Motor caravans

Updated: 03 Feb 2009


Looking for adventure this summer? Owning your own motor caravan is one way to find it.

A campervan provides transport and accommodation without the hassle of booking ahead or travelling by an itinerary - plus you can take your pets on holiday too. We explain what to look for if you're thinking of buying your own.

Looking for adventure

Ross has spent the night what feels like miles from anywhere ... no piped water ... no electricity ... not another person in sight. But like a snail with his house on his back, Ross has all the comforts of home in his self-contained motor caravan.

Ross has owned his Fiat Ducato motor caravan since 2006 and says it was one of his best investments ever: "After I retired I wanted to be able to travel as and when I felt like it. My van has enabled me to travel easily and with comfort. I'm free to go almost anywhere."

An ever-increasing number of "movanners" like Ross are enjoying the freedom that comes with going mobile. The organisation representing movanners, the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA), has seen member numbers jump from just 1700 in 1990 to over 38,000 today.


NZMCA Newsletter

The NZMCA - started in 1956 by a small number of enthusiasts - is a not-for-profit body representing the owners of an estimated 75 percent of the 26,260 licensed motor caravans on our roads.

The NZMCA promotes the interests of movanners with government, local and regional councils and businesses - and it has a group insurance scheme for members.

Movanners we spoke to all rated the NZMCA highly, particularly its range of member discounts and technical advice and the fellowship of other members. The association also publishes its own magazine Motor Caravanner.

It costs $100 to join the association, plus an annual $60 subscription.

What to look for



Motor caravans are sized according to their number of sleeping berths - usually the higher the number of berths, the bigger the van. But most new models are built for two people, no matter how many "berths" they have.

Neil Whithear, owner of Christchurch dealership Barron's South Island, says: "A motor caravan may have the facility to accommodate extra people, but most manufacturers only build retail vehicles designed for two people to comfortably live in."

When it comes to deciding what size van you need, a spokesperson for Maui Direct (which sells ex-rental motor caravans) says it's crucial to think about who'll be using the van - and how it'll be used.

"It's really easy to get 'scope-creep' ... where you want a van for weekend getaways but end up with one large enough for your whole extended family because it's just conceivable that you might take the whole family away one day. Be really clear about understanding your principal use and stick to it."

Diana lives and travels in her motor caravan full time; she got a van large enough to accommodate four people because she spends a lot of time in it. Resale value was also a consideration, as larger vans may be easier to sell and attract a higher resale value. Ross has a three-berth van, which he chose because it's large enough to have a permanent double bed (so he doesn't have to fold it out and make it every night) yet small enough to comfortably park at the supermarket.

A larger motor caravan can be several tonnes gross weight, so you need to be comfortable behind the wheel of such a big rig. You also need to think about storing or parking when it's not in use.


Ross's European-designed Fiat

Motor caravans can have better features than a house - double glazing, gas central-heating, and a satellite dish for watching Sky on the flatscreen TV while parked in some remote location.

The basics

Most have a fridge, gas cooker, and shower and toilet combination. Ex-rentals come with these basic necessities but the options are almost limitless with custom-made and new vans.

Ross's European-designed Fiat (pictured) has a separate shower and toilet, which he says was hard to find in locally designed vans. Ross has a standard factory-built model but the only improvement he could think of was that "a bigger fridge might be nice".

Diana's custom-made van doesn't lack any home comforts and she's recently added a washing machine.

Hot-water systems and fridges are usually two- or three-way powered, running on a combination of gas and/or battery and electrical power. Electrical power is provided via a cable when the van is hooked up to a 240-volt supply; and when there's no mains power, the battery or gas kicks in to keep things running. The battery recharges while you're driving or plugged into the mains - which ensures your fridge is always running, even when the van isn't.

Cost considerations

On the road again

Cost depends on what features you want. Prices can range from $95,000 to $700,000 depending on features and the quality of fixtures and fittings.

Ex-rentals are definitely a cheaper option because you get a van with all the basics and a full service history. But you get what you pay for: prices reflect the higher kilometres and more-worn interiors (although some rental companies offer to refurbish or refit the interiors).

Average prices range from around $30,000 to $70,000 for a two-person ex-rental and as much as $50,000 to $85,000 for one that accommodates four people.

The cost of fuel is also a consideration, although most vans now run on diesel. Ross says the cost of fuel was very much on his mind and proudly quotes his consumption figures: "Nine litres per 100 kilometres. Not bad for a vehicle with a gross weight of 3500kg."

Then there's the RUC (road user charges) licence. This is required for all vehicles over 3.5 tonnes (manufacturer's gross laden weight) and also for vehicles weighing less than that but powered by diesel or any other fuel not taxed at source.

The type of RUC licence required for a motor caravan is a "distance" licence. This is purchased in units of 1000km (or multiples of 1000) of expected travel over the coming year.

Buying a used motor caravan that's subject to RUC? Make sure it displays a current RUC licence - otherwise you'll be liable for any outstanding charges. You may have to negotiate with the previous owner about reimbursing them for any advance charges they've paid.

Top tips for buying

  • Talk to movanners about their vans - what works and what doesn't. Members of the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) are likely to be happy to help. Look out for the "wings" membership logo (pictured) on the front of motor caravans. is a free online forum and community of movanners happy to share their knowledge.

  • Check that the motor caravan meets (or is able to meet) self-containment standards (see below) at no extra cost to you.

  • Avoid "scope-creep". Know what you want to use the van for - don't end up with a bigger van than you really need.

  • If you decide to buy from a dealer make sure it's a licensed dealer. Like car sales, motor caravan sales are covered by the Motor Vehicle Sales Act and Consumer Guarantees Act.

  • You're looking at a used motor caravan that's subject to road user charges (RUC)? Check it displays a current RUC licence - otherwise you'll be liable for any outstanding charges.

  • Ex-rentals may be a cheaper option. The larger rental companies trade with their reputation behind them and their motor caravans should come with a full service history.

  • Try before you buy - it may pay to rent first. If you're buying an ex-rental that you've tried, ask the company to subtract the cost of your rental from the purchase price.

  • Do your homework. Read motor caravan magazines such as 'New Zealand Motorhome Caravan and Camping' and 'New Zealand Motorhomes, Caravans and Destinations' so you know what's out there.

  • Visit motor home and caravan expos to see the range of products in one place. Details of upcoming expos can usually be found in motor caravan magazines.

Sustainable motor caravanning

On the road

A truly self-contained motor caravan is designed to have no adverse effects on the environment and no risk to public health. This means the van must meet the ablutionary and sanitary needs of its occupants for a minimum of three days without discharging any waste. Wastewater is collected and stored in the van's tanks, then disposed of at a dump station that's connected to a proper sewerage system.

The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA) has been instrumental in implementing the New Zealand Standard for the Self Containment of Motor Caravans and Caravans (NZS 5465:2001) and aims to have 50 percent of members achieving the standard by 2009. The standard isn't mandatory but aims to ensure the health and well-being of both movanners and the environment.

NZMCA President Dick Waters warns against buying a motor caravan that doesn't meet the standard: "I'm aware of dealers selling new motor homes and the purchaser then having to pay (sometimes a considerable amount) to have the vehicle brought up to self-containment standard. Purchasers should insist that the vehicle purchased is certified self-contained - if not, the costs involved to get it self-contained should be on the company selling. If it can't be self-contained, walk away from the deal."

More information

Report by Rachael Bowie