Buying a Car in Australia

According to the guide books and forums such as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree 1/2 the travellers to Australia arrive buy a 4WD or car drive it around for 6 or 12 months and sell it at the end of the trip. When I started researching the details of this I found life was a little more complex than this.

Key points to consider are:

Type of vehicle / sleeping setup
Whether to buy or rent
Where to buy
Types of Vehicle Setup

Camping with a 4WD or Station Wagon (Estate Car)
Advantages. In a word, flexibility. You can camp for free in the outback, you can camp for a nominal fee in National Parks and even commercial campgrounds will typically cost for 1/2 the price of hostel bed for 2. You can pitch your camp and take the vehicle away to explore. If you choose a four wheel-drive with good ground clearance such as a Toyota Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol you can go pretty much anywhere in Australia. Everything packs up into the back of a standard sized vehicle so you can still park in a normal angled car park. You can park the vehicle at a hostel or hotel if you want a night of comfort in doors. In the larger 4WD or even a Holden Commodore Station Wagon or Ford Falcon you will also be able to sleep 2 friends in the back in a pinch.

Disadvantages. Many people believe that camping involves discomfort – I don’t believe that but you it may cost a little more. A cheap dome tent may cost less than A$100 but may take some figuring out how to erect and may not stand up to the rigors of months of use. A quickly erectable “turbo tent” where the tent is attached to the integral frame and then the fly clicks on over the top may cost A$600 but may be worth every cent if you are moving on every few days. A sleeping mat will cost a few dollars, but a queen size camp bed with inflatable mattress will set you back around A$200.

Costs. If you don’t get lucky and buy a vehicle from a fellow backpacker then you do need to allow for setup costs for camping. Your minimum equipment will probably be something like: Tent, bed or mats, bedding, esky aka cooler aka chilly bin plus ice and/or freezer pads or a camping fridge (which will require a second battery in your vehicle to run it), camping stove and fuel (LPG (propane) or shellite or butane), cooking gear, plates etc, washing plates gear, large plastic boxes to keep it all in, table and chairs, lights and/or torches. If you plan on going off the beaten track you also need to be able to carry extra water and fuel.

A Combi Van or modern equivalent
Advantages: Various Japanese manufacturers provide the basic van design initially made popular by the hippies driving VW Combi vans from Europe to India. You can still buy 30 year old VW Combis in Australia – but their reliability hasn’t improved any. That said they do come equipped to cook in and sleep in so require you acquire less gear. Pop-tops will give you some head room too. Occasionally you will see true 4WD versions where a Totyota Landcruiser has been converted – however these tend never to be less than A$20,000 regardless of age. Where the wild life is ferocious e.g. crocodile country these vans provide far more security than even the most sophisticated of tents.

Disadvantages: You can also get 4WD variants of the more modem vans but they suffer from low ground clearance and won’t be up to tackling some of Australia’s iconic 4WD tracks such as Cape York or Gibb River Road in the Kimberley’s. Mostly these vans are petrol too – which will adversely affect your running costs (diesel engines use far fewer litre’s per kilometre and diesel and petrol cost about the same in Australia). One of the big disadvantages is that once you want to hop in the vehicle for a quick look around town you have to pack up most of your camp as well, at best inconvenient, at worst you may lose your camping spot if free camping or in a National Park. Very few of these vans are actually self-contained i.e. they don’t include a toilet or shower.

Costs: These vans can be had for a reasonable price, but remember to factor in running costs for the petrol versions particularly the tall versions which provide more headroom but poorer fuel economy.

Other Camping Options
Go to any Australian camping ground or caravan park and you will see many of these ingenious trailers which when packed away appear to be a low trailer but which fold out to become a tent with an integral double bed and sometimes a kitchen unit as well. The awning can expand to become a large tent sleeping 6+. There are also off-road versions. However they are both expensive buy, difficult to rent and require you to be prepared to tow – which is an interesting experience if you have no experience! The advantage though is that they offer all the comforts of a van but can be easily unhitched and left behind when you go exploring. You will of course require more than a small car to tow them! When travelling to crocodile country Australians will sometimes have a roof-top tent which provides a safe sleeping area on top of the vehicle and is permanently attached to a roof rack. Of course larger RV’s or motor homes are to be had too for a price, which may include getting a bus licence to drive them!

Whether to Buy or Rent
Costs of buying a vehicle include:

  • vehicle purchase costs: check sites such as www.carsales.com.au or www.tradingpost.com.au to get an idea
  • camping gear costs – we spent A$!800 on camping gear including a good tent and bed
  • on road costs included change of ownership and stamp duty (2 – 5% of vehicle price)
  • registration (A$650 12 months in Queensland) and insurance (at least third party property) (somewhere between A$150 and A$1000 depending on your age and no claims history)
  • deprecation – should be minimal for an older vehicle
  • loss on sale – likely to be greater if you have to sell in a hurry because of a loaming airline ticket of visa expiry
  • maintenance; a diesel should be serviced every 5000km (about A$150 a time)
  • unexpectedly items that need replacement (now if I knew the cost of this one…)

Where to Buy
Australia has a state system for both car registration and driver licensing – Australians who move state have 3 months to change both over to the new state otherwise their insurance amongst other things become invalid It is difficult to sell, especially to an Australian private buyer a vehicle which is not registered in the state your ‘re selling in. If you do want to buy and sell in different states consider using one of the Car Dealers such as Travellers Autobarn who specialise in the Backpacker’s market. Just be aware that you will probably be paying over the odds for vehicle which probably wasn’t well maintained by its previous, backpacker, owner.

So if you are going to try to buy and sell privately your best bet is a circular or semi-circular itinerary which will take you back to the state that you will finally sell in – remember it doesn’t have to be the same town, just the same state.

For further information on 4WDing around Australia on the cheap check out my Budget 4WD Travel site.

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