Since we started this bus adventure we’ve occasionally heard from folks who are interested in doing something similar but aren’t necessarily sure where to start. Converting a bus into a comfortable tiny home on wheels is a lot of fun, but be warned, it’s also a LOT of work. We’re not experts, but we have gone through the process first hand and have a few bits of advice to share.
Determine Your Goals
One of the appealing aspects of converting buses is that they come in a range of sizes, allowing you to pick a bus that fits your goals. Speaking of goals, it’s important to figure what yours are before you get started. Some questions we recommend considering are:
What do you want to do with the bus?
Do you want to live and travel in the bus full-time? A full-size bus will offer more living space and versatility when laying out your floor-plan. It’s a lot easier to fit a kitchen, bathroom, shower, bedroom, etc. into a bus when you have, say, 30+ feet vs. 15 feet of space to work with.
Just want a weekend cruiser to take on vacation? A short bus could be a great option for this! Not only are short buses a bit easier to drive and park, if you’re not overly concerned about fitting a bathroom and shower on board they can provide ample living space for camping trips and vacations. (That being said, we’ve seen quite a few rad short-bus conversions that are full-time homes. How much space you want/need is really up to you.)
Ultimately, what you envision yourself doing with your bus will inform the type of bus to look for.
Where do you want to take the bus?
Want to visit some serious mountains? We’d suggest looking for a bus with a turbo engine, greater horsepower / torque, air brakes, and a fuel-injection system that’s calibrated for higher elevation (this relates to the oxygen-to-fuel ratio, older buses like ours actually have different fuel pumps for different elevation ranges). Plan on some extended driving? It’d be a good idea to compare the fuel efficiency of different vehicles. School buses get notoriously low gas mileage (think less than 10mpg), and the lower your fuel efficiency, the greater the impact on your wallet. If you’re planning to stay parked for longer periods of time and/or stick to lower elevations, these aspects won’t matter as much.
How much do you want to spend on the bus?
Before you start bus shopping, get an idea of the price range you can reasonably afford. We recognize that everyone’s financial situation is unique, and therefore don’t recommend a minimum or maximum amount to spend on a bus.
We opted to purchase an older bus with one of the lowest price-tags we could find. Doing so meant that we could buy the bus outright without putting a big dent in our savings. Though buying an older bus did result in a lower up-front cost, we have needed to invest in mechanical parts and repairs over time.
Who will drive the bus?
Are you going to drive the bus yourself? Is your spouse/significant other/ family member/ friend/ whatever going to drive the bus? Keep in mind that the driving history of whoever eventually gets listed as a driver on your insurance policy will effect the premium rates. What class is your current license? (e.g. C, B , A, CDL) Depending on the size of the bus you end up with, and the requirements of your home state, you might need to upgrade your license too. (More on licenses further down.)
What kind of engine/ transmission/brake system do you want?
This is definitely a question we wished we had spent more time researching before buying our bus! Don’t get us wrong, we’re very happy with our bus, but that doesn’t stop us from occasionally admiring how green the grass is on the other side of the fence.
If you’re not mechanically inclined and/or not familiar with diesel engines, this might seem like one of the most daunting aspects of bus shopping. There are a range of engines and transmission combinations to be found under the hoods of different buses – not to mention air brakes vs. hydraulic brakes. Fortunately, there is the internet. Two great resources we recommend for researching mechanical specs are: Diesel Hub and Skoolie.net.
These aren’t the only questions to think about before starting your own bus adventure – just a few that we think are important to consider. We certainly wish we had answered these more fully before we started!
Finding A Bus
We found our bus on Craigslist.org. It took a a few weeks of scouring listings before we found one that fit our budget and size requirements. We were lucky in that we were able to find our bus within an hour’s drive of our then-home of Austin, Texas. (We’ve heard of other folks who have flown to other states to pick up buses.) Though the quality of results you’ll find on Craigslist definitely varies by region, it remains a pretty common source for buying/selling used vehicles.
Aside from Craigslist, there are a number of dealerships in the U.S. that sell both new and used buses. Here’s a short list of ones that we’ve been able to find after some internet research. We haven’t worked with any of these dealers, so we can’t recommend one over another.
Blog Readers – If you have helpful feedback about any of these places, feel free to share it via the comments section.
Another option is to look for public auctions in which case a school district might be selling a bus they no longer use. To learn about any auctions near you, you might contact your local school district office and ask about used bus sales. After some online research, we found this helpful site that lists school buses for auction in different states: Public Surplus
Insuring a school bus conversion isn’t quite as easy as insuring another type of vehicle. We know of just two companies that offer RV Insurance specifically for converted school buses: National General and Good Sam.
During our experience of applying for insurance with these companies, we learned that they will only insure fully converted vehicles. As part of our application, we had to send in photos of our bus to verify the interior had been completely converted. (While building our bus, it was completely stationary on privately owned land, so we were able to wait until construction was finished to apply for insurance.)
Blog Readers – if you know of any other companies that offer insurance specifically for converted school buses, feel free to share them in the comments section!
Registering Your Bus
When we first started looking into converting a school bus, we weren’t quite sure how to register the bus. Would we need to list it as a private bus or an RV? Fortunately, Texas has pretty clear standards for converted vehicles and, based on these standards, we were able to get our bus reclassified and registered as a motor home.
Every state handles things a little differently, and we recommend checking with your local department of motor vehicles for information.
Driving Your Bus
As I mentioned above, the size of the bus that you choose may influence whether you’ll need a new type of license to drive it around. Folks who drive an RV, motor home, or other non-commercial vehicle in the U.S. don’t need a Commercial Drivers License (CDL). However, in most states, license classes are determined by the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR).
What the heck is a GVWR? (Besides an acronym that’s hard to say six times fast…) Well, it’s not the actual weight of your vehicle, but rather “the maximum operating weight/mass of a vehicle as specified by the manufacturer” (Source).
In general, if your GVWR is over a certain amount, you’ll probably need a specific category of license to drive it. Because our bus’ GVWR is over 26,001 lbs, we had to upgrade our licenses from a class C (regular car driver) to a class B (big vehicle driver). (P.S. class A = biggest vehicle driver)
So what does this mean for you? Well first, find out the GVWR of whatever bus you’re considering buying. Secondly, check with your state’s department of motor vehicles to find out if you’ll need a new type of license based on the GVWR. If it turns out that you do need a new license, check out what you’ll need to do to upgrade. It might involve a written exam and possibly a driving test to demonstrate that you can safely drive your bus around. (Our experience doing this in Texas wasn’t painful.)
If all of this sounds overwhelming, take a deep breath and remember – you can do this! Seriously.
We didn’t know HALF of this information when we started. It was only after we bought our bus and were frantically figuring out what to do next that we learned these things. And we still managed to pull it off. Plenty of other folks have also converted school buses and built amazing tiny homes without having every single detail worked out in advance.
Converting a school bus is very much a learning process, and we wrote this article to share what we’ve learned because we value that experience. Buying a bus felt like a crazy, impulsive decision at the time, but it’s one that we’re so glad we made!
Where to find Help
We hope our blog is helpful! That being said, we were grateful to find a number of online resources during the conversion process that answered many of our questions.
You’ve probably seen us mention this one several times in posts & replies to comments. The website is an online community and forum of people who have all converted, or are in the process of converting, buses. Topics range from how-to’s in all of the major construction categories, to engines, to conversations about insurance, registration, licenses, and other frightfully administrative aspects of vehicle ownership.
This one is specifically for RVers and mostly features tutorials on making RV modifications, though it does have some info that might be useful in converting a school bus.
This Youtube Series gives top-level (i.e. not too technical) walk-throughs of RV plumbing and electrical systems that’s useful when you’re trying to get a handle on the basics.
When in doubt, search the ‘tube. We’ve used YouTube to answer many, many questions during the construction process. Usually, we found a lot of success when using specific search terms like, “how to…”.
The resources listed above are really just the tip of the iceberg and we encourage you to share any others that you may know of below.