The #vanlife and #buslife movements have exploded in recent years, with thousands of people giving up traditional homes and jobs to live and travel in their vehicles. These vehicles range from small cars and minivans to 40-foot former school buses. These buses make up their own subset of this lifestyle and are generally referred to as skoolies.
So, what is a skoolie? A skoolie is a school bus that has been retired from its school district and then gutted and refitted as a tiny home on wheels. These vehicles range from short buses which start at 20 feet long to full-size buses which can be up to 45 feet long. Skoolie owners outfit their buses with amenities like beds, bathrooms, running water, kitchens, and living spaces so that their converted bus functions like an RV. Purchasing a bus and converting it can be done on a tight budget so this is a cost-effective alternative to purchasing a manufactured RV.
Examples of Skoolies
As I mentioned, skoolies come in a variety of lengths, but there are other variables as well, like body style, engine type, and ceiling height. Additionally, every skoolie owner designs their bus differently and includes different amenities. In this section, I’ll share the details of my own skoolie as well as the specs on a few of my friends’ skoolies.
My 22-Foot Mini Skoolie
My boyfriend and I bought our bus on Craigslist in Washington for just under $6,000 after sales tax. It’s 22 feet long with a 2005 Ford E-450 van front and a 2008 Thomas Minotour body. The years are different because Ford produced the cutaway van chassis and then the bus body was added a few years later by Thomas.
Generally, buses that are between 20 and 25 feet in length are qualified as mini skoolies. For us, having a mini skoolie is perfect because it is our only vehicle, and we are still able to fit (mostly) into normal parking spaces so we can do things like go to the grocery store and run errands with no problems.
When we bought the bus, it was still yellow and had all the seats and the wheelchair lift inside. We gutted it, built in a queen-size bed platform with garage space underneath, a bathroom with a composting toilet, an outdoor shower, a kitchen area with running water and a refrigerator that’s powered by our solar panels, a storage pantry, and a large couch.
We also added a rooftop deck behind our solar panels and painted the whole bus a sage green color to complete the skoolie transformation. The cost of the conversion was about $7,000, bringing our total investment to $13,000.
This size of bus is perfect for one or two people and maybe a pet, although I have seen a couple with a small child make it work as well. Our ceiling is 6 feet tall, which is perfect because my boyfriend is exactly 6 feet.
We chose not to add insulation to the floor or ceiling to maintain as much height as possible. Some bus bodies have an interior height of 6′ 6″, which we would have preferred for some extra headroom, but we didn’t find a bus with that height that was in our price range.
Zac and Tiffany’s Mid-Size 31-Foot Skoolie
Our friends Zac and Tiffany have a mid-sized skoolie that measures 31 feet long. Their bus is often mistaken for a full-size bus because it has a flat front and massive tires. Since their bus is larger than ours, they were able to include some amenities that we had to forgo: they have a large designated workspace, an indoor shower, and a cute little wood stove.
Their two adorable medium-sized dogs also reside in the bus. Zac and Tiffany were able to build a massive deck on top of their bus and still have plenty of room for solar panels.
Mid-size buses are comfortable for two people or families with small children or pets that require more space. However, the tradeoff for having more interior space is that mid-size buses are less maneuverable than mini skoolies, more expensive to maintain, and they get fewer miles per gallon. Zac and Tiffany have a car as well, which Tiffany drives behind the bus when they are on the move. The car is an additional expense, but it allows them to access places where it would not be practical to bring the bus (small parking lots, rugged forest service roads, crowded cities, etc.). They paid $2,500 for the bus and put another $18,000 into the conversion, bringing their total skoolie cost to $20,500.
Adam and Elizabeth’s Full-Size 39-Foot Skoolie
Buses over 35 feet qualify as full-size, and Adam and Elizabeth’s 39-footer is a beautiful example. They built in bunks for their two young daughters and raised the roof of their bus by 13 inches!
Raising a skoolie roof is a labor-intensive process that requires knowledge of welding, but the results are amazing. Their 7’ 8” ceilings soar, making the space feel much bigger than it is, and it means they have a shower with the spigot actually above head height – something that’s not possible without a roof raise unless you are very petite.
They paid $6,000 for their bus and put another $21,000 into the conversion, so their total cost was $27,000. They also have a follow car and a motorbike. Their relatively huge living space means they had room for a full kitchen with full-size appliances, a shower, and a massive living space with couches along both sides of the bus.
Full-size buses are perfect for one or two people who need extra space for working or storage, or for families. I have seen families of seven living in full-size buses! Of course, these behemoths are the least maneuverable of the skoolie family, so finding parking places can be a challenge.
Why Did We Choose a Skoolie Over Other Options?
My boyfriend Aaron and I chose to go with a bus as opposed to the other options (van, manufactured RV, etc.) for a few specific reasons:
- Price – Buying a used school bus is surprisingly cheap. Short buses like ours tend to sell for around $3,000-$6,000 while larger buses (which are often much older) sell for as low as $1,500. Used vans, on the other hand, are often in the neighborhood of $20,000 or higher, especially for Mercedes Sprinter vans. Manufactured RVs are also quite expensive, even previously owned vehicles. A skoolie was the best choice for us based on our budget.
- Size – We absolutely wanted to be able to stand up and move around in our rolling home. Unless we had opted for a high roof van, Aaron and I would not have fit standing inside a van (I am 5’ 8” and standard Sprinter van interior height is just a hair under 5’ 8”, not accounting for flooring and ceiling material). The bus also allowed us to have a fixed bed platform and a bathroom, which were important to us since we live in the bus full-time.
- Longevity/Durability – Diesel engines have a reputation of lasting quite a long time with proper care, and many vans and small RVs are gas engines, whereas our skoolie has a 6.0L diesel. Buses also have important safety features like steel roll bars and bump rails since they are designed to keep kids safe. If, god forbid, we were to get into an accident, our steel-framed bus would fare infinitely better than a flimsy aluminum manufactured RV.
- Off-Grid Capability – We designed our skoolie to be fully off-grid, and if we are frugal with our water we can boondock (camp with no hookups) for a week and a half. We mounted solar panels on the roof which power our fridge, water pump, and inverter so we can charge our devices. We included a Nature’s Head composting toilet so we don’t have a black water tank, meaning we don’t ever have to go to (often expensive) dump stations. Our kitchen is composed of a propane-powered camp stove. Manufactured RVs can often only go off-grid for a day or two at most unless they have been specially modified.
- Blank Canvas – Once we gutted our bus, we had a blank canvas that allowed us to design our skoolie to our exact specifications. It has everything we need and nothing that we don’t. Purchasing a manufactured RV would have meant that we were pretty much stuck with the features that were built in.
Can I Buy a Finished Skoolie?
Yes! Converting a skoolie on your own is a monumental amount of work, and depending on where you live and your travel plans, it might not be feasible for you to build your own skoolie. Fortunately, there are always already-converted skoolies for sale, and there are companies out there who will do all the work for you.
How To Find a Finished Skoolie For Sale
Circumstances change, so there are always people selling their skoolies as they transition their lives. There are several websites with completed skoolie classifieds and for-sale postings. Listed below are some good places to start looking. Remember, there are new buses posted every day so check these pages frequently to find exactly what you are looking for.
- Bus Life Adventure Classifieds Page
- Skoolie.net Classifieds Page
- You can also check Craigslist in your area, skoolie groups on Facebook, and even Instagram can be a good place to get real-time updates on buses that are listed for sale.
Skoolie Conversion Companies
Skoolie conversion companies are popping up all over the country, and a Google search will quickly show you companies in your area. There are certainly pros to having a company build out your bus, but be aware that there are some cons as well:
- You can design your skoolie and see it come to life beautifully without lifting a finger, or have the company design it for you for an even more hands-off approach.
- Companies can often deliver a quicker turn-around time than doing a conversion yourself.
- It is easier to insure a skoolie that has been converted by a licensed company.
- Some companies cut corners on materials and labor, resulting in lingering problems. We have some friends who had Skoolie Homes convert their bus, and despite this company being an “industry leader,” our friends were not satisfied with their work at all and months after the conversion was completed, they are still dealing with construction issues, leaks, a mysteriously replaced bus window (that was mismatched and lower quality than the original), and so forth.
- You might have to get on a waitlist before work can begin on your bus.
- It’s expensive to go this route.
If you decide to go with a skoolie conversion company, see if you can find someone who has worked with the company before and has lived in their bus for a while, and ask them what their experience was like and whether they have had any issues. Check the company’s website and Instagram page for buses they have converted. They often will tag the owner of the bus and then you can reach out to them that way.
Can I drive a school bus for personal use? Yes, and you don’t need a special license. You only need a CDL if you are driving professionally for a school or other group. Laws vary by state, but most likely you will be required to disable the school-specific functions of the bus, like the stop sign, crossing guard arm, flashing lights, etc. before you can drive it for personal use.
How many miles do school buses last? This varies based on how well-maintained the bus has been and whether it has a diesel or gas engine, but a regularly maintained diesel skoolie can last well past 200,000 miles. My skoolie is at 160,000 miles currently and still going strong!
How many miles per gallon does a school bus get? Again, this varies based on a few factors, but in general, expect between 8 and 12 miles per gallon. This will be impacted by the size of your bus, how much weight you add to it, whether you add drag with solar panels or a deck on the roof, the quality and grade of the roads you are driving on, elevation, the wind, and so on and so forth.
My mini skoolie gets 10 to 12 miles per gallon depending on the conditions. It’s not great for a car but it’s pretty darn good for a house!
Up Next In Skoolie Bus Conversions:
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!