Travelling with a group of friends or discovering Australia on your own? A good way to discover everything Australia has to offer is to buy a car or a campervan, which will allow you to travel anywhere and stop at every point you desire. It is a symbol of living free without limitations… Or is it?

It seems that a lot of cars circulate from owner to owner and the local garages, government agencies and even travelers themselves seem to have picked up on it. Besides the high Australian dollar, cars are, in my opinion, overpriced and overrated.

When I first arrived here in Cairns, I had the idea of buying a small car for myself to be able to travel a bit around Cairns. I quickly found out that the market is substantially different than what I’m used to as a Dutchie. Looking at the ads I found hilarious quotes as “Low mileage, only 280,000 k’s” or “minor default: Gearbox jumps out of gears, windshield is cracked, otherwise fine to drive. ONLY $2000

A German guest at the hostel where I work (Nomads Cairns), by the name of Felix, owned a 1997 Ford Falcon estate. “mint condition” as the odometer was (only) at 360,000Km. He bought it from a friend who bought it from a second hand car dealer the year before for $4300. Upon transfer of ownership the car got a roadworthy certificate and repairs for $800. When it was time for Felix to sell the car onward after 4 months and a further 20,000 Km’s it was pretty much in the same state as he bought it. He put it up for sale promising the new owner a new Roadworthy certificate. And that’s where the trouble started. He was quoted repairs at $3600 as the car needed rust repair, new head gasket, new headlights AND EVEN the upholstery of the passengers door needed to be restitched ($120) to make it roadworthy.

Now I am no expert but I do a little tinkering on cars and motorcycles, but that car was still fine to drive and apart from some minor issues like headlight alignment there was no safety issue with it. Talking to locals I found out that this happens all the time to backpackers.

I offered to help Felix out, in the 4 days he had left, to try and salvage anything of his purchasing price. First option was to bring it to the wreckers but after a day of driving, only 1 out of 8 places we visited was interested and offered just $50.

Next option was the second hand car dealer that his friend bought the car off. They went from selling the car for $4300 to buying it back for $150. However, he did tell us it could easily be sold for $1000 to an unknowing backpacker. And so it became clear the way everyone deals with the backpackers and their rush to sell cars.

I ended up selling it for $1500 to a needy customer who was leaving the next day. He bought a solid car that will and probably already has taken him to Melbourne.

Another guest at the hostel bought a 1997 Landrover with over 300,000km’s on the odometer. Upon leaving Cairns, he got to about Innisfail when the gearbox broke down. On arrival the power-steering failed as well making his freedom carrier a financial pitfall and he found himself stuck in Cairns for another month. With the bills running high and time running out, he left me the keys and the quote: “I don’t care for how much you sell it, but please get rid of it” I felt really bad for him so I took it upon myself to take it a step further and go at it myself to save him some of the money. Besides that I have something to do in my weekends now, seeing how I don’t have a means of travel anyway. I am on my way to making 2 people happy now. The car is halfway done, earning the seller more money, and bringing a ride of freedom to another backpacker.

As my accomplishment traveled from mouth to mouth, I have made it a “business” of helping backpackers buy and sell their cars by pointing out what to look for in buying a car and how to highlight the important points of selling a car. Here are some tips for all of you backpackers seeking an adventure without it draining your wallet on a “no good car”.

Here’s a few handy articles you may want to read about other options available to you as a backpacker:

Buy or Rent a Car or Campervan – this article mentions New Zealand specific companies however it contains lot’s of useful information for anyone wondering whether buying or renting is for them.

Backpacker Bus or Hitchhike – again this is about New Zealand companies but if you decide buying or renting a car isn’t for you then here’s some information about getting on that backpacker bus or even hitchhiking and things you should consider before making your decision.

However if you decide that you do want to buy your own car here are some good tips to help you on your way.

Tips – what to look for before you buy your car
  • When you go look at a car, always look at it in broad daylight. This will reveal a lot more that can be missed otherwise. Preferably also when it is dry. Rain will cover up a lot of dents and scratches, although this is usually not a priority for backpackers.
  • Check under the car and the bonnet. Look for any leaks and rust. Some cars might leak a little water, but that is from the AC and is not harmful. When looking under the bonnet, check if there is an obvious oil leakage. If it is all greasy it is usually fine because all cars “sweat”. As soon as there is a clean trail with an oily substance which is fluid, you’ve got a leak on your hands that continually passes vital fluids to the outside of the car. If you don’t fix that, you’re going to have a bad time.
  • Check the tyres for good threads. They are the shoes of the car and the less thread they have, the less control you have over the car in a situation that you need it the most.
  • Lay in front of the car and see if the front wheels line up with the rear wheels. A car that hasn’t got the wheels lined up may have twisted chassis which can indicate a crash in the past. What I always do to check this is to drive the car in a straight line at about 60km/h and then take your hands off the wheel and brake firmly. If the car wants to veer off to one of the two sides it is likely that the car is twisted from a previous accident. Of course this is not to be done on the freeway when you are driving next to a $100.000 Porsche or a granny that has got the reflexes of… well a granny… But you get the idea: Do it with caution on an empty road.
  • The above is also a good way to test the brakes. They are more important than how the car goes. It is known that 99.9% of the accidents involve a lack of braking!
  • Inside the car, make sure that the seat belts work properly. They are lifesavers!
  • Also just push and test every button and switch. It might be sunny now but when rainy season starts and you find out you don’t have windscreen wipers, you’ll be forced to stick your head out the window to see where you are going.
  • Start the car with a cold engine and at least one window open. This will make any weird noise more noticeable. While driving keep your ears focused as well. Don’t be distracted by the seller talking or that he shows off the radio by turning it up.

These are a couple of tips. If you want to go into detail there is a list that can be visited on carsguide.com.au

Enjoy your drive!

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