My name is Chris with TheOffGridSkoolie and I been living and adventuring in vehicles for over 10 years. I began in a self converted camper van and currently live full time in a 2002 Blue Bird Skoolie.
After spending 3 years in a 2008 Class A motor home, I knew something had to change. The depreciation, lack of build quality and limited weight capacity were signs that a new rig was on the horizon. I began searching for the next platform and overtime I realized the Skoolie was the best route.
As many people reading this know, the popularity of Skoolie Conversions has grown dramatically over the last few years. Many people have gone before me and proven that Skoolie builds can be beautiful, energy efficient, long-term homes.
I am so incredibly thankful for this recent explosion of interest in Bus Conversions.
Not only was I able to learn from previous builds, I also got encouragement to try my own build.
I spent countless hours, (seriously more than is worth mentioning) scouring the internet for build videos and informational articles.
Since then I’ve made it my goal to save others their time and energy when it comes to research so they can devote their time to the actual building process, which is incredibly grueling and time consuming all by itself.
The build process was long and difficult but I would not change it for the world. This has been the greatest project of my life and I've learned so much throughout the conversion process.
We wrote this article, among many, to easily share those insights with you.
When and if you decide to take on the monstrous task of converting a School Bus into a Tiny Home on Wheels, we're here to help save you time and money.
Straight from our online course, Skoolie Academy, the following list covers some of the most important aspects of purchasing a Skoolie.
Top 5 Things To Know & Do
Before Purchasing a School Bus
1 - Buying An Auction Bus? Contact The School District Directly
When I first began this Skoolie journey, I nearly made a huge mistake that could have cost me dearly. A friend of mine who works at an auto auction yard in Indiana said he would keep an eye out for any school buses that came through his yard. About a month later he contacted me to let me know that 5 Thomas rear engine diesel buses came on the market. One of these gems was an activity bus with only 75,000 miles on it. I was stoked, the bus I had been dreaming about was finally within reach! My friend said he would bid for me being that Indiana requires a dealer license to bid. He said the auction would go anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000.
At that point I began researching the drive-train of the bus. It had the Allison 3060 transmission with the DT466E diesel engine. The Allison transmission had amazing reviews and is the transmission in my current bus. However, the DT466E had some issues I wasn’t aware of. During certain years, 1999 to 2004 specifically, the manufacturer used sub-par seals within the engine. If a tech did not use the correct coolant, the seals would deteriorate and water would seep into the engine. Water in a diesel engine might as well be a pound of sand because the engine would need to be completely replaced. My “perfect/dream” bus was a 2002.
I called the school districts administration office and asked to be transferred to the bus maintenance department. The operator paused as I assume not too many people try to be transferred to this department. My first attempt was fruitless as the main tech was not available to answer my questions, so I said I would call later. This is important because the lead tech typically files the paperwork to bring in new buses and auction off the older ones, but I will go into detail on this later. After a few more calls, I was finally able to connect with the head tech. From the picture I was able to give the tech the buses district number and he was able to confirm that this bus did indeed have water in the oil.
After a few simple phone calls I not only saved myself the cost of a lame bus, I also saved the cost of a new engine.
Lead with your head and not your heart when it comes to a school bus purchase… Call the school district and do your homework on what you are buying!
2 - Buying From A Dealer Can Save You Time & Money In The Long Run
I get it, most people who want to build Skoolies are incredibly budget conscious. They’re also looking to build their tiny home on a solid platform. This value/performance push and pull is a game everyone buying a school bus to convert plays. I rolled the dice and purchased a bus from an online auction site. For me and many others, buying a bus with a lower price tag at auction ended up costing more time, money and energy in the long run, so please let my lesson help you make a more informed decision.
In a perfect world, the bus you purchase from auction is very well maintained and was on the road up until the day it was decommissioned. The bus was not taken off the route because of a mechanical issue, rather, it was decommissioned for age only. Unfortunately, this is the exception and not the rule. If you find this bus with a desirable drive-train as well as low miles… Buy it yesterday!
My bus was purchased for $3,050. To buy a similar bus at a dealer, I was looking at $7,000-$9,000. Now, let’s play out the total cost for my bus (not including renovations… Just to get it drive worthy).
My bus was purchased for $3,050 at auction. New tires cost me $3,150, repairs to get it on the road cost me $1,020, transmission flush and filter change cost me $1,300 and this doesn’t include the diesel to get it from Florida to Arizona.
When all was said and done, I put $8,700 into a bus that still had mechanical issues that needed to be dealt with. Since then I’ve had the the rear main seal, differential seal, air filter and engine seals replaced adding another $2,400.
If I had purchased the bus from a reputable dealer who had fixed all of these issues beforehand, I would have saved about $2,000 and days worth of stress, energy and research that could have been spent elsewhere.
3 - Have a Place to Work on the Bus AND a Backup Plan
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but this is a very common trend I see. People get excited about a Skoolie conversion and make the purchase without really considering where they will do the conversion.
I can think of multiple instances where someone started a build on their property, only to have the neighbors call the city. This forces them to move to someone else's property, possibly rent a storage location or having to sell their bus only weeks into the build.
My bus was actually called in even though I wasn’t building or even living in the bus. I spent the holidays with family back in Indiana and my aunt got a knock on the door after I was home for less than a week from a city employee.
Luckily, being that I wasn’t actually living in it, the city employee couldn’t force me to move the bus.
The worst part is, the bus could only be seen by 3 or 4 houses as it was in the backyard. Do not assume your backyard is suitable for your build. If you’re planning on renting a spot to work on the bus, keep in mind those monthly payments add up.
These Skoolie builds typically take twice as long as you plan for and will cost three times what you expect. Make sure you have multiple backup locations to build your bus!
4 - Have you considered purchasing a Half Converted / Fully Converted Bus?
I totally understand the idea behind building a bus to make it your own.
However, after spending 1.5 years building my bus, I realized how massive of a project it really is. When buying a half converted bus or even fully converted bus, you “purchase” the sweat equity that someone else put in, as well as the already installed components. If you're lucky enough to move right into the bus, this could save you money from not paying anymore rent/mortgage, since you won't need a space to actually build a bus.
Check out our Classified Section
As detailed in the course, there is actually a demand for half converted buses. You can buy buses from people who started a project and got in over their head. They realize how much time, energy and money that goes into one of these builds and they jump bus. If you are someone who keeps a keen eye on Skoolie sale websites and craigslist ads, you can swoop in and purchase one of these buses for pennies on the dollar.
Along the same lines, purchasing a fully converted Skoolie is a great option as well. You get the benefits of purchasing all of the sweat equity with an added bonus of a bus that has proven itself on the road. It is common for those who live full time on the road to go through the “break in period”. This is where the weakest links of the drive-train are stressed due to full time use and the previous owners worked out all of those kinks in order to drive it themselves.
With this option you can let others put in the sweat equity, money and road time that is needed for every conversion and move right in!
5 - Do Your Research!
Wess with the TranscendExistence bus, one of the co-creators for the Skoolie Academy, was an early builder in the Skoolie game. He, like many others, saw a school bus, got excited and went all in with little to no research. He is now in the process of swapping out his engine and transmission in his rig, which is an incredibly expensive process.
Like many, he is committed to the bus due to his extensive interior and exterior build, so selling and buying a new bus isn't an option. If he would have researched the best engine and transmission option prior to buying, he would have saved himself anywhere from $7,000-$10,000.
Do your research! Watch YouTube videos, read blog posts and articles by fellow Skoolie owners, google what you don't know or don't yet understand. Know exactly what kind of bus you are buying, since it might soon be your only home. Buy something that will work years into the future.
What you don't know now, could possibly cost thousands you in the future.
Do not think that just because a bus runs when you pick it up, it’s good to go. If you have a bad cylinder, pressure pump or weak transmission, you are going to be in a world of hurt.
Each one of those repairs will cost you anywhere from $2,000-$4,000 in parts alone.
In addition, if you don’t have the skills to work on the bus yourself, (most people don’t) shop time for most shops is $90-$150 per hour.
Save yourself the heartache and put in the legwork to make sure you’re getting a bus that won’t quit on you.
Join the Skoolie Academy
Skoolie 101 - What To Know Before You Begin
Frequently Asked Questions
When does the course start and finish?
The course starts now and never ends! It is a completely self-paced online course - you decide when you start and when you finish.
How long do I have access to the course?
How does lifetime access sound? After enrolling, you have unlimited access to this course for as long as you like - across any and all devices you own.
What if I am unhappy with the course?
We would never want you to be unhappy! If you are unsatisfied with your purchase, contact us in the first 30 days and we will give you a full refund.
Thanks for stopping in for our first article.
We wish you the best of luck buying your own bus!
Make it a wonderful day.