When it comes to tiny living, there are lots of options to choose from, a school bus convert being one of them. Buying a bus is a huge deal. It’s one of the biggest investments you will make in your conversion, other than probably solar if you go that route. I know the excitement of seeing all the buses for sale. Feeling giddy that one of those beauties will be coming home for you. But before you throw a lot of money on what is a metal box with an engine and some windows, there are some things to figure out before you drive into the deep end of bus ownership. If you would like to read about our bus story, you can do that here.
1. Your budget
Like most things in life, money is going to rule your world on what bus you can buy and what kind of things you can do to convert it. Be honest with yourself about how much money do you have for this whole project. Let me tell you, money slips away fast once you start building and dreaming big. Bus shopping is the same thing as car shopping. You need to know what you can afford. But also what are the market prices for buses. It’s called research, and you will be doing a ton of that over the next couple of months.
I’ll break the bad news first. I’ve haven’t heard of anyone being able to get a loan to buy a bus. So if your thinking of going that route, probably best if you ditched that plan and came up with something else. Buying a bus is a little too risky and not a deal that banks want to take a chance on.
From what I can tell, buying a bus through auction seems to be the cheapest option. Followed by private sellers and bus companies. That doesn’t mean that the other options are not worth considering. You never know what kind of deal you can get, so keep your options open.
But the cheapest option may not be the best option for you. Remember that including in your budget is travel expenses. If your bus is halfway across the country, you’re going to have to go get it and bring it back. If you are considering the traveling route, remember to add temporary title tags, gas, insurance, hotels as well as emergency maintenance for the bus. That can add up pretty quickly.
For us, our budget to build out this bus is super small. Which meant that we wanted to go the cheapest route to find our bus. But when we factored in travel expenses, it made more sense for us to buy a bus more locally and pay a little bit more. Do what works for your budget and schedule. We bought our bus for $4,000, with the previous owner buying it from a school district 2 years prior for $3,500 and replacing the tires.
Your budget includes how much you are willing to pay for your bus but also how much you want to spend for your conversion. From research, it seems that if you go the completely DIY route, the average cost seems to be around $20,000. But I’ve read of people spending $30,000 up to $60,000, so really it’s up to you. This amount will all depend on if you do things yourself vs hire out. What kind of materials you use. How much effort you put into making it look nice and homey. Even if you don’t know the exact amounts just yet, it’s good to try to do a general breakdown to see how much money you have to play with.
2. Your timeframe
We are only in the demo phase of our school bus build, but this project is not for the faint of heart. If you go the DIY route, it’s a lot of hours of manual labor. It’s been physically exhausting and tiring but so worth it. We’ve noticed though that even in this stage, things are taking longer than what we would like them too. It’s not uncommon advice to hear that the build will take you longer than what you expected so plan for that time.
From the research we’ve done, it seems like most bus builds take around a year or more. Sure I’ve heard people doing it in 4 months, but these people seemed to have the time to work on it every day. For the rest of us, we’ve got jobs, families and life happening. Even though we would like to make the bus build our center of attention, it’s usually just the weekends where we can put time into it.
When do you want your bus to be completed? Do you have an exact time or is it more open-ended? Having an answer to these questions will tell you how picky you can be when shopping around for your bus. For us, we started to seriously talk about bus life in June 2019. We knew that we didn’t want to renew our lease on our apartment in April of 2020. This left us with 11 months to find and buy a bus, convert the bus and move in. We knew that we didn’t have a lot of time to be picky, and needed to be strategic in our bus purchase.
3. School Bus details
Just like cars, there are tons of makes and models for school buses. Buses are also built with different purposes and have strengths and weaknesses that need to be taken into consideration. There are buses made to go over the mountains, but don’t do well on the highway. City buses have amazing ceiling heights but don’t do well on the highway. Coach buses do great on the highway but they have low clearance so it might not work well if you wanted to go boondock a lot. So what do you want to do with your bus? Where do you want to take your bus? We knew that we would want to be doing a lot of traveling on our bus but also wanted to free camp as much as possible. Our bus would need to be able to handle highways and still have the clearance.
The second detail to figure out is what length of a bus you need. Depending on the type of bus, the length can range from 15 ft up to over 40 ft. Things to keep in mind is that it’s harder to find campsites in a campground if you are over 40 ft. The longer the vehicle the more complex it is to drive as well.
There is no way to determine what length is best for you. For us, having kids and dogs, we felt that we needed as much space as possible. For us to know what length we would need, we visited some RV sellers and toured a bunch of different trailer lengths. I learned that 32 ft just felt too small, but was comfortable with 36 ft. It’s amazing how 4 ft can change a space. Our school bus comes out to around 35 ft of living space.
The next big thing is the bus engines and transmissions. Everyone has a different opinion about what they consider a good engine vs bad. And I have no clue about any of it. So do your research. I left it to Colby to decide what were the things that he wanted when it came to the technicals of the bus. We aren’t going to tell you what’s good or bad or anything in the middle. We ended up with DT 466 engine and the transmission is an Allison MT643. Our bus might be a little underpowered according to Colby, but it has longevity and reliable. Honestly, what more can a girl ask for?
If you have the time, go ahead and search for that dream bus. But we recommend being open-minded as it can be difficult to find the exact thing you are looking for. Know what is a must vs a want criteria for your bus because this can open a ton of different opportunities if you let them.
4. Parking the school bus
This one doesn’t apply to everyone, but some people will have to consider where they are going to park the bus while it is being converted over. It’s all easy peasy if you have family or friends with the land that will let you park. Maybe you have the funds to park it in storage. It’s always a good idea to have a legal place to park already secured before you purchase your bus. Ask around friends and family to see if they know of anyone or anywhere you can park.
When checking out a parking space, there are some things to see if you have access too:
- enough space around your bus to pile the mountain high bus chairs you will yank out
- electricity connection, or a big enough generator to charge all those batteries to go with all the tools
- water access so that you can keep up with cleaning the bus that will get dirty immediately after you are done.
So there you have it, 4 things that you should consider before you jump into the deep end of tackling a bus project. Once you get all of these things figured out, congratulations you are ready to buy a bus! It’s ok to not have it all figured out exactly. We know that things will change as you go. But by having this solid foundation, it will make the bus searching process so much easier to handle.