The cost of converting a school bus varies dramatically, based on factors like the size and year of your bus, whether you choose to DIY or hire a company to convert it for you, and what amenities you decide to include in your bus. In this article, I will share the detailed breakdown of the cost for the conversion of my boyfriend’s and my 22-foot short bus, and we’ll also take a look at the conversion costs of a couple of our friends’ larger buses.
Finally, I’ll share some tips and ways to save money that we have discovered through our own conversion and learned from friends that we’ve met on the road.
Total Cost of Our 22-foot Bus Conversion: $13,000
This cost includes everything we needed to be road-ready, including the cost of the bus itself and conversion materials. Allow me to break it down.
Cost of the Bus: $5,250 + $584 in sales tax = $5,834
We bought Stu (our bus) on Craigslist in Washington. The seller originally had it listed for $6,000 and although we loved the bus immediately, we had set a budget for ourselves of $5,000 for the bus itself, not including tax. So, I sent the seller a counteroffer of $5,000, hoping that he would be willing to haggle. He came back with $5,500 and I sent my final offer of $5,250 which he fortunately agreed to. We withdrew our cash the next day and drove up after work to make the purchase.
The day after we bought the bus, I went to the DMV to file the sale paperwork and pay the sales tax. I opted to not register the bus at that time since we wouldn’t be driving it around for several months until the conversion was complete.
Parking Space, Workshop, Construction Labor, and Tools: $0
We were extremely fortunate in this department, as my boyfriend Aaron’s parents graciously allowed us to park the bus and do all the conversion work at their home south of Seattle.
We lived in a tiny one-bedroom house near downtown Seattle that had no yard whatsoever and it was a daily challenge just to park both of our small cars at the house, so there was no way we could have done the conversion there without racking up an enormous ticket and pissing off all the neighbors.
Conveniently for us, Aaron’s parents’ house is on a large lot and they have a massive shop where his dad, who worked in construction for 30 years, stores all of his tools. Even more fortuitously, they had a Stu-shaped gravel pad next to the shop, so that Stu could be tucked away out of sight from the main house.
We are eternally grateful that they allowed us to work here, and that Aaron’s dad volunteered his time and construction expertise to help us turn our chicken-scratch layout drawings into a fully functional tiny home on wheels.
Aaron, his dad, and I did all the work ourselves, with cameo appearances from our friend who had just completed an electrical engineering degree (he helped us install the electrical system in a safe and logical fashion) and my mom, who sewed all of our curtains and couch cushion covers.
We may have bought a few small tools (special drill bits, etc.), but Aaron’s dad has an air compressor that powered all the major tools we used for gutting and building (angle grinder, circular sander, nail gun, etc.), plus all kinds of useful saws: table, hack, jig, and so forth. Aaron owned some tools as well, so we had drills, screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers covered.
Although this category didn’t factor in as a cost for us, I’ve included it in the breakdown because unless you have a construction expert dad who has a shop, all the tools, and a parking space for your bus, you will most likely end up needing to factor these things into your budget plans.
Hardware Store Costs: about $2,000
Just go ahead and sign up for your local hardware store rewards program now, because you will make roughly one million trips there. At least, we did! This category, predictably, includes all the hardware and lumber we used to actually build out the inside of the bus plus the rooftop deck and solar panel mounting beams, hundreds of screws and nails, various brackets, and so forth.
We bought our chest freezer that is now our fridge here as well, for $200 versus roughly $800 for a Dometic or ARB fridge.
It also includes things like paint, which I feel deserves its own note here. We primed the construction inside of the bus with KILZ to prevent stains, moisture marks, and mildew (highly recommend), and then painted it with normal household paint. For the outside of the bus, we considered getting it professionally painted, but heard from a friend who was converting a similarly sized vehicle that his white coat of paint cost $1,000.
We decided that was an expense we didn’t need, so we considered other options. Aaron’s dad had also worked at an auto body shop in the past (how convenient, right?) and he had a paint sprayer that could be used with compressed air, but the complications and expenses of the getting the right paint, diluting it properly, etc. seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
So, this left us with the option of spray painting the exterior, which after a few failed trial runs, we did successfully with 17 cans of Walmart camo spray paint that cost about $3 each. The paint has held up surprisingly well after a year on the road, and we can touch it up anytime with a spray can we keep on board.
Amazon Costs: about $4,000
As you undoubtedly know, you can purchase almost anything on Amazon. We got most of our other interior components here, including things like our sink setup (sink basin, faucet, water tank, water pump, water heater, water inlet hatch),
Nature’s Head composting toilet ($960 on its own but SO worth it), electrical system (batteries, inverter, solar panels, charge controller, etc.), awning, couch cushion foam, drawer locking system, telescoping ladder to access the deck, etc. We took advantage of free shipping whenever possible.
Decorating and Organizing Costs: about $1,000
This category is pretty self-explanatory, but it includes things like tubs and bins to keep all of our stuff in one place while we are driving, wall-hanging organizers for the bathroom which adds lots of storage, and all of our fabric costs for the custom blackout curtains and couch cushion covers that my mom was kind enough to sew for us.
Other Costs After Being on the Road for One Year: $6,700
Once the conversion is done, unfortunately the expenditures don’t stop. Some are ongoing, and some are (hopefully) one-time repair costs, but here is what we have spent on the bus since we’ve left Seattle…
Registration: $225 annually
This will obviously depend on what state you are registered in, and the details of your vehicle. When we registered ours the first time, we also reclassified it as an RV, which in our state, made it easier to get RV insurance and eliminated the chance that we could be charged with DUIs if we chose to have an adult beverage when the bus was parked for the night–even if the car is turned off and the keys are not in the ignition, you can still get a DUI if you are drinking in a parked car.
We didn’t want to take any chances. All we had to do to achieve this was get our bus officially weighed, which we did at a local gravel quarry for $20.
Bus Insurance: $766 annually
We have our bus insured through National General. They were one of the only insurance companies in our area that would cover DIY bus conversions. We worked with an insurance agent to find this coverage and although it is not comprehensive, it’s better than nothing and means we can legally drive the bus.
Renter’s Insurance: $120 annually
Since our bus insurance isn’t comprehensive, our insurance agent recommended that we take out a renter’s insurance policy as well, which covers all of our possessions in the bus, in case of natural disaster or theft. We use my parents’ house as our permanent address and have the renter’s insurance policy based at their house as well.
Good Sam’s Club: $30 annually
AAA doesn’t accept self-converted school buses, at least in Washington. I have met some people on the road who have had better luck getting AAA coverage, but we ended up going with Good Sam’s Club because they allegedly didn’t have any issues with self-conversions, although the one and only time we have called them for some help (we got stuck in a riverbed in Montana, long story), they tried to claim that we weren’t eligible for coverage.
Luckily we were rescued by a local, and I had a few choice words for the Good Sam’s Club representative the next day. They have since assured me that we are, in fact, covered.
Tires: about $200 to date
The tires on the bus were in pretty good condition when we bought it, but we did purchase a spare tire and rim just in case, which was about $120 because dually rims are expensive. After about 9 months on the road, we bought two replacement tires, and rotated in the spare tire, as our back tires were starting to wear down.
Fortunately, with our bus, we can just get standard light truck tires, and so far we have purchased gently used tires to help mitigate the cost. Larger bus tires can run about $400 a pop, which is one of the many reasons we opted to go with a small van-front bus.
Maintenance and Repairs: about $5,400 to date
We drove almost 18,000 miles in our first year on the road, so needless to say, we got several oil changes along the way. Our diesel engine takes 15 quarts of oil, so these run about $100 per change. We also had to get our brake pads replaced, which is evidently a far more complicated process on a bus than a car, and that cost us about $200.
Our biggest repairs on the road include a $700 trip to the shop in Bend, Oregon when we discovered that our turbo wasn’t working like it should because of some faulty sensors. We thought that was bad, but then in Las Vegas, Nevada, we basically lost all power and the bus was shuddering horribly. It pains me to even think about this, but we had a $4,000 repair bill that time because they had to replace all eight of our fuel injectors.
This repair also entailed two nights spent in a seedy hotel while Stu was suspended in the air inside the shop–the only time we have paid for lodging since we left Seattle.
Of course, I haven’t included the cost of living items in this list, like diesel, food, toiletries, and so forth. Fortunately, if we are running low on money for the moment, we can simply not drive the bus until we make some money, temporarily eliminating the need to buy diesel.
How Did We Pay for This?
Some people have elaborate multi-year financial plans to make bus life happen, but we were far too impatient for that. We did some back-of-the-napkin math and figured we could launch within about 9 months after we purchased a bus if we were frugal with the conversion costs.
Aaron and I were both fortunate enough to graduate from college with no student debt, and I lived with my parents for a year after I graduated while working full-time, so I had a nest egg (or bus egg, rather) of $12K squirreled away at the time we bought the bus.
I purchased a new car in 2014, so that was my only debt, but conveniently, my dad needed a new car so I sold my beloved Subie to him for $13K just before we hit the road. Aaron had a car that was already paid off and much older, and it had been rather battered by his job as a pizza delivery driver in downtown Seattle, but he was still able to sell it for $2K.
We sold some of our possessions and got our whole $1,000 deposit back on our apartment when we moved out, which was some nice bonus money.
We continued working our full-time jobs after we purchased the bus in August of 2017. At the start of December, my parents very generously allowed us to move in with them, which saved us roughly $1600 a month in rent and utilities while still allowing us to work full-time, just with a slightly longer commute.
We quit our jobs in February of 2018, and at that point, we basically moved to Aaron’s parents’ house (where the bus was) to start our final push of working on the bus every day. We had hoped to leave in March but ended up hitting the road on April 25.
One of the great things about working full-time and then working on the bus almost every weekend was that is precluded us from going out with friends and spending tons of money on food and drinks!
Aaron also had some cryptocurrency that he sold off at a good time, which basically paid for our entire solar panel setup. We are not cryptocurrency billionaires yet though, unfortunately.
We also work on the road. Aaron made a custom suitcase drumset that he plays on the streets in big cities for tips, and he occasionally plays gigs as well. I do freelance writing online, and although we had some large unforeseen maintenance costs in our first year, we were able to make it work financially and still keep an emergency fund reserved.
Currently, we are posted up for the summer to work full-time seasonal jobs while still living in the bus, which will replenish our savings and allow us to splurge a little this summer.
How Much Does it Cost to Convert a Bigger Bus?
One of our favorite parts of living on the road is meeting other travelers and like-minded people. So, luckily I was able to ask a couple of our friends who live in bigger buses how much their conversions cost.
Midsize Bus – Rolling Vistas 31-foot Bus Conversion: $20,500
Zac and Tiffany of @rolling_vistas have an absolutely stunning bus conversion. It seems massive compared to Stu, but it’s actually a mid-size bus that measures up at 31 feet long. It feels much larger than ours inside, which is partially due to the fact that their bus has a flat front as opposed to a dog nose or a van front like Stu, so they can use essentially the entire length of the bus for their home space.
They paid $2,500 for their bus at auction and put about $18K into the conversion, which they did over the course of two years. With the extra space, they were able to add some features that just weren’t practical in Stu, like a ridiculously cute and functional wood stove.
They also have an extra long beautiful live-edge counter top work space, a shower on board (the ultimate bus life luxury!), and much more storage space. We thought we had a pretty big rooftop deck, but theirs is massive and is the perfect place to hang out, stargaze, and drink a glass of wine.
Tiffany is a super talented graphic designer and Zac is an amazing photographer and videographer, and since they both work remotely, this extra space goes a long way to provide room for their equipment and a comfortable place for them to both work simultaneously. Plus, they have two adorable dogs on board with them!
When they are traveling to a new location, Zac drives the bus and Tiffany and the dogs follow in their Subaru, which also has their bikes on top. This arrangement allows them to access places that wouldn’t be practical in a 31-foot bus and easily run errands like grocery shopping and so forth.
Zac and Tiffany also have an amazing YouTube channel that documents their entire bus conversion and their travels so far, in stunning cinematic fashion!
Full-Size Bus – Deliberate Life Adventure 39-foot Bus Conversion: $27,000
Adam and Elizabeth and their two daughters Sadie and Wren live in a beautiful behemoth: a 39-foot bus with a 13-inch roof raise! Compared to our tiny bus with a 6-foot ceiling, @deliberatelifebus is amazingly airy when you walk in.
The 7-foot, 8-inch ceiling really makes the space feel bigger, which is undoubtedly important with a family of four. Adam found their bus on Craigslist for $6K and drove 2,000 miles to retrieve it from New Mexico. They then spent 2.5 years and about $21K on the conversion, while they both still worked and raised their family.
They were the first family with kids that we met on the road, and it was a delight to not only hang out with Adam and Elizabeth and their bright and well-mannered girls, but also to see how they managed to fit everything into the bus and what types of things they prioritized in their build. Each of the girls has their own bunks, and the bus has a huge kitchen space with full-size appliances.
The front of the bus is dedicated to a seating area that can easily turn into a dining area by popping out a folding table. They also have a cute miniature wood stove nestled between the couch area and the kitchen. They have much more water stored onboard to supply four people, and a significantly larger solar power setup to keep all the appliances running smoothly.
Like Rolling Vistas, Adam usually drives the bus while Elizabeth and the girls follow in their car, with, again, the bikes loaded onto the car. This way, the kids are safely strapped in, and they have the option to leave the bus parked while they zip into a crowded area with the car.
How To Save Money While Converting a Bus
As you can see, the cost to convert a bus largely depends on your personal preferences and ability to do any or all of the work yourself. Often, larger buses are cheaper than smaller ones, although they require much more in the way of materials for the conversion. Here are some ways that we have discovered or learned from friends on the road for how to keep costs low on a bus conversion:
- Shop around for your bus. Decide on your budget and draw a rough layout with estimated dimensions of each of your non-negotiable elements (for us, it was a bathroom and a fixed platform queen bed). This will help you decide how much space you really need and what size of bus will be the best for you. Tour buses whenever you can, whether it’s at a bus show, tiny home fair, or just if you see a bus conversion on the street. A lot of people are surprised at how big Stu is inside when they step in. Shop government auctions, Craigslist, used bus dealerships, and skoolie websites to find exactly what you need at a price you can afford.
- Ask for help. Basically all of our friends and families were excited for us when we shared our plans and offered their expertise in various areas – construction, sewing, electrical engineering, etc. Even asking for help at hardware stores saved us hours of searching for specific things that may or may not have existed. We also messaged lots of other people with bus conversions on Instagram with specific questions.
- Become a DIY master. There’s literally a YouTube tutorial on how to do anything. With a little brain power and some elbow grease, you can save yourself tons of money.
- Hunt for bargains. Look in the free section of Craigslist to see if you can find free wood, fixtures, appliances, etc. You can also ask lumber yards and woodworking companies for scraps, or shop fabric remnants to get a killer bargain on upholstery.
- Plan for unplanned expenses. Your bus can break down at any time, so it’s always a good idea to keep an emergency fund so that you don’t rack up credit card debt when something goes wrong.
I hope that the breakdown of the cost for converting a school bus has been helpful, and hope to see you on the road sometime soon! Have questions? Leave a comment below!
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!