We Bought A School Bus! :: Talking About How We Decided On A Skoolie Conversion
August 29, 2020
We have talked about buying a school bus and converting it into Skoolie for years, and finally decided that it was time to do it. Lindsay had back surgery several years ago and it has never been the same since. Tent camping is extremely hard on her and it is pretty punishing to my body as well now that I have pushed past 40.
We had a pretty specific set of constraints when looking for our bus. The biggest one is the length of our driveway. We live at the end of a cul-de-sac and on street parking is minimal. We don’t have any kind of available side yard that we could park a full-size bus in, and as such whatever we got would have to fit into our pretty minimal driveway. From the garage door to the end of our driveway proper we have about 29 feet, with a little more if we take up part of the sidewalk.
That means that even if we wanted one, a full length 40-foot bus is out. That is also a LOT of bus, and that length really limits you in the places you can fit. It would be hard to take it on many dirt roads, and it would also not fit into a lot of campground or RV spots. Not to mention the vehicular ballet required to drive one of those around a congested city. So, what size bus would we pick?
First, we should probably talk about school buses, their windows and what they mean. When you start digging into Skoolies, you really don’t hear much about length. Instead, people talk about the number of windows they have. Now they aren’t counting every window, it is the number of windows along one side of the bus. The reason that they do this, is that the windows typically indicate how much open floor space the bus will have when the seats are removed. The area in front of the windows will be taken up by the driver’s seat and the steps up into the bus.
Each window is around two and a half feet long, though of course there are exceptions. If you multiply your number of windows by 2.5 feet, that will give you a rough idea of the length of your usable space. Most Skoolies are seven and a half feet wide on the inside, so with the two numbers you can figure out what you are working with. With the full size bus we talked about earlier, you would end up with about 260 square feet of space. Now, we have all four of the kids in the house for at least the next couple of years, so we will need enough sleeping space for all of them, and for ourselves. We plan on doing some winter camping in it, so we would really prefer to have space for a composting toilet and shower. Of course, there also needs to be kitchen space and some seating. All of that is a lot to squeeze in even if you are talking about a full-size bus. So, what do you do?
Well in our case, it pushed us over to the dark side of motor homes. We figured that if we went that route, with a little work we could squeeze a couple of bunks into the rear of a 29′ Class C Motorhome with everything else we wanted already built in. We would be ready immediately and could go camping from day one. The biggest downside to a Skoolie is that when you buy it … it has nothing. You need to gut it, tear it down to its bones and rebuild it back up. It is also its greatest strength though, as at the end of the process you wind up with exactly what you want, done how you want it. So like we always do, we started researching. Endlessly researching everything we could find about buying a used RV. What the costs are, what to look out for, what to hope for. We are not rich, and our budget meant that we would be looking at something built in the early to late 90’s.
Let me give you the crib notes version of everything we found …. DO NOT BUY A USED RV. There are exceptions of course, but not many of us can find one that we can believe has been stored in a covered garage its entire life. Let me introduce to the bane of RV existence, black mold. The vast, vast majority of RV’s have not been taken care of. People either don’t know or don’t care that you have to reseal them on a yearly basis to make sure that they do not allow water in. I am not going to go over what to watch out for here, but I will be putting a couple of links in the description of the video to show you what to look for. As long as you go into a used RV purchase with open eye, are aware that you may be buying a rolling black mold factory and are willing to gut it down to the studs and re-build it from the floor up, it is an option.
For us however, if we are going to have to tear something down and rebuild it from the ground up anyways, we wanted to do a Skoolie. So, we went back to scouring every Craigslist ad in a 500 mile radius looking for the right bus. The two most common sizes of bus you are going to find are the full size twelve to fourteen window, or the four to five window short busses that are built on an oversize van chassis. We had already determined that the full-size busses were out …. and really five windows is too small to fit just beds for everyone. We needed to find something in the six to nine window range, with the eight or nine windows being ideal. Both of those busses are built on a bus chassis instead of a van chassis, and the floor is built completely above the wheel line, so you don’t have to deal with wheel wells in your floor plan. They have the most available clearance for getting on dirt roads, and most importantly they would just barely fit in the driveway.
Unfortunately, that seems to be the least common size to come up for sale. We looked at a couple buses, all with their own issues. If you do not know anything about the mechanical workings of vehicles, do yourself a favor when you go to look at something and bring someone that knows how to look for the most obvious things that can go wrong. One person tried telling us that the heater core was out and that’s why it was acting the way it was, when in reality after looking at it for 10 minutes it was obvious that it had a blown head gasket. There is no guarantee that what you buy is going to be perfect, it most likely is not. However, if you can avoid the worst of it you will hopefully avoid buying a complete lemon.
One day last week I got home from work and did my usual scan of the 10 or so Craigslist pages in our search radius, and THERE WAS THE BUS. A nine-window bus that had recently been retired from a school district. The miles were high, it was two hours away and it had a diesel engine that I knew next to nothing about. It was the exact chassis that we were looking for though, and I called them instantly. It was already late, so we made arrangements to head down the next morning to take a look at it. A sleepless, anxious, and excited night’s sleep followed. Trying to not get excited but being excited anyways. If you have ever bought something on Craigslist, you know that people lie, or they are just ignorant, or they are just trying to get out from under a problem. Still, we had to try.
The next morning, we dropped our youngest off at school and headed out into the great unknown, hoping for the best but preparing to walk away if something didnt feel right. Two hours of zooming later, and we pulled up to choose between the two identical buses the folks had. What is there to say, we bought the one that seemed to have the most of what we wanted. It started right up, the front tires were new, and it had decent retreads on the rear. There was a little surface rust, but nothing rotting thru. I took it for a test drive and the steering was tight, the air brakes worked really well, and the fluids looked good. So, we handed over everything that we had managed to save and scrape and piece together. We spent it all, and we risked everything. The question is, did we buy our dream bus or a lemon? Would this bus be able to make it back home? I pulled out onto the highway with nothing but hope and headed home with the largest project we had ever bought.