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Cheap School Bus Conversion (4 Buslifers Share Money Saving Tips)

Cheap School Bus Conversion (4 Buslifers Share Money Saving Tips)

Are you looking for a cheap school bus conversion or ways to save big bucks on your current skoolie build? While converting a school bus is generally much cheaper than converting a van or purchasing a manufactured RV, the costs can still add up.

You can certainly spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a school bus conversion if you want to, but there are also many ways to be frugal and make your money go a long way. Plus, the less money you spend on your school bus conversion, the more money you have to spend on actually adventuring later!

In this article, a few of my fellow skoolie owners and I will share our tips for cheap school bus conversions and specific ways that we saved money, plus some resources to check out to help you score some deals.

4 skoolie owners share their cheap school bus conversion tips:

Dylan and Angelica’s School Bus Conversion Tips

First I talked with Dylan and Angelica of @poppy_the_skoolie about their experience building a school bus conversion and ways that they saved money. Here’s what they had to share:

What are the most significant ways you saved money on your school bus conversion?

“Dumpster dive at construction sites for scrap wood. And clearance sections everywhere we went! We also utilized Habitat for Humanity stores! Also utilized the marketplace on Facebook.”

What advice do you have for first time skoolie builders looking to do an affordable conversion?

“Always look at the next step ahead! And have your planning done long before you start. It’s very easy to waste money purchasing items that you may not use in the end.”

Do you have any favorite resources/websites/marketplaces that helped you source discounted items?

“Facebook Marketplace, and a ton of hours going through other skoolies’ Instagrams for ideas.”

Joe and Holly’s Affordable Skoolie Build Advice

Joe and Holly Whiting of @a_bus_named_sandy also generously shared their money-saving tips with us:

What are the most significant ways you saved money on your conversion?

“Instead of a $1,000 composting toilet we made our own with a bucket and a 3D-printed urine diverter. We sourced our lithium iron phosphate batteries direct from China for less than half what others pay for the big name batteries. We used lots of reclaimed wood from old tobacco barns.

It’s a lot of work to sand and clean up old wood, but it’s so worth it. We only hired out what we absolutely could not do ourselves. If we didn’t know how to do something – and we didn’t know how to do anything – we went to YouTube university to find out how.”

What advice do you have for first time skoolie builders looking to do an affordable conversion?

“Much of what you do and build, you will do and build twice. (Ask me how I know.) Don’t try to get everything perfect before you move in. You will discover what you need, and don’t need, only after living in the bus for a little while.”

Do you have any favorite resources/websites/marketplaces that helped you source discounted items?

“JohnnyCompost on Etsy makes 3D-printed urine diverters and toilet venting solutions. Shun Bin (on Amazon) has lifepo4 batteries for a lot less. In addition to websites, make personal connections. Make phone calls. Get to know local tradesmen who can help you. Call local businesses who may be getting rid of pallets or other scrap wood.” 

Chelsea and Sawyer’s Money Saving Skoolie Build Tips

I also got the scoop from Chelsea and Sawyer with @thetravelerbus on ways to save money on a skoolie build. Here’s what they shared:

What are the most significant ways you saved money on your conversion?

“We saved money on our conversion by always checking for sales or discounts, both online and in-store. Most stores offer price matching so that was super helpful in saving money. Thrift stores/flea markets are awesome places to find secondhand items at an inexpensive price. Also RV salvages can have some hidden gems such as water tanks, awnings, ovens, etc.!”

What advice do you have for first time skoolie builders looking to do an affordable conversion?

“Our advice for any new skoolie builders looking for an affordable conversion is to remember that not everything has to be brand new and expensive for things to work and look nice. In addition, don’t be afraid to ask questions! For example, ask the big box store if they have extra wooden crates from a shipment.

They’re great for a reclaimed wood wall, or any other design you’d want, and they’re usually free! Additionally, tools are your best friend in a school bus conversion. Investing in a good saw or a good drill can save you from having to buy more wood or screws because your tools aren’t keeping up with your awesome conversion skills!”

Do you have any favorite resources/websites/marketplaces that helped you source discounted items?

“The first step of a skoolie conversion is, of course, the school bus. They can be pretty expensive to purchase, so we always recommend! It’s a government website where they auction off government-owned items, such as school buses! We got ours super cheap but it could’ve been way less if no one else was bidding.”

My Own Advice For Doing A School Bus Conversion on the Cheap

I will also answer the same questions that I asked my fellow skoolie owners to share what I learned in the process of converting our 22-foot bus (@stu.the.bus).

What are the most significant ways you saved money on your conversion?

We saved as much money as we could by doing tons of research ahead of time and trying to think through each step of the build before we did it to avoid any dumb mistakes that would cause us to have to buy additional materials. We weren’t 100% successful with this, but it certainly helped.

Also, we were able to save a bunch of money with the support of both of our parents – mine allowed us to live with them for four months during the build/while we were still working our full-time jobs which saved us about $6k in rent and utilities and allowed us to put that money towards the conversion.

Aaron’s parents allowed us to store and work on the bus at their home, spend many nights there ourselves, and have access to Aaron’s dad’s workshop full of tools, wood pieces, and miscellanea that would have otherwise added up fast. Plus, my mom sewed our custom curtains and couch cushion covers, and Aaron’s dad contributed his construction experience and countless hours of labor.

Beyond that, we bought a lot of stuff on Amazon for much cheaper than it would’ve been if we had bought higher end/fancier stuff. For example, we used miniature dock cleats from Amazon for all of our cabinet/drawer handles, which cost maybe a fifth of the price of buying actual cabinet hardware from a hardware store. Plus they look cute!

We did a lot of shopping around to find the cheapest-but-still-functional version of most of the things that we needed, although we did splurge on a few things, like our $1,000 Nature’s Head composting toilet (worth it, in our opinion, but as you can see above there are certainly cheaper options available).

We considered trying to salvage things from reuse stores, free stuff on Craigslist/Facebook, etc. but for us it was more worth it to just buy things when compared to the time that we would have spent searching for cheaper/free stuff.

All in, we only spent about $13k including the cost of the bus itself and the conversion, so we feel like we did pretty dang good with budgeting.

We had some savings beforehand, still worked full-time for 6 out of the 8 months of our build, and sold our cars just before we hit the road (netting us $15k) so although of course we tried to be frugal, we were willing to pay a bit more for things for convenience and expediency’s sake.

What advice do you have for first time skoolie builders looking to do an affordable conversion?

First of all, just know that it’s totally possible to build a skoolie on a budget. We paid about $6k for our short bus, but bigger buses usually go for cheaper – sometimes only $1-2k. Of course then you will likely spend more on materials for the conversion and fuel once you hit the road, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Also, try to inspect prospective buses thoroughly for rust before you purchase one – I’ve heard it can be an expensive PITA to do rust remediation and might be worth paying a little more for a rust-free bus.

Beyond that, don’t feel pressure to create an Instagram-perfect “boho farmhouse” bus interior. If that’s your thing, obviously go for it, but otherwise there’s no reason to spend outrageous amounts of money on a farmhouse sink, subway tile, and tongue-and-groove ceilings. 

There are also a lot of school bus conversion resources on the internet that say you HAVE to do certain things which are, in my opinion anyways, wastes of money. For instance, many websites will say to tear your bus all the way down to the bare metal, build a sub-floor, spend thousands on insulation, and reseal all of your windows. 

We did none of that, and we have been just fine for 3.5 years in our bus. If you are keeping any of the original school bus windows, it’s an exercise in futility to go crazy with insulation, since all your hot/cold air will just seep out through the non-airtight, single-pane windows or through the giant windshield, etc. etc.

If time isn’t a concern, look for free/cheap items that you can repurpose into bus components. You’d be amazed at the things you can find if you take the time to search.

Also, I do recommend occasionally spending more money upfront to purchase quality items, rather than having to replace things over and over again. For example, we are on our third fridge in three years, and at this point we could have almost purchased the fancy 12V $1,000 fridge that we decided was too expensive but that probably would have lasted more than one year.

We also bought cheap AGM house batteries and already need to replace them soon because we didn’t want to shell out several grand for lithium batteries upfront.

It’s also really hard to know exactly what you want in your skoolie before having actually lived in it, so build some money into the budget for renovations and changes along the way. And, if you’ve never done any construction before (and, honestly, even if you have), factor in some extra cash for mistakes and redos. 

Finally, if you don’t have an arsenal of power tools at your disposal, consider renting tools. Many hardware stores will rent out tools, which, depending on how long you need them for, can be significantly cheaper than purchasing everything. This can be especially useful for specialized tools that you only need for one small project. Alternatively, look for cheap used tools on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, etc.

Do you have any favorite resources/websites/marketplaces that helped you source discounted items?

Amazon is where we bought the majority of things to outfit the interior of the bus, because it was much cheaper than shopping at Home Goods or similar stores. Other than that, we just shopped at Home Depot and Lowe’s for the most part. So, while I’ve heard good things about Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for sourcing bus conversion materials, I haven’t personally used them.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, the best ways to do a cheap skoolie conversion are to plan carefully, shop around for deals online, and decide when it’s worth it to fork out the money for quality components.

If I was to do another skoolie conversion, there are some things that I would spend more money on at the start to avoid having to maintain and replace them later on, and I would likely take a bit more time to search for repurposable/used components online rather than buying everything new.


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