DIY Bus Conversion: Before You Get Started

As many of you know, we live in a skoolie – a school bus converted into an RV. We purchased the bus in October 2012, gutted it and began building it back up. Once it was liveable (June 2013), we moved in.

DIY Bus Conversion Before You Get Started

It started as a crazy idea a few years ago when I read about a family that traveled around in an RV they lived in full-time. My husband laughed off the idea for quite some time, until, in August 2012, we learned about a family that lived in a converted school bus. With 5 kids. That’s one more than we’ve got so we figured it was doable.

And we went searching for a bus.

I looked and looked and looked for buses on Craigslist but couldn’t find anything. Then I finally realized it was because I didn’t know what I was looking for. We had no list of must-haves and didn’t really know what was good or bad in terms of engines and transmissions. So we got wise and made our list and soon found the bus we now own.

I’ve received enough questions from readers interested in doing something similar that I thought it would be good to share some helpful things we learned while looking for our bus. Because there’s a lot to consider before you even start looking for a bus, I thought I’d share some things that were helpful for us.

Design

The easiest (and funnest) thing I did was draw out the interior design. After doing a lot of googling, I was able to find a few bus layout options and used them as my inspiration. I did most drawings on blank printer paper and then did our final drafts on graph paper.

Why is this important? Because once I had a design that looked like it would work for us, we were able to figure out what length of bus we should look for.

We knew we’d need two sets of bunk beds, a toilet and bathing area, a kitchen with a good amount of counter space and a larger dining/seating area. I drew up many designs, some with generous amounts of space and some as conservative as I thought we could go.

Once Ian and I agreed on what would work for us, we decided we’d look for a 40 foot bus – the longest we could get.

Living Plans

When designing your bus, take into account whether you’ll be living in it full-time, part-time or just every once in a while. If it’s just an occasional thing, you can most likely get away with a shorter bus. You’ll probably need less storage space and, if you plan on only taking it to campgrounds, could even get away with limited or no plumbing.

If you plan on living in your bus longer, whether you’ll be traveling or parking somewhere, think about how little space you need to live in while still accommodating needs like cooking, eating, showering, sleeping and toileting.

Also take into account that your clothes need to go somewhere as does the stuff you don’t end up getting rid of.

DIY Bus Conversion: Before You Get Started. Clothing storage area under the bed.

Budget

Your budget will play a huge part in choosing your bus. We started with a budget of $8500. We found a lot of nice, already converted buses in the $15k-$25k range, but there was no way we could afford that.

Some converted buses were in our price range, but none were just how we needed them, which meant we’d have to remodel – meaning we’d have to spend even more money.

We decided that since we’d probably have to remodel (apparently not many people with lots of kids live in buses – weird), we’d just look for a cheaper bus so we’d have money to remodel. We paid $3500 for our bus, leaving us a good amount to remodel with – if we were frugal.

Another option is to buy and fix up your bus as you have money available.

Because we had to use part of our bus money for other expenses, we’ve stopped working on the bus and are saving up money for some other projects. Thankfully, we’re almost done, but we still need to money to pay for what’s left.

I’m thankful for this delay, though, because it means that we’re now planning a really big garden for the summer since we’re still at my parents’ house.

Lastly, there’s the option to look for corporate sponsorship for your bus project. My friend, Andrew, did just that for his tiny house project and has just released a great book on how to gain sponsorship for your tiny house.

Skill

How comfortable are you with building, plumbing and electrical work? Are you a creative problem solver? Do you know what a monkey wrench is?

My husband worked as a framer’s apprentice for a few months several years ago and has done a few DIY projects here and there. But he definitely wasn’t an expert builder before we got started.

Thankfully, he was able to gather a lot of information from places like YouTube, our friends at Tiny r(E)volution and this bus conversion website.

If you’re not sure you can do this stuff yourself, you’ll need to add the extra expense into your budget and/or find some great friends who can help you out. Or you can just look for a bus that’s already converted instead of doing it yourself.

Resources

Do you have the tools you need to work on your bus conversion? If not, do you know where to find them? Ian had some basic tools and has been able to borrow tools from friends and family. You may be able to do the same or borrow them through a tool library. Some tools, we’ve had to buy because we couldn’t borrow them (like this, which Ian highly recommends buying). Look for those used first and make sure to account for that in your budget.

DIY Bus Conversion: Before You Get Started

Time Available

Lastly, before you start looking for a bus, you’ll need to take into account the amount of time you’ll have available to work on your bus. If you have plenty of free time, know-how and lots of time to complete the project, it will probably make a difference in the type of bus you purchase.

For instance, if you need a bus done to be liveable in three months, you’ll probably be looking for one that’s already been converted that will need little work on your part.

That’s enough to consider for now – the design part alone should take up plenty of time. (If you’d like to see more design inspiration, check out my Bus Conversion Pinterest Board. You can also see our Bus Conversion Flickr stream.) Next I’ll be going into bus specifics.

What questions do you have about school bus conversions?

10 Comments

  1. Your Skoolie is beautiful!!! Thanks to your marvelous blog….you have inspired me and my family to make healthier choices. We are also planning on getting a bus. Please keep sharing more about your bus. Excited to see the final results!

  2. Hello:

    Nice bus! We were kinda in the same boat my wife got sick I lost my job and we kinda got forced into living green. If it wasn’t for my farm I don’t know how we would have made it. I bought a bus last year and thinking of converting it, I have one question what size water tank did you use, and how hard was it to put in your black water tank? Thanks and ps we eat almost totally out of our gardens on the farm and we have to share some recipes sometimes!

  3. Two questions that I have:

    1) If someone lives in or travels to colder climates, how insulated are the buses overall? I know you can insulate the sides somewhat but how about the ceiling? And, how do you insulate things like your water holding tank, septic etc.?
    2) What is the better type of engine or do they almost all have the same type?

  4. @victoriapilkington Definitely want the 250 HP Cummins Turbo Diesel with the Allison transmission. That is pretty much an unbeatable drivetrain. An older school bus is certainly going to be drafty, so it will need insulation work done if you plan to stay in it in colder climates overnight.

  5. Thanks for answering, Dave! Yes, lots of insulation is good! If we were to do it over again, we would have focused a lot more on re-insulating.

  6. I would really like to convert a bus; however the details seem daunting. If I want to live in it full-time- school bus vs coach?

    On a school bus, how are you anchoring to the ceiling without putting holes in the ceiling that have the potential to leak? In cold climates should you insulate the ceiling also? The windows on a school bus look like single pane. What considerations would you make for colder climates? And just how and where do you put the holding and grey water tanks on a school bus so they do not freeze? How do you heat a school bus in the winter when driving? etc. etc.

    And if going with a coach instead, the same questions. My understanding is diesel mpg is better on a school bus than a coach. Plus school buses are built for rougher road conditions and yet the trade-off when living in one full time seems worth it for the wider bus; more space.

    lol if you guys know the answers to some of these questions and/or can suggest a place for a total newbie to start learning about some of the answers are there books you can recommend? Most of the ones that I see are more from the aspect of floor layouts. I am still at the beginning stages of deciding what type would fit my lifestyle and then my budget. Like I said it all seems a bit daunting.

  7. I am currently converting a mini international bus with an Allison transmission. I am having the hardest time getting someone to insure me skoolie. How did you go about getting insurence ? Also any good tips for getting the parts for hookups. Super tight budget and looking for any tips I can get.

  8. I’ve seen your ‘school bus conversion’ pics all over the net. It’s awesome to finally locate the owner/family. Great jobs and awesome tips. My partner and I are moving into our converted school bus full time starting spring 2015. Looking forward to all the adventures.

    All the best to you and your family – may a happy road always lead onwards…

    ~ Kaeli

  9. Hi Kaeli! Welcome. :)

  10. I’m trying to convert a school bus into a tour bus for my youtube group for our tour this summer any ideas on how to convert it?

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