Converting school buses into tiny homes on wheels (commonly called ‘skoolies’) has become an incredibly popular trend in recent years. My boyfriend Aaron and I converted a 22-foot 2005 Ford E-450 van front bus and hit the road full-time in April of 2018. Since then, one of the most common questions we get from people who are interested in skoolie life is “What kind of bus should I buy?”
However, since there are so many different makes and models of school buses as well as buses from 20+ years ago that can still run and function normally and you are unlikely to be able to or want to purchase a brand new school bus, the better question to ask is “What should I look for in a school bus?”
In this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned about bus shopping in general, potential pitfalls to look out for, and some other recommendations about choosing a bus to convert.
The best school bus for conversion is a short bus like our Thomas MinoTour Ford E-450 which offers more maneuverability, easier driving and parking, and better gas mileage than it’s larger counterparts. If you do require more space, there are plenty of larger options that will be able to accomodate your needs with more room for amenities, storage space, and enough sleeping capacity for large families.
The bus you ultimately choose depends on how many people will be living and traveling in the bus, where you plan to drive it, what amenities are important to you, and whether comfort or maneuverability is of greater importance.
Types of School Buses Available
Unlike with vans (Transits, Sprinters, ProMasters, etc.) which offer a finite amount of years, makes, and models, buses come in nearly infinite configurations involving different chassis, bus bodies, engines, and so forth. Let’s look at some common options and differences.
Short vs Mid-Size vs Full-Size
Generally, short or mini school buses are about 20-25 feet in total length, mid-size buses are roughly 25-35 feet, and anything over 35 feet is considered a full-size bus.
Aaron and I live comfortably in our 22-foot bus and we have friends that have multiple pets in similarly sized buses, although we haven’t met anyone who lives in a short bus full-time with more than two people. We also know a family of eight who lives in a full-size bus, as well as single people who enjoy a full-size bus to themselves.
Choosing your ideal bus length is an important first step in finding the best bus for you to convert. As I briefly mentioned above, there are pros and cons to all sizes of buses – it just depends on your priorities. If you have more than two people, a mid- or full-size bus is probably your best option in order to have enough water on board for everyone, enough sleeping space, storage capacity, and so forth.
However, for just two people, a short bus allows you the most mobility, ease of parking, best fuel economy, and simplicity. In fact, we know several couples who started out traveling a large bus and ultimately decided that it was too much space for them and they wished they had gone with a short bus.
Related article: How Long is a School Bus? (Conversion FAQs)
Pusher vs Front Engine
Some very large buses have rear engines (also called a pusher) and a flat front where the driver’s seat is situated in front of the front tires. These buses are usually around 40 feet long, and the benefit of a rear engine is that the noise level is significantly lower for the driver and passengers in the front of the bus.
However, the learning curve on driving these types of buses can be steeper since they are massive and the position of the driver’s seat is unique. It also requires building around an engine in the back of the bus where bedrooms are commonly situated.
However, some large buses have a dog-nose front, where the engine is situated at the front more similar to a semi truck. The noise while driving will be greater, but the learning curve of driving isn’t as steep.
There are also mid-size buses that have a flat front but still have the engine in the front (which gives a better floor space to length ratio), dog-nose mid-size or short buses, snub-nose short buses, or van-front short buses.
With van-front buses, the cutaway chassis are manufactured by brands like Ford or Chevy and then a school bus body is added later by bus companies like Thomas or BlueBird. Our bus, for example, has a 2005 Ford van-front with a 2007 Thomas MinoTour bus body on it.
One benefit of buying a van-front bus is that they can be serviced and repaired at any shop that will work on diesel engines and can fit the bus into their bays. For instance, we get our oil changed at Ford dealerships which are easily found all over the country.
For larger buses, you will have a harder time finding a shop that will work on them and may have to go to school bus yards instead, which may or may not work on privately owned buses. Additionally, if you ever need to be towed, you may be waiting quite a while until a towing company can round up a truck big enough to handle a 40-foot bus.
Most bus bodies have an interior height of 6 feet. However, there are some very small short buses that have interior heights of 5.5 feet or some newer buses that are 6.5 feet tall inside. While this is technically a matter of personal preference, I can’t stress this enough – you will want to be able to stand up inside your bus conversion.
This makes things like cooking, getting dressed, and moving around so much easier without causing any adverse effects for your neck or spine that you would feel if you were constantly hunched over.
Additionally, if you are around 6 feet tall and plan to purchase a bus with an interior height of 6 feet, keep in mind that if you want to insulate your floor and ceiling at all, you will lose some of that interior height and you may want to look for a 6.5-foot bus.
Many people who purchase full-size buses opt to raise the roof, sometimes up to 2 feet! This makes the interior space feel much bigger, allows for a shower nozzle that’s actually above your head, makes kids’ bunks much more spacious, and gives you much more overhead storage space.
The process does require some welding and technical know-how, but there are companies who will handle just the roof-raise portion for you and then you can finish the rest of the conversion yourself.
Due to the nature of school bus construction, none of them are going to perfectly square inside, or indeed anywhere even approaching square. This makes building them out slightly more challenging than, say, a boxy Sprinter van, but then again you can purchase a bus for less than 1/10th of the cost of a Sprinter, so the challenge is financially worth it.
However, bus body styles do vary by manufacturer and even the year that they were built. Styles have changed over time, with some buses having the classic straight(ish) walls and curved roof, some having a flatter but still slightly curved roof, and some newer buses that are more hexagonal in shape with nearly flat roofs.
The newer buses often have higher ceilings, but they can be harder to build out due to the walls that tilt out at the bottom and in at the top.
What To Look For in a Used School Bus
Buying a new school bus for the purpose of conversion would be a waste of money, since you could just as easily purchase a manufactured RV at that price point. Since most people purchase a used school bus for a conversion due to the very low cost, I’m going to include things to look for specifically in used buses.
If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, you know that vehicle rust can be a huge problem. Avoid major headaches and expenses by inspecting potential buses as thoroughly as you can for rust. If you do find some sneaky rust after purchasing a bus, treat it immediately before you do any conversion work.
If you are having trouble finding any buses near you that are rust-free, you may need to expand your search area to include warm, dry areas like Southwest where rust is not generally a concern.
When properly cared for and maintained, diesel engines can last for decades and perform strongly for well over 200,000 miles. So, ‘low mileage’ is relative in this instance. We purchased our bus with around 139,000 miles and have driven another 30,000 miles in the last 2.5 years.
We have had to do some maintenance that was to be expected at around the 150,000-mile mark as original parts start to wear out, so while it was painful to shell out the money, we were mostly expecting it and had planned to have to spend some money on maintenance.
Some school districts have to sell their buses after a certain number of years of service regardless of the number of miles driven, so in some cases you can find buses with extremely low mileage for a great price.
It won’t always be possible to get these records when purchasing a used bus, but it’s always a plus to know what your bus has been through before it came into your hands. If you purchase a bus from a school auction, you may very well be only the second owner and can generally assume that the school district will have done a good job maintaining and documenting everything for the bus in question.
However, if you purchase the bus from a private owner or from a dealership, the trail becomes harder to trace and you may just have to take the history of the bus on faith.
A Solid Test Drive
I highly suggest test driving several buses before you purchase one. Unless you are currently a bus driver or have driven buses before for some reason, chances are you have never driven a vehicle larger than a car or SUV. It’s a good idea to make sure that you can safely handle a bus and are confident driving it before purchasing one, and to get a feel for what good and bad buses are like to drive.
Aaron test drove several buses before we purchased ours – one billowed black smoke out of the exhaust which the dealer claimed was normal (yeah, right), one did not have any working gauges, one had problems shifting, etc.
It can be easy to want a bus to be perfect so badly that you are willing to overlook problems, but this will only hurt you in the long run. Take your time, test drive as many buses as you can, and be patient.
For a mid or full-size school bus, the tires are specialized with different types for drive tires and steering tires, with both often coming in at around $400 apiece and very few if any used tires available. So, if you’re looking for a big bus, you can save yourself a bundle by purchasing one that has tires with lots of tread left and no dry rot or damage.
For small buses like ours, we just need light truck tires which can be purchased at any tire shop and there are an abundance of used tires available. So, good tires are not as much of a necessity for a small bus as they can be replaced relatively inexpensively. We bought a used spare tire and eventually replaced two tires that were more bald than the others with used tires, which kept our costs very low.
After two years on the road, we finally upgraded all six of our tires to a brand new matched set, which set us back just under $1,000 for the tires and installation. It was a big expense, but not as big as the roughly $3,000 a large bus owner would be looking at for a full new set.
If Money Were No Object, I Would Buy…
Honestly, I would choose something very close to the bus we have now. It would be awesome to have the 7.3L engine instead of the 6.0L for some extra power going up hills, and a higher ceiling would be nice, but I certainly wouldn’t go any bigger in length.
However, a 4×4 conversion, lift kit, beefier suspension, and some Aluminess bumpers… I could get on board with those upgrades!
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