Buy a car in Australia x Van vs 4WD (complete guide)
We spent most of our 2 years in Australia road tripping through the giant continent. Hiring a van or car can be pretty expensive if you are planning on doing a long road trip. However, hiring a car or van comes with benefits as well. You don’t have to repair it if it breaks down etc. BUT we bet you have a budget and to buy car in Australia will be most beneficial if you are not extremely unlucky.
The car or van is probably going to be old (10-20 years) depending on how much you want to spend. With your own car or van, you can rebuild it exactly how you want it and decorate it to get a homely atmosphere.
What are you going to do: Buy a van or a car in Australia? Let’s say you are buying something, that’s great! But do you want a car or a van? Where to find these cars? How does it work with insurance, roadworthy, registration? We will help you making these decisions easier from our experience owning both a van and a 4WD in Australia.
Buy a van or a car (4WD)
The first questions you need to ask yourself is what parts of Australia you want to visit, and what kind of trip are you undertaking.
Do you plan on camping or staying at hostels? If you are staying at hostels you probably just need a car to go from one place to another, but it might be nice to be able to make a bed in the back. Just to have that option if it’s hard to find a place to stay.
Are your plans on camping? Then you probably want to buy a car in Australia. Australia is designed to go camping with loads of paid camping grounds and free camps in all states. We camped every night during our road trip and really recommend it to do it with real Aussie vibes. If you are camping you want a car or van with a bed/tent/rooftop tent, kitchen with stove, plates, pans, etc. There are plenty of options for taking a shower even if you just staying at free camps. Then you have a few options and we will talk about a van or a 4WD.
Van vs 4WD
- It will take you everywhere
- Camping literally on the beach
- More options of free camps
- More comfortable
- If you have a van with a high roof you can have a small kitchen inside and cook when it’s cold.
- Everything is already set up when you park for the night
Having a van is usually more luxurious that a 4WD as you can make it cozy and everything is already set up when arriving at the camping spot for the night. However a 4WD take you to the most magical places and you will be able to wake up right on the beach.
Are you unsure to get a 4WD because you don’t have any experience? That’s totally fine. We didn’t have any experience in 4WD either and we barely did know anything about cars. We will give you some tips further down about 4WD and it isn’t that hard.
Do I need 4WD in Australia?
Yes and No, it depends where you are going. We had a van during our first trip from Melbourne, Alice springs – Darwin – Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne (East Coast and Red Centre). And we had a 4WD on our 2nd trip from Melbourne – Perth – Darwin – Perth – Melbourne.
To be honest we didn’t feel like we were missing out on the East coast with our van except for Fraser Island. No vans are allowed on the island and all the tours were fully booked when we showed up. If we have had a 4WD at that time we could have brought our own car to the island.
The west coast, on the other hand, we wouldn’t have done without a 4WD. There are so many more remote spots, beaches to camp on, you can go to places where you can be totally alone, more fun roads to take instead of following the boring highway. If we wouldn’t have had a 4WD we would have missed out on so many great experiences. One can argue that this might be the case with the west coast as well as we never looked for 4WD tracks or beaches with allowed camping as wasn’t an option with our van.
You can go all around Australia with a normal car or van. A lot of roads are sealed and some gravel roads are okay to go with your van, but there are possibilities that you will break your car because they are not built for roads like that. Keep in mind if you buy a van it will be spots and National Parks you can’t go to.
Where can I buy a car
Where can you buy a car in Australia? We bought both our cars in Melbourne and found both of them on Facebook. There are plenty of groups on Facebook where backpackers (already equipped cars) and retailers/or private people (not equipped cars and you can build the car how you want it) put up their cars for sale. We went to some retailers but never found anything of interest. Finding one online is probably the easiest way to go.
Gumtree – It’s an online marketplace with plenty of cars available and it’s one of the biggest buy-sell sites in Australia.
Facebook – Search for groups like “backpacker cars for sale in Australia”, “campervans for backpackers Australia” or “car for sale Australia”.
Retailers – More expensive and will probably not be equipped. Advantage: could be bought with a guarantee.
Go and have a look and test drive a few cars before you decide what car you want. All cars will be different and have different equipment, ask yourself what’s most important for you.
What to look for
It’s hard to know what to look for if you haven’t had a car before or don’t know that much about cars. Keep in mind that all backpacker cars are old cars. You will at some point, no matter what car you buy, fix or change something. Buy a car a bit below your budget and use the spare cash when you need to change something. Mechanic bills can be pricey.
TIPS: Never buy a car in Australia without taking it to the mechanic no matter where in Australia you buy it. Different states have different rules about Road Worth Certification (RWC), more about that further down.
Have a look at the engine and look for greasy parts. If it’s greasy it might be an oil leak which can be expensive to fix, but it can also go pass a RWC check if it’s a small leak. When you test drive the car check the sound of the engine.
How’s the tires? New tires have a deep profile and older tires have a smaller profile and might need to be changed soon. This is not something crucial if you are going to buy the car or not, but you might be able to negotiate a bit. Also, check if the tires are more worn out on the inner or the outer bit, then the car might need a wheel alignment (not expensive).
Rust can be a big problem if you want to keep your car for long. If you just see stains of rust it’s probably fine but if you find rust that looks deeper or are located around windows etc this might be a bigger problem and probably won’t pass the RWC.
Check the sound of the engine, the brakes, the lights, gearbox, that the car doesn’t tilt to one side. Check the inside of the car like air-con, heater and ask the owner for the car’s history papers of service and repairs.
Different states – different rules
Note that different states can have very different rules in regards to the buying and selling of vehicles. Read up on what the rules in the state that you are in and the state in which the vehicle is registered. If you plan on selling the car in another state then you are buying it in, make sure that it is allowed.
For example, in Victoria a Road Worthy Certificate (RWC) is necessary when buying a car and in Western Australia you don’t need a RWC at all. Western Australia is usually a backpacker’s preferred state to buy a vehicle because you don’t need the RWC and the transfer can happen in all Australia. Cars registered in WA are usually cheaper BUT the car will probably have lots of problems exposing you to danger. Wester Australia rego is great for the seller but not for the buyer. The seller in Victoria is the one who often pays for the RWC.
When you are ready to buy a car
Practical things you need to think about when you buy a car in Australia.
The car needs to be registered and the easiest way is to buy a car that is already registered, you don’t need the extra hassle of going through that process as well! When you buy a car you need to change ownership of the vehicle, the process may be a bit different depending on which state that the car is registered to. It should be as easy as filling out the forms needed and go to the department of transportation to transfer the vehicle to your name. You will probably need an address, but you can use that of your hostels/hotels and remember, it needs to be in the state where the car is registered.
You can change the registration to another state. We read up on it and it’s an expensive and complicated procedure a lot of rules. In short – It’s usually not worth it. Remember to renew your registration before it expires!
RWC is a checkup at the mechanic and you will get a RWC certificate if the car pass all the tests. This is different in every state. Victoria is one of the hardest one, compared to Western Australia when you don’t need a RWC. Good for the seller – bad for the buyer. Always have a checkup anyway..
In some states, basic traffic insurance is included in the rego, while in some other states you have to buy this separate. It’s always good to have insurance. There are different levels and you will probably at least want to have third-party insurance that covers the other person’s car in case of an accident. Make sure to also get road side assistance (for example RAC), they are cheap and can save you a lot of money and hassle if your car happens to breaks down on the road.
Take the car to a mechanic and have an oil change don’t (or do it yourself) every 5000-10.000 kilometers. We always took ours if for a small check-up as well to make sure the car is safe to drive or need additional repairs.
Our couple we meet in Australia had a routine called “Maintenance Monday” when they took the time to check up on a few technical things to avoid future problems.
- Check the water level for the cooler
- Check the oil – Make sure it’s at a good level and carry some extra oil if you need to top it up. If it’s low it’s really bad for the engine.
- Check your tires – it can be really dangerous if they are worn out.
- Check brakes and lights.
Good luck with your purchase, we hope that this guide helped you out. Leave us a comment if you have any questions and we will do our best to answer them!