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A beginner’s guide to skoolies: How to start your own school bus conversion

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The RV-tiny home trend continues to be on the rise, with 11.2 million RV owners currently and an anticipated 9.6 million people who intend to purchase an RV within the next five years. 

While traditionally referring to tiny houses built on trailers, the tiny home movement is, at its essence, about downsizing living space and embracing a minimalist lifestyle. With those guidelines in mind, living in a bus, RV or camper falls under this movement. 

Since the pandemic began, RV sales have soared. Campgrounds are hard to come by and require booking well in advance. However, that’s not keeping people away. At first, RVs became a safer way for people to travel during the pandemic. Coupled with the rise in remote work and interest in reducing living costs, the appeals of nomadic living are drawing more people in every day.

One of the innovative ways people are taking part in the tiny home movement is with school bus conversions, otherwise known as skoolies. Skoolies draw in the DIY crowd looking to get their hands dirty creating a unique home on wheels. 

If skoolie living is something you’re interested in, you’re in the right place. Get started by browsing for used buses, researching RV insurance and reading this beginner’s guide for starting a school bus conversion, or skip to our infographic.

What is a skoolie?

A skoolie is a school bus converted into a living space. The result is a cross between a tiny house and a camper RV. Skoolies typically look more like a tiny house inside but still maintain their bus looks on the outside.

The major pro of a skoolie is that they don’t require another vehicle to tow them, similar to a class A RV, and can even pull a car behind it. They also allow for the utmost creativity when renovating because you’re starting from square one, unlike when you renovate a camper or RV and the bones are already there to work with. While DIYing a skoolie renovation requires a lot of hard work, the results can be gratifying.

 what-is-a-skoolie

How much is a school bus conversion?

The costs of a school bus conversion will depend on several factors, including size, level of upgrades and whether or not the bus itself is in good shape. You can expect to spend about $20,000 to $30,000 to convert a used school bus into a home on wheels.

In addition to conversion costs, there are also costs to consider once you hit the road.

Traveling expenses

If you plan on moving your skoolie at all, you’ll need to factor in fuel prices for travel days. A cross-country trip could cost $1,400 to $2,000 with today’s prices, though it will depend on the bus’s fuel tank capacity, fuel mileage and whether it’s gas or diesel.

Parking fees 

Unless you plan to be stationary on your land or the land of someone you know, you’ll need to pay to park your home. This could run anywhere from $300 to over $1,000 each month at an RV park, but many will not allow skoolies. You’ll likely have better luck with BLM land and national parks, which are often either low cost or free with restrictions. 

Living expenses

This covers your monthly utility costs, like electricity, propane, Wi-Fi and so on. You could reduce your monthly costs significantly by spending a little more upfront on solar panels to run all of your appliances and general electricity. Most skoolie owners do install solar panels so they can go dry camping or boondocking. 

Maintenance costs

For skoolies, you’ll be faced with double the maintenance costs for interior repairs and what’s needed to keep the bus operating. Typical maintenance costs are less than owning a house but likely more than a vehicle. A few examples of what to expect for regular maintenance:

  • Annual vehicle inspection and registration
  • Typical vehicle powertrain upkeep
  • Tire replacements
  • Checking water lines
  • Examining roof and window seals 
  • Inspecting for water damage
  • Servicing individual appliances

Think of skoolie maintenance as a combination of what typical upkeep looks like for both a house and a vehicle.

 Skoolie conversion steps

Preparing for a skoolie conversion

Once you set a budget, you’re ready to get started planning out your school bus renovation.

1. Consider what type of bus to use

The very first step is to purchase your bus, which might not be as easy as it sounds. Your options of which type of bus to use for a skoolie are quite extensive. Let’s break it down:

  • Type A: The smallest type of bus. A Type A is 20 to 25 feet long and features two entrances on both sides of the bus behind the front wheels. 
  • Type B: These buses range from 25 to 35 feet and are shaped like a traditional dog-nose school bus. This is a good-sized bus for a single individual who travels often.
  • Type C: This is a traditional school bus. These are 35 to 45 feet long with a dog-nose front that reduces visibility. The door is behind the front wheels, leading to less square footage.
  • Type D: These are long, flat-nose school buses. The flat nose offers great visibility while driving. The door is located ahead of the wheels, allowing for more usable square footage.
 Types of school buses

To decide between these types of buses, consider how much space you’ll require and how comfortable you are driving a large vehicle.

2. Find a school bus to convert

If you’ve narrowed down which type of bus you’re interested in, you might be wondering where you can even get a bus. They aren’t something you usually see on a car dealership lot. 

The best place to start is online. There are many websites and classifieds where sellers post their used buses for sale. A few options are:

While you could buy new, it’s more cost efficient to buy used. This is because buses are built to last up to several hundred thousand miles, and newer buses cost over $100,000. Plus, you’ll be gutting the inside, so it doesn’t matter if the inside seats and floors are in good condition. When looking at buses, make sure to test drive and look it over as you normally would when purchasing a vehicle.

3. Prep and gut your school bus

Now the fun part officially begins — demoing, designing and seeing your vision come to life. Demo is the process of gutting the interior of the bus. In this stage, you’ll remove everything down to the “studs.” Say goodbye to the seats, original floors and walls. You’ll need to tear everything out until you see the inside of the walls.

At this point, you’ll also be looking for any damage you may need to repair, like rust, broken windows, frame wear or leaks. Take note and fix any obvious signs of damage.

Before moving on to building out the interior floor plan, inspect the exterior as well to ensure everything is in working order. Replace any lights and signage and freshen seals as needed. Also, consider what your rooftop will require. 

For example, you’ll need several solar panels if you plan on mostly boondocking. If you can’t stand the yellow of the bus, you can paint the exterior too, though that’s not something you need to do immediately.

4. Pick a skoolie floor plan

At this point, you probably already have a good idea of how you want your new home on wheels laid out. And if not, now is the time to start. You don’t want to start laying down subfloors and putting in the wall and ceiling installation until you have your floor plan figured out, as you’ll need to run wiring and pipes throughout.

The standard floor plan is a bedroom in the back, a bathroom in the middle and a combined kitchen and living area in the front. However, you could build the bathroom or maybe a workstation in the back. Choose a layout that fits your needs. For example, if you’re not the type to lounge around indoors, you might not need a living area with a couch at all.

 Skoolie floor plan inspiration

5. Skoolie installation

Once you have a solid floor plan, you can begin to build a subfloor, frame in the walls and rough in plumbing, water tanks, propane and electricity. Don’t forget that you’ll also need to add vents for airflow. Then, if all goes well, you can move on to constructing cabinetry, bed frames and seating areas.

Finally, with all of your immovable builds in, you can finish installing plumbing, propane and wiring connections before closing up the walls and ceiling. With that last step done, your bus is beginning to look like a real skoolie.

Next, you can start adding surfaces to your skoolie’s interior with counters, cabinet doors, shower tiling and wall color. Appliances and flooring can go in soon after. Lastly, just add your finishing touches on decor, curtains, cushions and so on. 

While this step list might sound relatively short, it’s certainly simplified to give a rough idea of the skoolie buildout process. You can expect to spend at least six months of time, blood, sweat and tears working on a skoolie conversion.

Getting your skoolie on the road

Once your skoolie is complete and starting to feel like home, there are a few other things to take care of before hitting the road. Like any other type of vehicle, there are laws about insuring and registering a skoolie. In most states, a skoolie is classified as a recreational vehicle.

Skoolie license and registration

To drive your skoolie, you’ll need to be licensed and have the vehicle registered. The laws on these requirements vary from state to state. 

Typically, the licensing requirements differ between those who drive school buses for a profession and those driving for personal use. While school buses are typically considered commercial vehicles, this is only the case for buses driven by employed drivers. A CDL is not required for the personal use of a school bus in most states, meaning a standard passenger license is just fine. However, some states do require a CDL depending on the length and weight of the bus.

Registration laws also vary from state to state. Prior to registering, you’ll need to get your skoolie inspected. Some states require a standard vehicle inspection, while others require that multiple agencies check particular parts of the skoolie, such as the motor, cooking appliances and waste plumbing.

Regardless, the inspection needs to be completed by a certified inspector, and not all vehicle inspection sites will work on skoolies. If the inspection site does not also certify weights, you’ll need to go elsewhere to get this complete before moving on to registration.

As for registration, this process is pretty similar to that of a car. You’ll need the following items:

  • Title
  • Bill of sale or purchase agreement
  • Certified weight certification
  • Photos of the bus 
  • The appropriate completed registration forms

Lastly, you’ll need to pay taxes and registration fees. Once cleared, you’ll receive your registration sticker and license plates in the mail. The inspection and registration will need to be renewed every year.

Skoolie insurance

Throughout the process of purchasing and renovating a skoolie, you’ll need two types of insurance. You’ll start with commercial vehicle insurance, which covers you from driving it home and through the renovation process. After the conversion is complete, you’ll need to switch your insurance to an RV policy. If you have a second vehicle you’re taking on the road, consider bundling your coverage for greater savings.

School bus conversion ideas

Ready to get started on your skoolie conversion? Take a peek at these stunning school bus conversions to get ideas on what you can incorporate into your floor plan and designs.

 Skoolie bus conversion ideas

Instagram is a great place to look for more inspiration. Search #skoolie to find endless people like you who have a dream of nomad life and living tiny. 

If the tiny home movement has caught your attention, a school bus conversion is a unique way to join in. While the buildout is exciting, don’t gloss over what your home state requires to comply with regulations, like RV insurance. The process requires some handiness and hard work, but once complete, you’ll be on the road enjoying the minimalist nomad lifestyle for years to come.

 A Beginner's Guide to Skoolies infographic
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