There are a lot of steps in a bus conversion journey from finding the school bus to building the skoolie. However, the skoolie journey looks different for everyone and, for some of you, that may mean hiring a custom skoolie builder.
Working with a builder can be an exciting process… or it can be a devastating one. It strongly depends on the builder you choose. There is no shortage of horror stories out there of jobs gone wrong. This is in no way the customers fault but here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from the same fate.
Our 8 point due diligence checklist for hiring a custom skoolie builder:
1. Check the Reviews
When I’m looking to purchase something online one of the first things that I look at are the reviews. I’ll look for things within the reviews to make sure that the item that I’m wanting to purchase is as advertised, a fair price, is of good quality, etc.
I also make sure to take a look at the number of reviews. 300 fours stars is far more telling than 1 five-star. When you’re looking for a skoolie builder you should go through the same process.
Read through their reviews, look at the responses from owners (if any) and get a good understanding of how others view the skoolie builder. It should be noted that no reviews is not necessarily a bad thing, but can be a red flag if there are not any platforms where a previous client can leave a review.
While customers can go on to sites like the Better Business Bureau and leave a review or comment without the business being published, it is not the case on platforms like Google. Business owners have to choose to make a Google Business Profile which allows people to leave reviews.
There’s a chance that if they have a slew of negative reviews, they will choose to not publish a profile.
2. Read the Reviews
This is similar to number one, but it’s worthy of having its own bullet point. In the same way that unhappy customers want to rave about their negative experience, happy customers want to rave about their positive experience.
A number of just five-star reviews is great, but you should pay close attention to the reviews that leave a statement with them. Unfortunately, it is possible for those that have had no experience with the company (i.e., friends or family members) to leave reviews.
This is why when you’re looking over the reviews you want to search for reviews that include text.
3. Google the Business
This should be done regardless of whether or not you can find reviews, but especially if you can’t.
When there are a lack of options for upset customers to voice their opinion through normal means (i.e. Google), these past clients, rightfully, make use of platforms like YouTube, Skoolie.net, Ripoff Report, Tumblr, and even Reddit to share their story.
During your search, you can also find positive and affirming articles. Sometimes, experienced builders will be asked to guest post or make a guest appearance on popular YouTube/podcast channels like Tiny House Lifestyle. Reading through or listening to these sources will give you a better picture of the custom skoolie builder.
4. Look for Operating Manuals
When you buy a bottle of soap there’s instructions on how to use it. When you buy an air fryer there’s an operating manual. When you buy a car there’s a maintenance manual. Why should a bus conversion be any different?
You are receiving a product that you a.) did not build yourself so you b.) probably don’t know how to use it. Even if you’ve owned an RV in the past and are familiar with some systems you should still ask for an operating manual.
Not only is it a great resource for you but, in my opinion, it shows a great level of professionalism for the builder. Yes, walkthroughs of the system are great but, let’s be honest, no one remembers everything.
An operating manual should be issued to include a wiring diagram, a plumbing diagram, operating procedures, and (if you want to get real fancy) a maintenance chart detailing how often, and what, maintenance should be performed.
5. Look for Third Party Certification
Skoolies, while not necessarily new, have grown in popularity. Still, and this may come as a shock, but there are no building codes that are required to be met when building a school bus conversion. At Phoenix Skool Buses, we work with NOAH.
NOAH, and other companies like them, have formed a business around creating building codes that take into consideration the RVIA and NFPA. School bus conversion and tiny home building companies do have to pay for this service, but using this service ensures that the skoolie is built to a code.
School bus conversion companies that use this service will undergo rigorous inspections with NOAH via virtual means. All inspections are documented and recorded by NOAH.
6. Find Skoolie Builders that Just Say No
One of the best parts of living the skoolie life is that these vehicles are completely customizable – there are almost endless possibilities to what can be installed. Almost. I have seen some crazy additions to bus conversions and our company has even implemented some crazy ideas to skoolies (hello, jacuzzi tub).
However, there are limitations as to what can be done in a school bus conversion, and it’s important that your custom skoolie builder knows what their (and their companies) limitations are. No one likes to hear the word no, but it’s a necessary statement.
Your builder should know more about building buses than you so, to me, it’s a red flag if a builder can promise you everything you could ever want with no compromises.
7. Verify Payment Terms
It’s unlikely that you’ll find a skoolie builder that is willing to build a school bus conversion without a payment up front. Deposits and monthly payments ensure that you are committed to purchasing the vehicle and the bus conversion company won’t end up with a completed bus with no one to hand it off to.
However, the builder shouldn’t require more than 50% (if that much) up front. There are risks associated with paying for more than half the project up front, so be sure to truly vet the company beforehand if this is the option presented to you.
8. Detailed Contract Available?
Like with all large projects, a hefty contract should be available to you. The contract should detail the project dates, the payment dates, the warranty, and the expectations of both the builder and the owner of the project.
Be sure to review this contract carefully, as it can also dictate the company’s stance on late fees, missed payments, and even whether or not credit cards are able to be used.
If the contract that is given is short, be sure to ask many questions beforehand about items you don’t see dictated in the contract. Communication about this information should be in written form to reference later, if need be.
If you’re presented with a contract that is long, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or hop on a call with the builder to answer any questions that you have. A reputable custom skoolie builder will make time to ensure that you are comfortable with what you are signing.
My Closing Thoughts on Hiring a Custom Skoolie Builder
It’s unfortunate that when looking for a reputable builder you almost have to act as a private eye, but think of it this way: if you were looking to get a custom sticks and bricks home built (another large investment) what steps would you take? Would you take the first bid that was offered to you?
Would you take the lowest bid? Would you work with the contractor that promised they could build everything you ever dreamed of? Transitioning into skoolie life is such an exciting venture but don’t let that excitement overwhelm you.
Make sure before you hand over your hard-earned cash that you explore all of your options and fully vet your skoolie builder.
(featured image: Neels & Sammie @acestravelingplaces)
Sabrina Bosserman is a former mechanic in the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program. She is the co-owner and operator of Phoenix Skool Buses, a tiny home building company. She’s been to over 20 different countries, and uses those experiences to breathe life into the skoolies that Phoenix Skool Buses build; from the layout to the decor. She has been featured on multiple podcasts as well as tiny house platforms such as Tiny Living and Tiny Home Tours. She was also a guest speaker at the Great American Tiny House Show. She is currently obtaining her MBA and loves to spend her down-time with a good book.