I decided to compile a FAQ guide on how to buy a backpacker car in Australia, as it is not as straight-forward and easy as one would hope. Especially the registration system can be quite complex – since every state has a slightly different system. I also included loads of links that may be useful during your search for a road trip worthy car for your adventure in Australia.
Why buy a car as opposed to rent or travel by bus?
Quite simply: it’s cheaper and you have so much more freedom. Greyhound busses are great and you can find relatively affordable routes but you are limited to go where they go. The beauty about travelling by car or van is that you can chose where and when to go and sleep wherever you want (here is a useful guide to free camping – making this the most affordable way to travel in Australia by far). Renting a car or van is ridiculously expensive. And it’s money you will never see again!
Should I tell you a little secret? We bought a car cheaply on the westcoast and sold it for double the price (!) on the eastcoast – making Australia one of the cheapest countries we have travelled in. Which is quite surprising if you think that groceries and everything else is so much more expensive than in Asia. Pretty cool, hey?
In which state should I buy a car?
As a rule of thumb, you would want to buy a car registered to the state you are planning to leave from (or a state as close as possible). We bought a car in Perth which was registered in NSW. We flew from Brisbane, QLD. We had no problems selling this car – as Brisbane is a mere two hours away from the NSW border.
Why not just re-register to a new state?
Avoid doing this! Re-registering a car, and getting new number plates, could mean you have to pay for an inspection to be done to the car (depending on the state) and you would loose valuable time. However, if you have plenty of time and are not fussed to hang around in one town for potentially a week, go ahead – re-register the car and swap number plates – especially if you are planning to sell the car in the same state. I would advise not to though – it’s simply not worth the hassle as there are so many cars out there – you can easily find a car registered to the state you plan on leaving from.
Which cars do you recommend?
If you don’t have the money to buy a camper van, I would strongly recommend a Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon. They are the most popular backpacker cars out there. Many come complete with camping accessories and all frills and extras needed for a trip through Australia.
Where to look for cars?
The website which I strongly recommend is gumtree.com.au – we didn’t even bother looking at other websites because every backpacker who does a roadtrip in Australia will advertise on gumtree when he / she plans on selling their car. Simply search for ‘backpacker car’ or ‘camper van’. It is also on gumtree where we sold our car in the end.
How much does a backpacker car or camper van cost?
A backpacker car could cost anything between AUD 2000 – 6000 (depending on how old the car is and how many kilometres are clocked). Mind you, we found ours for AUD 1000 in Western Australia (Perth). We were very lucky. A camper van costs substantially more and you are looking to be spending anything between AUD 5000 – 10’000 +. Again, it all depends how long you plan to travel with the car, how comfortable you want your trip to be (camper van comes with more space, a little kitchen etc.) and how much you are willing to spend. We only travelled through Australia for a month and a cheap car was perfect for our needs.
What is Rego?
It is the yearly registration of the car – make sure to buy a car that has a long Rego – especially if you do a short trip – it saves you money and the hassle of re-registering. Keep in mind, it varies, from state to state, on whether you can re-register your car online or whether you need to have a vehicle check done beforehand. As a rule of thumb, South Australian & Western Australian cars seem to be the easiest to re-register. New South Wales cars, the most complicated, because you need to have a vehicle check done every time you re-register (but, that also means, that NSW cars are the safest because they have the most checks done to them). Keep in mind: transferring your registration and re-registering your car are two different pairs of shoes!
What to be aware of when you view a car?
Make sure to view several cars to get a feel for what is a ‘good’ car, test-drive them and ask loads of questions, such as:
- How many times do you top the car up with oil (if it’s often…chances are something is wrong with it),
- How much do you average on a full tank (with a Holden Commodore you average about 600km on 1 full tank),
- Who did you buy the car from?,
- Why are you selling it?
Also keep in mind:
- When you test-drive it listen out for any weird noises.
- Make sure to check that all the electrics work, all doors and boot lock ok and that the air – conditioning works.
- Look at the battery – some will have markers on them that tell you in what conditions they are in (green = good, black = needs charging, white = needs replacing – the colour system may vary from battery to battery).
- Check that there is good tread on all the tyres (if there is a lot of tread, it saves you having to buy new tyres – they aren’t cheap).
- Check for signs of rust – as this could potentially fail the car inspection for a Rego renewal and would be very expensive to fix.
- Ask the current owner for the service history log book and also if it comes with an owner’s manual (can come in very handy!).
- Make sure you have the radio code – because if you need to change the battery, you will need the code to get the radio working again. If you do not have it, you will end up having to pay to re-code it.
Ultimately, trust your gut instinct. You will usually get a good feel for what is a good car.
I like this car! What’s next?
Note down the chassis number and phone the relevant Road & Transport department of the state it is currently registered in and enquire whether the car you are thinking of buying has a negative history attached to it (debts, accident car, stolen etc.). They can tell you this right away on the phone. More information on this, here.
If there is no negative history attached to the car and you decide to buy the car, make sure the documents for the transfer are filled out correctly (the registration paper tells you exactly how to do this). And take a photo (as a copy) of both parts – just to be on the safe side.
** Tip: Ask the previous owners if they can put a lower price on the registration papers as it saves you quite a bit of money on the transfer fees of the car which are calculated based on the price the pay and the weight of the car.
I don’t have an address – what do I put in the field?
There is nothing to worry about! Use the address of a hostel or campground you are staying at currently – we used the address of a couchsurfing host we stayed at (after discussing it with her). When you actually go and register the car, you can use a different address – so I wouldn’t worry too much about it for the time being.
How much time do I have to register the car?
2 weeks. You need to go to one of the registration offices in person (check online where the offices are located) and register the car (I’m not 100% that is really the case for South Australian registered cars, as a travelling couple told us they did everything online. But when we spoke to someone at ‘Road & Transport in NSW’, they said as we are registering a car in Australia for the first time, we would have to come in personally – i would say, phone the relevant authority to double-check). Here is South Australia’s registration page – you may want to read through it.
If you fail to register the car after two weeks, do not despair, we haven’t done it either – you will have to pay a fine of roughly AUD$ 120 (depending on each state), but you do run the risk to be pulled over by the police and fined for not having your car transferred in time. We met another couple who only transferred their car after three months. So, I would assume the police doesn’t do this check very often. But it’s good to be aware of it.
Do I need proof of Address to register a car?
Yes. But, it is not as daunting as it sounds. You will need a letter confirming, from a hostel / campground / guesthouse / couchsurfing host etc. that they are happy for you to use their address to register a car and that future communication can be sent to the address – it needs to be signed and dated by the person you have asked to help you out.
But, we spoke to a couple who have simply used a campground address and no signature nor anything else was required. I think it all depends on the person behind the counter, to be honest. Make sure to go to a small town registration centre – they seem to be more lenient and easy-going about the registration process than in bigger cities (the registration process in smaller towns is also much quicker).
What documents do I need to register a car in Australia?
- letter of approval by your host to use their address
- passport copy
- driving license
- Part B of the registration form
- green slip (insurance document) *not needed for a transfer – but needed for re-registration
- pink slip (not mandatory in every state e.g. in Western Australia cars do not need to be checked when re-registering) *not needed for a transfer – but needed for re-registration
- money to pay the registration fee (different for each state – here is a website that breaks down the costs for each state)
** Phone the department ahead of buying your car and double-check which other documents are needed to register in the current state you are in. It could save you a lot of hassle. **
Do I need insurance?
That is entirely up to you. In NSW, for instance, the green slip (part of the registration documents) offer you merely 3rd party cover e.g. personal injury . *** Correction (thank you Lyn @ The Travelling Lindfields!) The Green Slip is described as 3rd party cover but what it actually covers is personal injury to other people involved in an accident where you are the driver eg: passengers, the driver of the other vehicle, pedestrians and so on. It does not cover any property damage. Therefore if all you have is the compulsory green slip cover you are not insured for any damage to other people’s property, eg another vehicle.
We took a risk and did not take out insurance because our road trip was extremely short. However, were I to travel in Australia for more than a month, I would definitely get insurance. This comparison site is useful.
Where can I get more information on the registration process?
I would really recommend phoning the individual state authorities ahead of buying a car to make sure that the person who is selling the car to you, has given you all the documents you will need. And also to make sure that you are bringing all documents for the registration process (saves you from having to come back again) if you go there in person.
Here the individual state’s registration websites:
How to increase my chances of selling my car at the end of my Australia roadtrip?
Advertise on gumtree and include as much information and as many images as possible. List all your camping equipment (if you plan on selling any). Prepare flyers and go from one hostel to another to pin it to their advertisement board (ask them at reception – most of them are really happy for you to do that). Here is a good template to do such an advert.
Print one at an Internet cafe and then go over to a print shop and photocopy it multiple times (it is cheaper than printing / copying at a cyber cafe). Don’t forget to include your phone number and the date of the advert (so people know how recent the advertisement is). Try to sell your car in larger city hubs, such as Sydney, Perth, Melbourne or Brisbane. Make sure to leave plenty of time to sell the car before you take your next flight. I’d say at least a week. We managed to sell our car in Brisbane after 3 days – but we were very lucky. Just stay positive and believe that you will sell the car. Honestly, it always works for us.
If you find yourself in Sydney and struggling to sell your car – you could always go to the Sydney Backpacker Car market in King’s Cross and have them sell it for you – however, keep in mind, you will loose quite a bit of money doing it that way.
**If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to send me an e-mail – I would be more than happy to answer your questions – just shoot me an e-mail over at firstname.lastname@example.org.**
How about Free Camping? I’ve compiled this useful guide for free camping in Australia, here.