Adventures in autoland
Buying a car over the Internet before arriving in Australia
by The Wombat
From mid-August 1999 I spent nearly 6 months travelling around Australia in a new Toyota Starlet that I had ordered for collection on arrival and then sold just before departing. Others may be interested in my experiences.
When planning the trip, I had been looking into my choices of ways to get around Australia during the 6 months I would be there. I expected to do a lot of driving, and I did end up putting some 35,500 km on the car.
Car hire: Using the travel guide put out by the Australian Tourist Commission, Destination Australia, I called 3 different agencies: Hertz, Avis and Budget, using the number that I found in DA, which got me to their international desk.
Each agency quoted me the roughly the same price: about A$2,500 a month plus mileage. I forget now, but one of the agencies may have offered some free mileage.
It is possible that hiring a car directly in Australia would be cheaper. I really didn't check as I figured that even if the rate was a little bit cheaper, the other restrictions which the car hire agencies applied would make what I wished to do inconvenient.
While the high price was off putting, there were several other factors which made me look elsewhere.
- I was required to use their insurance add-on. I could not use my credit card's offer of covering any damage as I did while driving in the UK.
- There were some limits on where I could drive the car. They weren't happy if you took the car into certain areas, like north of the 26th latitude in WA or on some roads in QLD or NT.
- I could only hire the car for one-month periods, though one of the agencies would allow for a two-month hire. So if I were somewhere out around Alice Springs, I would have had to have made a mad dash back to Sydney to renew the hire. This is not a good thing.
So I gave up on hiring a car for 6 months and looked into buying one instead. At A$2,500 a month I would be spending about A$15,000 over the period. What could I get for this amount of money?
What followed was a mixture of searches. I checked with Eric Lindsay and Jean Weber as to which auto companies were operating in Australia.
Eric sent me some information on the least expensive cars made by Toyota, Mitsubishi and Ford. (Apparently there was not a car made by Holden that fell into this price range.) (Jean's note: the Holden in The Wombat's price range was the Barina, a car that we would not suggest anyone to even consider for long-distance driving; too uncomfortable. More recent model years may be better designed; we haven't tried them.) From what I could gather, it was between the Toyota and Mitsubishi.
Off to the web! I easily tracked down Toyota Australia and a list of dealers. Mitsubishi was another story. I could not find a way to contact anyone in Australia. I finally ended up contacting someone in New Zealand, would you believe! The chap gave me a number of URL's for Mitsubishi dealers; only 3 of them were in the Sydney area.
I then prepared a letter to the dealers I would be contacting. I vetted the letter for content and professionalism with a friend. Emailing "I want a car" is not really quite enough information.
Some of the things I asked about were
- The price range I was interested in.
- Were "demo" models available?
- Could I lease the car for 6 months?
- What was standard on the vehicle?
- What was the price to me with all taxes, etc. included?
- What was the cost of the options I wished?
- Could I pay using my credit card?
- Would they pick me up from Sydney airport?
In December of 1998 I emailed the letter to 5 dealers, 3 Toyota and 3 Mitsubishi; one of the dealers sold both. I received one response. This was from Brian Hilton in Gosford. (Yes, Gosford is well up the coast, but I was staying for the first few days not very far from there in Terrigal.)
I exchanged some email with Mr Hilton, but after March I received no reply. (I later found out that the owner's son had been handling the firm's email. He went on vacation about the end of March and that was the end of that.)
In June 1999, with time getting short, I sent out the letter again to 4 more Toyota dealers. Only one responded. This was Mosman Toyota, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.mostoy.com.au/mostoy/default.asp. In a space of 3 weeks, during their year-end closeout and at a time when I was on the road for 8 days, Bob Phillips, head of corporate & commercial sales, and I had closed the deal.
I would like to note that I was very much pleased with the service before, during and after I bought my car, that I received from Bob and Mosman Toyota.
There were items I needed to get to him which I later suggested could be posted on their web site to give a head's up to buyers:
- A letter from me actually asking for the car I wanted along with permission to charge a A$500 deposit to my credit card.
- A copy of the main page from my passport as well as a copy of a picture ID.
- One other item which I have forgotten, which might have been a copy of my driver's license or other photo ID.
I sent this off and heard from Bob that everything had reached him in about 10 days. This is the usual length of time it takes snail mail to reach Australia from the US.
The deal being done, I now knew that:
- Bob would pick me up from Sydney airport.
- I could use my credit card to pay. (This meant I didn't have to worry about trying to bring about A$16,000 with me in either US dollars or Australian dollars. While he was nice enough to wave the credit card charge, I did offer to cover the charge. Such charges can be high, from between 1.5% and about 3.0%. However, in the long run it is to the advantage of the overseas traveler to cover this cost. It is much more convenient than trying to bring cash.]
- Bob's advice on buying the car was very useful and a big help.
By the way the only two extras I felt worth having were air conditioning (It was!) and cruise control. (The latter was very valuable considering the long distances I drove. However, I can't recommend the manufacturer - Repeller Corporation. In fact I urge you not to use their product. I found it dangerous. To disengage I had to either depress the clutch pedal completely to the floor so the engine could race and tell the computer to switch it off or depress the brake pedal far enough that I was actually braking the car. Toyota should have a better system to offer its buyers.]
If you wish to purchase a car with a manual, 5-speed transmission, you had better say "manual." I referred to it as a "standard" transmission and was originally thought to mean an "automatic" transmission.
Well, I now had a car. Now I had to have auto insurance as well. This also was a little bit of excitement. I was told that getting my insurance through the National Roads and Motorists Association, NRMA, email@example.com, http://www.nrma.com.au/Page/Public?PageId=welcome would be the best bet. However, this proved to be a problem. The first couple of times I sent email, I never received a response. I finally sent a note to the webmaster which finally got a response.
I dealt with Ms. Kathleen Archer at the NRMA. She was most helpful. She provided me with a list of tasks I needed to complete in order to get my insurance. This would take about a week or so to do.
- I needed a letter from my current insurance company.
- She faxed me a form to apply for the insurance. The form raised several questions which she was able to clarify for me. I then faxed it back.
- I also needed a "permanent" address in Australia. I handled this challenge by using the address of a friend with whom I would be staying in the Sydney area. This is something to consider. It was noted to me by friends that I should try and pick a suburban friend as the rates would be lower than in the city. This I did.
I now had temporary insurance, so all I had to do was to appear at the NRMA office and pay to get coverage for the period of my trip. Insurance policies run for either 6 months or a year. This was very convenient, as I didn't have to buy a policy for 12 months and then try and get a refund when I left.
So when I arrived in Australia on 18 August 1999, I was met by Bob Phillips at the Sydney airport at about 0615. We drove over to Mosman Toyota, where I did the final paperwork and the car was mine. As it was only about 0900, I had the day to enjoy. Mosman Toyota is on a bus line that goes directly into the city centre. I headed into Sydney centre to settle up with the NRMA, pick up my International Hostel card and generally goof off. Then I headed back to pick my car and see if I could handle the beginning of the Sydney rush hour driving on the "wrong side of the street."
Some 35,500 km and 170 days later I checked out selling my car. To be honest I was sort of taking pot luck with this. As I was not going to be around for a long enough time to try and sell it thru the newspapers, I knew I wouldn't get the best possible price. However, it would be nice to get something close to its value.
Ms. Archer at NRMA sent me the following URLs. At http://www.drive.com.au/used/body.asp?section=market you can find the market prices on your vehicle. The site gave me an idea of the value of my car, which was from about A$8,500 to about A$11,000. (This page will connect you with automobile dealers throughout Australia and also provides other interesting information.)
With that in hand I first went back to Mosman Toyota to see what they would do. The bloke in charge of buying back cars there was willing to give me A$7,500. I was not happy. Bob Phillips noted this was out of his hands, but suggested I try a suburban dealer.
I called a number of dealers and asked if they had a car similar to mine and what were they asking for it. The price I heard was in the A$13,000 and up range. I drove over to Brian Hilton for a quote. They would buy it from me for A$9,500. As this was in the ballpark of what I was looking for and I only had a few days left before I had to leave the country, I accepted it. When I pointed out that they were asking for about A$14,000 for a similar car, the chap I was working with said that was much too high. Obviously if you are buying a used car, the price you see on the windscreen is very much inflated.
I did run into one more minor complication. Brian Hilton wouldn't or couldn't simply credit the amount to my credit card. I really didn't wish to carry a cheque for A$9,500 back with me to the States and go through the hassle of getting my bank to cash it. So I went into the bank upon which the cheque was drawn, and asked for a new cheque in US$. The teller wasn't sure on how to convert it to US$. I kid you not. Exasperated, I asked her to give me A$9,500 in cash and then maybe, just maybe, she could find someone to tell her how to make out a cheque for the value of the money clutched in my hand in US$. She finally went back and found out how to do it. It only cost A$30 to write the cheque in US funds.
To sum things up, it is not impossible to purchase a vehicle via the internet; however, you should begin early and have some patience. I would guess that you will have to email the company more than once, maybe go to the webmaster and ask for help.
While auto dealers and other businesses have web sites and eddresses, a lot of them are operating in a clue-free environment as how to use them.
When you go to sell your car, you should assume that you will get the lower end of the price range unless you have made other arrangements. You might wish to pass the word to friends that you will have the car for sale in a particular city on a certain date if anyone wishes to buy it from you or you will go to the most convenient dealer. I'm thinking of doing that if I do this again.
You can read The Wombat's trip diary starting here.