Converting a skoolie can be a daunting process, but after building a bus of my own and talking to hundreds of other bus and van dwellers on the road, I’ve compiled a list of the most common mistakes that people make, and why and how to avoid them.
1. Not Doing Research/Buying the First Bus You See
Once you make the decision to convert a bus, the excitement to buy one and get started is overwhelming. As with buying a vehicle of any kind, it’s important to do your research and maintain a level head to be sure that you get the best possible foundation for your build. If you find a great bargain on a bus only to have it break down immediately and require expensive repairs, it’s not really a bargain.
My boyfriend Aaron and I almost fell victim to this, getting so excited when we went to the tour the first potential bus we found, and then being desolate for a few days when we realized we couldn’t overlook the black smoke billowing from the exhaust and the sleazy salesman telling us that the smoke is normal for a diesel engine.
It was an emotional roller coaster every time we thought we found The One, only to have some critical issue become apparent.
Along with not buying the first bus you see, doing research on the engine and transmission type is super important. We didn’t really know anything about engines and particularly not about diesel engines, and we ended up with a 6.0L engine in our Ford E450 van-front bus, when the 7.5L engine is more desirable and less prone to issues.
Our 6.0 has been a champ for the most part, although we have had to get some repairs done that might have been avoided had we kept searching and chosen a similar bus with the 7.5L engine.
Other things to research or at least investigate on your potential bus include the tires (how new they are – how big they are obviously changes how much they cost to replace, up to around $500 per tire for larger buses), the maintenance history (such as how often the bus had oil changes, whether all parts are stock or have been replaced, etc.), and whether the bus has been in any accidents.
Finally, be sure that you choose a bus that meets your needs. For instance, if you are 6’5” don’t buy a bus that has 6-foot ceilings unless you are planning to do a roof raise. Make a list of non-negotiable items as you shop for a bus, and stick to that list.
You will be much happier in the long run, even if you have to wait a little bit longer to find your perfect bus as opposed to compromising your comfort to get started faster.
2. Not Removing Rust
If you do not check for rust and remove any that you find before you start with the build, it will be a very expensive and heartbreaking mistake. To remove rust after the bus is fully converted, you might end up having to basically demo all the work you’ve done and rebuild it, but only after you’ve spent hours removing rust and sealing against more.
We have some friends in Australia who bought a Kombi van to convert into a weekend excursion rig, and their van has been in the shop for nearly a year for professional rust removal and sealing. Fortunately they found the rust before they started building anything out, but it’s still a huge delay in their conversion process.
Another vandwelling couple that we follow found rust after quite some time on the road, and they had to rip out the entire floor, remove the rust, seal the metal, and replace the floor, all while trying to avoid damaging the rest of their construction.
Consider the region where you are buying the bus and if the climate there makes vehicles prone to rust. Inspect the bus as thoroughly as you can before buying it to see if there is rust hidden away.
3. Not Preparing For Condensation
If you plan to take your skoolie to cold places, you will need to think seriously about how you’re going to deal with condensation. When the weather is cold and/or damp, your warm breath in the bus will result in condensation that forms on windows, the ceiling, and basically any non-porous surface. Using any type of heater other than wood-burning will also produce some condensation.
Usually for us, keeping a window cracked at night even when it’s cold is enough to keep the condensation at a manageable level. However, we spent about a month and a half in Seattle in the dead of winter, during which time it rained essentially every day.
We kept a window cracked around the clock and hung a DampRid bag in the bus to help capture excess moisture in the air. Unfortunately, at the end of our time in Seattle, we were cleaning the bed area and flipped the mattress to discover black mold growing on the bottom of it.
So, we had to buy a new mattress, and we invested in some Hypervent Aire-Flow mattress underlay which provides constant airflow under and around the mattress, preventing any more moisture and mold problems.
We have seen YouTube videos of van and bus dwellers who have water dripping off the ceiling and pooling on the floor because they did not take steps to avoid condensation. The humidity will probably change drastically depending on where you are, so it’s a good idea to protect important documents, books, papers, etc. in a water- and air-tight package while you are traveling.
A ceiling vent fan can also keep air moving and help fight moisture.
4. Skimping On Wiring And/Or Fan
Speaking of vent fans, we sure wish we had one. This is probably our biggest regret. We chose not to remove the stock ceiling of the bus because it was in great condition, there were a million screws holding it on, and Aaron can barely stand up straight in the bus as it is, so we didn’t want to use any vertical space by insulating the floor or replacing the ceiling.
This means that we were not able to wire in lights to the ceiling, so we started with battery-powered puck lights, which we soon realized were not sufficient. We upgraded to string of LED fairy lights, which are wonderful and ambient, but not quite bright enough to read a book.
With the combination of the fairy lights and the puck lights, we have enough light to do almost anything at night, but it would have been much cleaner and nicer to have lights embedded in the ceiling.
In this same vein, we did not put in a ceiling vent fan. We debated, but ended up not getting around to installing one before we hit the road. We added the rooftop deck on the back half of the bus, and then we added solar panels to the front half, without leaving any room for a fan.
So now, if we want to install one, we will have to either change around our solar panel rack and move the panels further apart, or we will have to cut a hole in our deck, reducing the hangout space dramatically. All of this to say, be sure to put in a ceiling vent fan. In both hot and cold weather, it will make your skoolie drastically more comfortable to be in for long periods of time.
5. Adding Too Much Weight to the Bus
It’s easy to get carried away with conversion plans and not take into consideration how much everything will weigh. To keep your vehicle weight in check, I recommend starting by getting your bus weighed after you strip everything out so you have a starting weight, and checking the axle and tire weight ratings on your vehicle.
When you are designing your layout, keep in mind that you want to have a balanced load, so for example, don’t put all your water tanks on one side of the bus without having something equally heavy on the other side. On the flip side, don’t forget the weight of your water tanks will vary with the fullness of the tank.
We saw a couple on Instagram who caused a comment storm by installing something like 250 gallons of freshwater storage at the very back end of the bus underneath their bed. One gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds, so that’s around 2,000 pounds of water, cantilevered out behind the rear axle.
They claimed to have done the math and that it would be fine, but in my mind it would be wiser to put such a huge weight directly over the axle, or to simply have less water onboard. I’ve also heard stories about a beautifully built out bus that, after conversion, weighs in at 36 tons, and they can only go about 4 mph up hills, if they make it at all.
One final example of overweighting a vehicle is some friends of ours who were living in a van, but had so much weight on the rear axle (they didn’t have duallies) that the axle actually bent and the tires slanted in towards the center of the van at the top, resulting in an expensive breakdown and repair.
Check your weight ratings, distribute weight wisely, and be practical about the weight of all your construction components. Additionally, be sure to keep in mind how much power your engine has, to ensure that you can still actually drive the bus around after you’ve converted it.
6. Construction Mistakes
Unless you are a master builder (and honestly, probably even then), you are going to make mistakes during the construction process. This is a frustrating waste of time, energy, materials, and money, so double check everything! Fortunately, Aaron’s dad worked in construction for 30 years, so he helped us avoid a lot of rookie mistakes, although we still had a few “duh” moments.
For instance, we built some handy storage into the back of our couch where our tables are stored, and it worked great until we added the shelf over the windows. We went to lift out one of the table tops from the back of the couch and it bonked right into the shelf, without enough room to fully remove it. Whoops.
Luckily we were able to make a slight adjustment to the back of the couch, so we didn’t waste anything major in terms of materials or time.
There were some techniques that helped us avoid more stupid mistakes like that. For instance, we taped out our layout with painters tape once we had removed all the seats and the wheelchair lift.
This allowed us to walk around in the space and visualize more clearly how much room everything would take up, and whether we would be able to maneuver around inside the bus. We also talked things out before making any major moves, and between Aaron, his dad, and myself, we usually found any glaring errors before we made them. And, as with any type of construction, we measured twice (or more) and cut once.
7. Not Asking For Help
Rather than struggle through some part of your skoolie conversion that you have no idea about, ask for help. You never know who might have some unknown talent that will help you out immensely. As I mentioned before, Aaron’s dad helped us out a lot with the construction.
He also had a giant shop with essentially all the tools we needed to do the conversion. My mom helped us out with custom blackout curtains and beautifully upholstered couch cushions. One of our friends had just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and he was able to help us with installing our electrical system safely.
There are also tons of resources online, from skoolie conversion groups on Facebook to other buslifers on Instagram to instructional materials and ebooks. We messaged several people on Instagram and they were generously willing to answer our questions, so we try to pass along the favor by answering questions that we get now.
8. Not Being Realistic With Finances
I’ve heard a few heartrending stories of people who buy a bus and start the conversion, only to be thwarted by a tough financial situation and be forced to sell the bus and abandon their dreams of traveling. I feel for these people and I know the soul-crushing menace of a huge unexpected expense.
My parents instilled a very strong sense of financial responsibility in me from a young age, so Aaron and I were very thorough when we considered buying a bus, as we analyzed our financial situation, made calculations, and set a budget for ourselves.
I can’t say enough to plan for expensive vehicle repairs. The stress of having a vehicle breakdown is hard enough on its own, and there’s no worse way to compound this stress than by not having the money to pay for the tow and/or repair. Keeping a cushion of emergency money helps me maintain peace of mind while we’re traveling.
Plus, if you don’t have to spend that money it’s a happy surprise!
9. Bringing Too Much Stuff
This goes hand in hand with overloading the bus with weight, but I want to highlight this specifically. Everything in our bus has a specific purpose or use and a designated place where it’s stored. This helps maintain sanity in such a small space, and it has massively simplified our lives in the best way. We lived in a small house before we moved into the bus, but somehow we still had a ton of stuff.
We donated multiple carloads to Goodwill, sold what we could, and only kept the absolute essentials. Additionally, we periodically do sweeps of the bus to get rid of things we have accumulated or don’t use often enough to be considered useful.
We have toured some buses that are extremely cluttered and have stuff everywhere. Even in bigger buses, this makes them feel (in my opinion) much smaller and more cramped than our 22-foot bus.
There is nothing more obnoxious than having to move piles of stuff around every time you want to access certain parts of the bus or having to spend hours securing all of your things before you can drive.
Having a few high quality items will serve you much better than having heaps and heaps of useless things, and it will allow you more space in your tiny home and keep your bus light and agile (well, as light and agile as a bus can be).
10. Having A Bad Attitude
This might seem like a weird item to include on a list of common mistakes, but it bears mentioning. When Aaron and I were in the process of our conversion, we watched a YouTube video of a couple who converted a van. The girl could stand up inside but the guy was pretty tall and couldn’t stand, and hit his head on the cabinets regularly.
They also had severe condensation issues so everything in their van was wet, and they basically just spent the video complaining about how hard vanlife was and it wasn’t all it’s hyped up to be on social media.
Even though we hadn’t hit the road yet, Aaron and I scoffed at their horrible attitudes. If your van isn’t comfortable, sell it and get a new one (or do your research as I mentioned earlier in this list). If you have condensation issues, make some changes. If you can’t find a good camping spot, just move on.
After more than a year on the road, Aaron and I still talk about this video frequently, essentially as a reminder that if we don’t like something we can change it. Having a bad attitude and complaining won’t get us anywhere.
As dramatic as it sounds, there are times in buslife where all you have to depend on is yourselves. If something goes wrong and you don’t have cell service and can’t ask for help, you have to suck it up and do what you can to fix the problem. There’s no time for a bad attitude, and you will have a much better experience if you don’t play the victim every time something goes wrong.
Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!