sydney and Cairns. In these cities the number of offers tend to be higher, and prices a bit lower due to the competition.
Anyway the van market is always active, in any season and any major city in Australia. (Unless a global pandemic happens! The market went dry during Covid, and vans were in high demand, very low supply.)
The cost of a standard mini-van normally ranges between 3,000 and 6,000$ (1,000$ Australian Dollars = 615€ in 2020). Going up we have Hi-Top vans, which may require between 5,000 and 10,000$. Lastly camper-vans, well over 10,000$.
Prices are often inflated, meaning that purchasing a vehicle with more than 200,000 km’s on the odometer should cost way less. Sadly travellers are not very supportive to each other and skimming is widespread. Wanting to resell their van at a higher price than what they paid, they lever on relative values (mentioning for example basic cooking and camping gear that actually have a minimal cost) and take advantage of a buyer with no experience.
That’s also why we wrote this guide! Don’t say that we didn’t warn you.
For reference, we paid 5,700$ for our van, with 320k km’s under the belt, diesel engine, pop-up roof, manual transmission, furnished with a sofa-bed, cabinets, kitchen counter, portable fridge, solar panel, second battery, internal lights, main plug to use power in caravan parks.
2023 Update: Unfortunately times have changed quickly over the last few years. After Covid-19, when van prices skyrocketed in Australia due to people wanting to leave the infested cities of Melbourne and Sydney, such crazy figures pretty much never went back to normal.
We saw many vans going for over 50,000$ during Covid, and even know the average price has doubled up. Standard ads we see around now list vans for over 15k or 20k, and we hardly see those 4,000-5,000$ vans we used to inspect back in 2018-19.
Clearly it’s your call to evaluate every single van based on the criteria we listed here above. Items like fridge, battery, solar panels, are worth hundreds of dollars, but a solid reliable engine in good shape will always be the most important part of a vehicle.
We hope we helped you clear your mind about how and why to buy a van in Australia. If you have more doubts or questions don’t hesitate and write us here in the comment section below!
To deepen the travel subject, you can find here our Queensland East Coast itinerary guide and the recap of our first year in Australia here.
Got a van already? Read our post Free camping and rest areas in Australia.
Have a great trip in The Land Down Under!
Considering travel insurance in Australia? Get your quote here.
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