Breaking down on the road -
How to be Prepared
Contributing Writer: Elizabeth J W Spencer
Breakdowns in the bus are something all bus owners will have to deal with at some point.
Some of us are less prepared and capable than others but even if you are a diesel mechanic, breakdowns, flat tires or some other kind of roadside trouble could still find you. From our bus breakdown track record, you would think we didn’t do anything to prepare for engine trouble, but we had the engine looked over before setting out, we had a diesel mechanic spend hours teaching my husband how to do regular maintenance, check fluid levels and what problems to look for on this type of engine.
We also had spare parts galore with us on board, as well as all kinds of fluids and tools. Obviously, you can’t be prepared for everything, but we at least comforted ourselves by the fact that we tried. We didn’t have any extra fuel lines with us, which was a mistake!
So we set out from North Carolina and not two hours after we left, fuel was spraying out of the back of the bus. I wish I could say that this was the last breakdown on our maiden voyage across America but we broke down again in Nevada with the same problem. After the first breakdown we had taken the bus to Cummins engine dealer in Nashville to have them rework the spaghetti of fuel lines. The only good news with the second breakdown is that it was still under warranty from Cummins. They had put one of the lines in backward, which put too much pressure on the rest of the lines, and then it finally busted outside of Las Vegas. We are still novices at bus living but our crash course in bus breakdowns has us a little wiser on road trouble.
Here are nine tips to help you prepare for bus breakdowns.
1. Food and Drink:
Always, whatever you do, have good food and even better drinks with you on the bus. On our first breakdown we had beers and brats. On the second breakdown we had Moscow mules and a charcuterie board with aged meats and cheeses. These combinations of food and drink—as well as others—are a sure way to lift the soul in dismal circumstances on the side of the road. Be sure to stock that fridge before heading out.
For our next breakdown, I plan on having red wine and steak.
2. How to Deal with the Cold (or Heat) Off-Grid:
One major mistake we made in our build was not putting in a propane heater.
So, when we broke down in the winter in 25-degree weather on the side of the road for two nights, we weren’t prepared for how to deal with the cold off-grid. The first night we all climbed in bed together; my husband and I with the baby and even the dog! The baby and the dog thought it was awesome! I got every blanket, sleeping bag, and rug we owned to cover us and insulate the floor and doors. The second night we got a portable indoor propane heater to heat the place up and then we turned them off while we slept. I just wasn’t sure how safe they really were inside. Point being, if you are traveling in the winter, have an off-grid heat plan or be okay being cold.
I probably wouldn’t have been as worried about the cold but we had our baby with us so that seemed to complicate my worry.
3. Towing Insurance:
On the first breakdown we didn’t have any type of roadside assistance or insurance. That was a mistake for obvious reasons. Because we didn’t want to pay for a 50-mile tow, we tried to fix the bus on the side of the road. As soon as we got back on the road I called to get us roadside insurance from Good Sam in case we had any more trouble along the way. There are all different kinds of packages with Good Sam, but in light of the most recent breakdown, I got the Platinum Membership that included tires, roadside mechanic, 100-mile tow and lots of other perks. So, when we broke down a month later in Nevada in the middle of the desert close to sundown, Good Sam offered to either send a towing service or a roadside mechanic. Because we knew what the problem was and that the fuel lines really needed a shop to do an overhaul (again?!) and not just a roadside fix, we went with the tow. It was a 60-mile tow to the closest shop and I was so glad that we had the towing insurance!
4. Make Friends:
I can’t say this enough. You can prepare all you want but at the end of the day you will probably need some help out on the open road. During our first breakdown, where we were stranded on the side of the road, the nicest mechanic came out to help us at 10 pm at night and kept working on the engine with my husband until 3 am. It ended up that they needed a new part. The closest place where we could find the new fuel line was a three-hour drive away. We weren’t towing a car so we had to find transport to get the part. As luck would have it, where we were in Tennessee (TN) there weren’t any rental cars, taxis or Ubers. I couldn’t even get to another town to get a rental car without walking 50 miles. The nice mechanic from the night before said we could take his truck. I couldn’t believe that a stranger would let us drive their truck. We met so many other guardian angels out on the road—people that didn’t have to be nice to us—but were—and offered a lending hand.
5. Keep That Water Tank Full:
On the first breakdown we did have a full tank of water and on the second breakdown we didn’t, which was another reason we didn’t want to be stranded out on the road for a few days. The great thing about a bus is that if you do breakdown, you hopefully have most of what you need to wait for help or parts. There are things you can do without in a pinch, but water is really essential.
6. Embrace the Adventure:
When your bus breaks down it is going to be hard to remember why you ever had this ridiculous idea in the first place—what a horrible idea to put your home in a bus that breaks down! But most of us probably didn’t pick bus life for more dependability and certainty. Most of us probably picked a bus conversion for more freedom and adventure. And breakdowns and mishaps are just part of the bus adventure. I know it is expensive, time-consuming, and uncomfortable, but you are going places and taking risks, and this is just what happens.
7. Build in a Wide Margin of Error:
We quickly learned to not make any plans on our cross country road trip. When we first set out I told my grandmother we would be there on Tuesday in Memphis, TN. Well, we got there five days later due to the breakdown. From then on, I would just call people the morning we would be arriving in their town and see if they were available, we could park outside their home and if they wanted they could have dinner with us in the bus. Breakdowns weren’t the only thing that slowed us down though: traveling with a baby made for more stops, sometimes we wanted the freedom to relax, weather got in the way, campgrounds being full changed our plans, and regular maintenance on the bus would eat into more time than we were expecting. Even if you don’t breakdown, there are other reasons that you might want to change your plans as you go. As a bus dweller/traveler, you don’t want a schedule to take away from all the freedom that the bus affords.
8. Stop Before Dark:
This might sound ridiculous to some people, but after our first breakdown we decided that if we could stop before dark we would. If you breakdown (hypothetically) or get a flat tire it is much easier to deal with it in the light of day than on the side of the road in the dark (and less dangerous). Obviously, it doesn’t always work out, but we don’t keep pushing on if there is a place to stop before sundown.
9. Have a Breakdown Budget:
This is kind of like an emergency fund but specifically for when the bus breaks down. Some people need more money in their breakdown budget—like us!—than others, who can fix stuff themselves, so you can figure out how much you want to set aside depending on if you can do your own repairs and how much you travel. If you can, always set aside more than you think you need, and then you will be surprised when there is extra. We didn’t have this breakdown budget in place for our first road trip, but you had better believe it is a part of this year’s budget, and we are setting aside money for the next mishap every month.
Have you broken down in your bus? What tips would you share?
Thinking about buying a van, bus, RV or trailer to live in? Here are 5 ways you can start today, so you can accomplish your dream of traveling in a Tiny Home tomorrow!
Set a BIG Goal – Living in a Tiny Home in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years – break that down into smaller parts.
This is Plan A for what you want your life to look like. There is no Plan B, no other way you will accept your life to be in X amount of years.
Talk honestly with yourself “I want to be living in my own home, rent and mortgage free. How do I get from where I am, to where I want to be?” Break it down into manageable steps.
There are certain key items you will need in your life to achieve your dream. Our main focus will be making money and saving it, getting an education, connecting with people and learning how to ask for help, downsizing your belongings, while being flexible in your decision making.
Always remember the BIG goal, use every thought and action in your daily life lead you to accomplishing that goal.
What is the ONE THING you can do today that will allow you to sit behind that big steering wheel next year, asking yourself “Where do I want to go?”
If you want to make $50,000 a year, you need to earn $138 a day or $4,166 a month.
What can you sell 3 times a day at $46 to make an extra income to stash away in your bus piggy bank?
You can’t always change the amount you make, but can 100% control the amount you spend.
How can you make more money? Do you have items laying or standing around that you could sell? Do you have left over crafts you could finish and sell online? Are you able to pick up more shifts at your current job, or find a second part time job?
What about your savings, do you have a budget and an idea of what you earn and what you spend?
Savings – what do you spend your money on? Look at your daily and monthly income and outcome. Not buying that $5 coffee everyday will save you $150 a month! Not using that membership to the gym or whatever streaming internet service? Cancel it and put that money away towards your Tiny Living Fund.
Most plans to save $20 a day, or XX a month are hard to stick to, and might discourage you to continue, seeing “how little” money you have in your jar. Can you save $1 a day? If you want to live in a Tiny Home by next year, well, $365 won’t get you there.
But! It will get you into a mindset of saving and evaluating what you spend your money on and learning how to get into a saving mindset. Figure out you budget, live with less and research what you're buying. That WILL definitely come in handy when you are researching parts to buy for your Tiny Home.
The power is not in the dollar itself, but how you choose to use it.
Learn – Gather knowledge, Get an education
If you are building your own Tiny Home, throughout the build you will become a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician, a solar power and generator expert, etc etc…
If you don’t have the physical capability or knowledge about the process of building certain parts of your home, you need to hire someone to do those jobs. Do you have the money to hire professionals? How do you know you are hiring the right people, who will do a job well? You still benefit from knowing more about the process and what kind of work the professional will do and if what they are charging is reasonable.
Spend some time each day on YouTube watching Skoolie Build videos, travel Vlogs from folks like Jax Austin and The Frugal RVer and vehicle maintenance videos. Familiarize yourself with different terms you might come across, and pick up bits and pieces from how-to videos.
Read articles, like these
Top 5 Things To Know & Do Before Purchasing a School Bus
10 Lessons We Learned While Converting Our Bus
Go to the library and find yourself books on diesel engines, how turbos work.
Whatever you don't know, when you are getting ready to buy a vehicle to be your future home – learn about it! Even if you can’t remember that you need a 9/16 wrench for the air brakes, at least you have heard about it before.
Whatever you don’t know, learn it!
Even if you don’t understand a single thing you're reading, once you are in your bus, and your mechanic says something about the transmission fluid leaking, you might remember that the color of that fluid is RED, even if that meant nothing to you when you first read it. You at least have a basic understanding of some things.
Learn something new everyday.
Meet People – Voice your Goals and Plans – Network
Where will you be parking and working on your Tiny Home once you buy it? What stores will you be buying parts and tools from? Start heading over to those stores and introduce yourself to some of the folks. Talk to the person in the plumbing department, take a look through the lumber section with a person from the wood department. Get to know the folks you’ll be working with more closely once you get to a point of buying material to construct your new home.
Get the people around you to support you. Talk about your dreams and goals as if they were already real, because they are! Connect with others that are currently on the path that you are. Encourage each other.
Get on Instagram, find Youtubers, look through Pinterest and meet people who are doing exactly what you're doing. Many of them are in the researching stage, building stage, or traveling/home stage. You'll find examples and ideas about how you might want to build and decorate. Get ideas about HOW to do something.
Get involved in the community.
Do a search for “Tiny Home shows around me” and attend some local events to see what 250 square feet or less feels like.
Let yourself realize and see all of the success stories of people who are living this way, and have been living like this for a long time. People are doing exactly those things which you are aiming to happen in your life.
Change your life by changing your surroundings.
You too can do this!
Start Downsizing – Physical and Mental items
The most dramatic thing you can start today is downsizing. To some it comes easy to toss extra items, for others it is the hardest thing of all.
Ask yourself, do you really need 20 plates, 50 forks, 12 mugs, all your shoes, all your shirts? To change your life and move towards Tiny Living, you could get rid of one thing a day.
Personally, throwing away or donating items was the hardest thing about this process. I simply love stuff, and attach my emotions onto them. All of the things around me are intertwined with some kind of meaningful event or memory. Getting rid of them makes me feel like I will forget that memory - which has NEVER been the case. I am free'er and so much better off for having rid my life of so many belongings.
Getting rid of physical items works hand in hand to rid yourself of mental baggage. That was one of the major things I learned from reading Throw Away 50 Things. It’s not simply about the stuff itself, it's the mental attachment to the stuff. Rid yourself of either, and you can work on ridding yourself of the other.
That ties right in with working yourself into the community, talking with friends about your goals, and finding support through communication. Open up about your feelings, and talk about what you’re going through. Explain why you feel it’s important and necessary on the road and living in a Tiny Home, or any which way you want to live.
As exciting as bus life is and can be, it can also be very difficult, and WILL test you in ways you’ve not been tested before. Get yourself ready now, and use some of your time to seek out a therapist or counselor, and create deeper relationships with family and friends.
Get your mind in order before you do anything else.
Be flexible – OK with where you are RIGHT NOW
Will you accomplish what you set out to do, in the time frame you want and hope it to be done? Maybe. Maybe not.
Life gets in the way of living and accomplishing our dreams sometimes. The best piece of advice I can give you is go with the flow and be flexible. Stretch your body everyday, and loosen up that tight grip on your mind – where you feel lost and disappointed when you don't get your way or when it doesn't go according “to the plan.”
Mental attitude is key! Enjoy the time you have left at your 9-5, smile more, work harder, since you know better things are coming your way. What you are doing today does not dictate what you will do tomorrow. Small changes today lead to big changes tomorrow.
Bus Life is all about adventure and looking on the bright side of things – even as your home is getting towed because of engine failure. Some way, some how we will make it past this.
You have to let life happen, regardless of the plan
Maybe after a year of dreaming and planning you change your mind or something else happens.
One couple I met bought a bus, and after they ripped out the interior, life happened and they decided to sell it and buy an Airstream instead. They are happier now than ever.
Some folks lived in a huge RV and decided a custom built bus was more their style. Some people lived in vans for years and are now thriving in a brick and mortar house.
Some folks had a custom Tiny Home built for themselves, only to realize the builders built it too big and too heavy to actually be towed and used as a home. Years of time and thousands of wasted dollars, they're stuck in a temporary home because of all the issues.
Life comes at you fast, and a slow bus might just not be the way to go. And that’s OKAY. You’ve got to be flexible.
Try it out for yourself! Maybe you’ll enjoy it, maybe you won’t. But you have to try to find out!
It’s about the journey and not the outcome. If you feel great along the entire journey and don't make your goal the end all of your future, when you realize it may just not be the right fit for you, look back at what you accomplished, regardless of the final outcome.
What does this all amount to?
If you started out with goal setting and accomplishing little tasks to work slowly away at that goal, after 1 year or more, you have the potential of a large amount of savings.
You quite possibly have a healthier attitude and outlook on life, since you surrounded yourself with people who give out free, loving advice.
You possibly made new friends, and are not embarrassed to have them over to your home. You now have less clutter and useless junk around yourself, and through talking with a therapist, close friends, family members, you attract wonderful people into your life.
Start your adventure today! Save $5 and put it in your piggy bank, watch a video and/or read an article, say goodbye to those socks with holes and donate a book, plate, shoe or two, and by the time a year or two rolls around, you’ll be ready to accomplish that BIG goal of living in a home that you'll absolutely adore and LOVE.
AND! You are constantly open to learning new things and asking questions, becoming braver and smarter every single day.
I promise you'll find more joy and smiles in your daily life, celebrating new friends and new found confidence. All you need then is the right vehicle to drive the miles and deliver those smiles!
Your ideas and dreams, even without the Tiny Home, have entirely transformed your daily life. That by itself is worth having the dream for, even if the destination never leads to a physical bus for years to come.
Next goal! Perhaps you discover what actually IS YOUR THING! Wouldn't that be wonderful <3
If you do get yourself into a bus, it does become the same old thing except a different view. If you see life as nothing but roadblocks and challenges to overcome, I want to tell you that living in a bus is not any easier or more fun. It is actually extremely difficult. Flat tires, $250 oil changes, $450 tires, insurance issues, gas prices, etc etc.
BUT! I would not ever want to miss out on all the joy and happiness, and LOVE I have discovered since moving into my bus 4 years ago. It is all worth it, because I worked hard for this, and this is what I wanted my life to be like. I adjusted my attitude to recognize this as a journey of learning.
It’s never too late to live a life you love.
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We are Adam & Rachel with Soulful Bus Life and we converted a retired school bus into a Tiny Home on Wheels. We are on our journey towards living our life authentically. We believe in compassion, kindness, fun and following your dreams.
We bought our 1999 Bluebird All American school bus in September of 2017 and did the entire conversion ourselves.
Top 5 Things To Know & Do Before Purchasing a School Bus
The conversion was completed and we hit the road in September 2018. Currently, we live in the bus full time and are traveling through the US. Our goal is to prove that with a bit of hard work and determination you can achieve your goals and dreams.
We want to show that you can live your true authentic life and feel more fulfilled because of it regardless of the status quo .
There are so many lessons we learned from converting our 1999 Blue Bird school bus into a Skoolie. Lessons not only in construction, but life in general. Building this bus and living in it for the last 6 months has taught us so much about the world we live in, life, but most of all, ourselves.
Scrolling through Tiny Bus Living Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Pinterest accounts makes converting a bus look so glamorous and easy. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the whole building process is far from easy or glamorous.
In this article I want to share a few things that I wish we would have known going into the conversion process. I hope this article will save you time, money and keep you from making the same mistakes.
10 Lessons We Learned While Converting Our Bus
Time of year to work on the conversion
This lesson is kind of a double edged sword.
We purchased our bus at the end of September 2017 with the intent on finishing the conversion by the following May. Within the first week of having the bus we were able to completely remove all of the seats, ceiling and wall panels, old insulation, as well as the old floor.
Entering fall, we were hit with more and more rain which made it difficult to get work done. It was a blessing in disguise. The rain showed us that all of our windows leaked, including both emergency exit hatches in the roof.
As it continued to get colder and colder we were able to do less and less inside the bus since many building materials like Henry’s Tropicool, Liquid Nails and POR-15 need specific temperatures in-order to cure properly or even stick.
Had we known better, we would have started the conversion in the spring, which still would have allowed plenty of rain to show where the leaks were, but would have provided us with warmer temps so that we could stick to our build schedule.
Every project will take twice as long as you originally planned
Let’s face it, many of the folks looking to build a Skoolie or Tiny House are venturing in with little to no construction experience. Every step will most likely take longer because of never having done anything like it before.
Fortunately for us, I spent the last 8 years running a home theater installation business, so I did have construction and wiring experience.
Even with that experience, most of the projects took longer than anticipated. Working on a bus is very different from working on a home that is built to specific building codes. Most things in a bus are not straight, the roof is curved and you are building an entirely custom floor plan.
Do yourself a favor and plan for things to take longer and as a result probably cost a little more than anticipated.
Have a budget
When we started our conversion we had a general idea of how much we wanted to spend, but not knowing the actual cost of some of the building materials or how many screws, nails and tubes of sealant we would need made it difficult to stick to. We ended up going over our initial budget because of this. The more you can plan and solidify your building list ahead of time, the more money you will save in the long run.
Make a list and a building plan
This is one area where we failed miserably.
We had a general idea of everything we wanted in the bus from solar panels, water tanks, a shower, composting toilet and so on, but failed to make a parts-list of all the things involved in each individual project.
By making a step by step list of your build you can save yourself a lot of wasted time and gas money driving back and forth to the hardware store to get parts and materials. If you create a list of everything you need for each step of your build, things will go much smoother.
Also, if you can purchase most of the parts and pieces ahead of time for each project and have a place to store them, that would also make the process go quicker.
You will get overwhelmed and frustrated
Due to the combination of lessons above, the building process will challenge you in many ways that you will not expect.
Projects not working or coming out the way you planned. Products being out of stock or on back order. The weather not cooperating. It will all cause you to get frustrated and overwhelmed.
There were several times throughout our build where I was ready to call it quits because of the amount of stress and frustration caused by things not going as planned and juggling the build with work and social life.
Do yourself a favor: take time away from the build to recharge your personal batteries.
If you run into a project that is not going the way you want and is starting to cause you to get overwhelmed and frustrated, walk away or move on to a different project. By coming back to it a day or two later allows you to look at it with a new perspective and most likely solve the problems quicker than if you kept pushing through while feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.
Purchase or rent the proper tools for the job
This lesson is something that will drastically affect the timing and outcome of your build process. Using the right tools for each job will make things easier and go quicker than if you tried and made do with what you have.
Almost every big hardware store, like Lowes and Home Depot, have a tool rental department. If you need a special tool, but know that you are only going to use it once, it is much cheaper to rent it for a day or two than to buy it out-right, only to have to lose money when re-selling it, or having to find a space in your tiny home to stove it.
Top 10 Tools For A School Bus Conversion
Know when to hire a professional
This lesson works off of the previous two.
If you are not a paid diesel mechanic / fabricator and welder / carpenter / woodworker / etc, there might be several parts of the build where you simply NEED professional help to get the job done safely and properly. The last thing you want is causing damage and harm to your new home and yourself.
If you do not have the skills or knowledge to do certain aspects of your build, such as electrical or mechanical items, spend the money and hire a professional. This will save time and money in the long run because someone who does a certain trade for a living will be able to do a faster and better job.
It will also save you from having to re-do things multiple times and ruining precious building materials trying to figure things out.
Don’t cut corners
This is something that I have noticed on many builds where people think they can cut corners because they only have a certain budget or want to get it done fast.
Remember that this home will be moving and bounding on the road (if you plan to travel) which means that things can shift and move at any time. Cutting corners could cause things to come apart and break by not doing it properly. Later down the road you're spending more money and time re-doing or fixing something you could have done right the first time..
If you don’t have the money or time at that moment to do it properly, move on to a more affordable project and take the extra time to save more money and wait until you can make the time to do it right. Follow lesson 7 and hire a professional to ensure that things will work right.
During the process process, we had about 10 different floors plans.
We spent much time in the bus contemplating exactly how we wanted it and discussed different ideas. Through doing that, we discovered several things which were not going to work as well as we thought.
For example, we originally planned on using a 14 cubic foot refrigerator. After bringing it into the bus, we realized that once our walls were in place, we would not be able to get it back out if it ever needed to be replaced.
So we switched to a 10.1 cubic foot model that fit through the emergency exit door when it was time to replace it.
By being flexible, you will save yourself from future headaches and have a better build in the end.
Remember why you are choosing to build a Skoolie
Don’t forget to have fun!
Most of us choose to build a Skoolie for the freedom that it provides. Being able to take your home anywhere along the road and travel, while saving money by not having a mortgage or paying rent.
Living in a Skoolie is a wonderful experience and should be fun!
If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be so many people doing it.
Sometimes it helps to reflect back on your reasons for buying your school bus in the first place. Thinking about the time spent researching buses, and then actually buying your bus and how happy you felt might help re-energize your dream and motivate you to finish,
Remember to have fun throughout the building process and continue that fun once you hit the road.
I hope you can take these lessons, whether you are almost done, mid-build or are still in the planning phase and apply them to save you time, money and frustrations.
Living this lifestyle can be so rewarding in many ways, but most of all it can give you the satisfaction of building your dream into a reality.
It isn’t always easy, but in the end, it is definitely worth it.
Make it a wonderful day!
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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We wish you the best of luck buying your own bus!
Make it a wonderful day.