How much does a bus conversion cost?
One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is, “How much did your bus conversion cost?”
The costs and investment associated with a bus conversion varies widely. It can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars up to six figure builds. The latter blows my mind! The project cost depends on your preferences, goals and vision for the purpose of your tiny home on wheels. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated or cost prohibitive. It’s all about what works for you and speaks to you.
For us, the answer is multi-faceted and begins with how we prepared financially prior to starting the project. Financial impact is often a CRUCIAL consideration when taking on a bus conversion project. It certainly was for us.
A school bus conversion (or in our case a prison bus!) is no simple task or one to venture into lightly; it requires planning, patience, time and funds if you want it done (and it’s never really “done”) right. At the same time the benefits of experience, skills and memories are so worth it. I can say that with confidence now.
Building this bus completely changed us for the better.
Now we’ll dig into approximately what we invested into our 1989 Chevy prison bus conversion and how we prepared to quit our 9-5 jobs to travel and live in our bus full-time for two years. I kept pretty close track of purchases, but, I did have to estimate on some figures. This should just give a general idea of what it took to build our bus.
It took us about FIVE YEARS to buckle down and achieve the following while we still worked our full-time jobs in Maine:
- We paid off + $100,000 in debt (student loans, vehicle).
- We saved $50,000 to act as a cushion during a one to two year full-time living and travel period (2018 – 2020). We weren’t sure how the mobile income thing would go, so…
- We invested $26,500 in bus conversion cost (mostly spent from 2017 – 2019) as we built the bus and prepared to hit the road in early 2018. The bus was NOT fully done but that’s fine!
These were our personal numbers and goals, but people go about things in many ways.
It’s all about what feels right for YOU.
Alternative Living Roots
Our overall lifestyle design values mobility, health, travel, flexibility and freedom along with financial stability.
Beginning our alternative living journey is not something we did on a whim. That said, we always knew we didn’t quite fit into the traditional set of steps and boxed thinking around us.
In 2013, after Ben and I got married, we shared a combined $80,000 of student loan debt. We also purchased two vehicles together, one in 2012, the other in 2014, adding another +$25,000 to that figure.
We started modifying our lifestyle, working our tails off and paying things off aggressively and strategically. Life is easier without debt, I’ll just say it. It’s a worthy goal to work towards. In October 2016 we made our last student loan payment. You can read more about how we paid off our debt in our free Lifestyle Finance Guide.
In February 2017 we made our last vehicle loan payment and became 100% debt free.
Debt Free Foundation
I didn’t feel prepared or at peace about quitting our jobs and dealing with a period of uncertainty without removing debt from the equation. I’m thankful that we went this way. We didn’t have to stress about making payments while also navigating an entirely new way of living.
Going through this debt payoff process also taught us an extreme sense of self control. It helped us develop habits and a low overhead lifestyle that makes nomadic living sustainable and stress free.
Quality over Quantity
We also learned the difference between WANT and NEED. Sounds simple, but really, are we conscious enough of our purchases and how they affect our goals? Growing our awareness in all areas shaped what elements combine into a unique and interesting life that’s healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful. We spend a lot of time outdoors, and for the most part that’s free. We also don’t drink alcohol anymore, which we estimate used to cost us thousands each year.
Minimalism is not about deprivation it’s about prioritization. Whatever that blend is, build a life around it and find a way to achieve and maintain it.
In the six months leading up to our departure we minimized our belongings EXTENSIVELY. We sold over $2,000 worth of random household stuff that we convinced ourselves we needed for years. Let me tell you something, I honestly don’t miss any of it. We held on to what we use and touch on a weekly basis, everything else isn’t a priority.
CHOOSING and BUYING OUR BUS
A bus was not originally part of our equation.
In February 2016, we were more than half way through our student loan debt payment track and feeling like we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. We also started to build up our savings well over our buffer (3-6 months of living expenses).
We knew with complete certainty that we wanted to live DEBT FREE, travel and experience life on our terms. It was really simple. We started plotting and dreaming about our post-debt existence. We browsed different restoration projects and mobile living options that fit how we wanted to live (trailers, campers, tiny houses, vans, etc.).
We came across an elaborate Craigslist listing for a 31 foot 1989 Chevy retired prison bus and drove to MA to check it out. On the advice of others, we asked a ton of questions, looked under the chassis and under the hood extensively and knew right away we found something great. Check out Ben’s guide for more information on bus buying tips.
It was listed for $10,000, we settled on $8,000 cash.
Pricy for the used bus market, I know. Hear me out. It had a Cummings Onan 8000 generator with only 200 hours on it. It also had shore power and electrical wired throughout with a handful of outlets ready to rock. The body was also in EXCELLENT condition, and it only had 19,000 miles on it. So, overall, well worth the investment in our eyes.
BUS CONVERSION PROJECT EXPENSES
Keeping Costs Down
- Patience and creativity are key with keeping conversion costs down.
- There are certain things we DID NOT skimp on but other major areas we opted for second hand (and in many cases free) materials as much as possible.
- Ben managed a reclaimed lumber company which helped with material cost. We also were given a lot of amazing things or through luck and great timing found screaming deals.
- I managed a campground that helped us TREMENDOUSLY with a place to park and work on our bus conversion project safely. We also found a couple of friends willing to let us park the beast at their place during the summer months; even when it was still scary looking! Others lent us air compressors, their elbow grease and more. They all ROCK! This was HUGE and relieved a great deal of stress. Thanks, Friends!
- Individual project costs will vary. You do you. 🙂
This was a broad, long term investment and crucial element to all projects; custom carpentry, plumbing, insulation. It could be omitted from the total because we’re KEEPING these tools. We have used them for other things and will continue to use them for life and now (2020) our house renovation!
Depending on your situation, you may be able to borrow or rent tools, etc. Don’t underestimate how many different tools and supplies you’ll need to work on a bus though. IT’S CRAZY!
MISCELLANEOUS SUPPLIES: $850
Insulation, caulking, hardware, etc. the little stuff that somehow adds up to CRAZY TOTALS online shopping or at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
We sourced in bulk whenever possible, planning ahead. We used mostly reclaimed or solid wood; standard plywood and 2x’s for subfloor, framing, built-in carcasses.
Exterior & interior. We saved +$10,000 by painting the outside ourselves. The professional quotes to paint our bus were outrageous but understandable given the massive undertaking that is body work and prep.
FUN FACT: It took us four weeks to prep the bus and complete body work and only FOUR HOURS to actually paint it. How crazy is that?!
It took us four weekends to prepare the body, and only four hours to do the actual paint job. We used a three part automotive paint and a spray gun with a compressor to prime and paint. SURE, it could have been done more perfectly, but, saving $10,000 is pretty great.
APPLIANCES, FIXTURES, FURNITURE: $1,600 ish
Our bus is SIMPLE, open concept, everything is custom built by us. That’s the style we like and how we live.
Basically everything you see in the bus that’s not part of a system or a built-in is included here. We thrifted and craigslisted a lot, but some things you just have to purchase new.
Lighting – $150
Refrigerator – $100
Safety alarms – $50
Fabric (couch & curtains) & cushions – $400
HOT WATER SYSTEM & PLUMBING: $1,450 ish
We have a reclaimed southern yellow pine tub/shower built over the wheel well (next to the foot of the bed) as well as a double-bay sink in the kitchen.
Please use caution when installing and setting up this part of your conversion, well with everything, honestly. 🙂 Ben did extensive research and planning to make sure we were doing things safely. It’s worth it.
Propane regulator – $14
Water Pump – $70
Gray & Fresh Water Tanks – $300 (eBay)
Faucet w/ sprayer (IMO — essential!) – we bought this locally on sale, no link! 🙁 – $75
Double bay sink – only $5 at the local ReStore – don’t knock it till you HAVE ONE, IT’S THE BEST. I had a tiny little hand wash sink at first to be all minimalist about it, that only lasted a week.
Plumbing, tubing, connectors, fixtures, random trips to the store x 10: $700
WOOD STOVE & TILE HEARTH: $1,405 total (includes cost of hearth)
We love our 4kw Dwarf wood stove from tinywoodstove.com. Ben always jokes that he built our bus AROUND the wood stove; it’s our favorite piece. We’ve used it on several Maine nights during a particularly awful cold snap and it kept us cozy with a mid-night stoke. It burns clean.
COMPOSTING TOILET: $1,030
We simply didn’t want to cut corners here – 100% worth it. The toilet fan runs off our solar and it is odorless when we’re parked, seriously. When we drive, sometimes there’s a fun waft of toilet smell if the wind hits the bus just right, but, meh. Such is bus life. Sometimes you have to deal with poop.
I’m amazed that you can buy an awesome composting toilet right on Amazon, with Prime shipping, no less.
Two Year Update (2020): We used our trusty composting toilet full-time in the bus and I have to say, we didn’t hate it. SURE, it requires maintenance that’s atypical of normal house-dwelling life, but the benefit of water savings and not having a black tank outweighs the funk. That said, indoor plumbing is the dream! 🙂
REPAIRS & MAINTENANCE (to date): $4,450
This includes preventative care & maintenance we do ourselves as well as inspection, oil changes, alignment, etc.
September 2018 update: We replaced ALL SIX of our tires. Always check the manufacturing date on your tires if you’re buying/converting an older bus, inspect for signs of dry rot.
Our tires are still in good condition but for safety we decided to replace them. THIS IS NOT CHEAP. They cost $2,500 installed with an oil and filter change (factored into the total above).
SOLAR POWER: $3,900
This is our biggest investment and one we’re thankful for every single day and night. I am CHEAP you guys, but the gift of mobility and functionality ANYWHERE we go is worth it.
As I type this, from the middle of a remote prairie in southern Utah, our bus is alive with music playing on my Bose speaker that I charged via solar. My funky camel lamp, also running off solar, provides the light I need to write. Our fridge is running on solar and keeping our tasty food cool ALL DAY LONG. We’re able to go deep, go remote, ANYWHERE and make smoothies (essential!), charge our devices, light our tiny world.
We went with a tiny house solar kit (two 300W panels, 400ah AGM battery bank, etc.), which at the time was a great fit because we didn’t know what we were doing but if we were to build again I wouldn’t go this route knowing what we do now.
We found a solar wiz and he SAVED OUR BUTTS with the installation. Kits are a great option for first timers but don’t expect the company to help you with the installation.
If you need a recommendation for solar install help in the northeast, email us and I can refer you! 🙂
REGISTRATION: $575 for 16 months (NH is cool like that…)
In Maine and New Hampshire, registration fees are based off of the original MSRP of your vehicle. This is an expensive bummer in the bus conversion world.
As we develop our plans and figure out our home location we may change this to another state.
In our case (and perhaps yours too!) we’re talking about a significant MSRP figure, it’s not your standard Toyota Corolla vehicle registration.
For our bus, we settled on an MSRP estimate of $64,500.
Bus conversions are like an obscure unicorn of the vehicle registration world. “There’s no button for that!” Don’t be surprised if your town hall or DMV is a bit confused!
Other bits of information they need in order to register your bus: GVWR, which should be listed on a metal plaque near the driver’s seat and your vehicle title (if it’s not considered an antique).
Did you need to retitle the bus as an RV? No, we did not need to retitle our bus as a motorhome (yet). Our bus is so old you actually don’t need to present the title to register it. If you have a newer bus it may be beneficial, we’ve heard it is!
What about insurance? Insurance on a self-converted bus is a tough sell to any insurance company. Progressive was handling a lot of bus conversion policies but has since then dropped them, including ours. Check out National General Insurance or contact your local rep to see if they can make something work for you. Keep digging and you’ll find something!
Here’s what the bus looked like when we bought it:
TOTAL bus conversion cost to be road ready and livable: around $18,000 +/- $500
TOTAL COST to purchase ($8,000) and convert our bus into the rolling cozy home that it is now: around $26,000
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Don't forget TIME, RESEARCH, PROBLEM SOLVING
The one cost I haven't discussed yet is TIME.
We did all of the work on our bus conversion ourselves with the exception of solar installation. This is a significant consideration to factor in. We both worked full time during the conversion project and only worked on weekends when the weather cooperated. It took us two years and who knows how many hours of labor.
A FEW TIPS for those considering a bus conversion or mobile lifestyle:
Living this way is not free and maintaining it without stressing out requires income, patience and discipline, at least that’s how we like it. The one great thing within your control is HOW MUCH YOU SPEND and the amount to prepare before going full-time.
Get comfortable with occasional discomfort and imperfection.
Things aren’t always within reach or available to you, especially if you’re aim is being financially savvy about it all. Life goes on and it’s all part of the adventure. So I can’t just drive down the road 1/2 a mile and get a delicious kombucha. So what? I just saved myself $3.50. So, I haven’t taken an indoor shower in over 2 weeks. There are many ways to stay clean, happy, and comfortable on the road while maintaining your financial goals.
Find happiness and entertainment in nature.
Get the heck outside. We run, hike or walk AT LEAST 6 miles a day wherever we go. With the exception of our haul ass travel days trying to shoot south of the New England cold, we’ve been moving fast and exploring daily.
Doing something human powered is an excellent way to explore and experience a new location AND IT’S FREE.
Limit convenience food and drink, or cut it out all together.
Restaurants, truck stops, gas stations, and more are SO tempting. It may not feel like you’re spending a lot because it happens in little pieces over time, but, it adds up. Think about it this way, every time you choose not to spend money on a non-necessity, you’ve won. You banked that money for later.
We rarely go out to eat. We stop at a grocery store once a week and buy whole food ingredients to make meals with leftovers that I turn into other tasty meals. Money savings for dayyyys. I stock up on bulk dried goods (beans, rice, peas, lentils, oats, etc.) online and eye unit prices like a frugal tiny living hawk. Habits are routines are key in the food world for saving money.
Stop making excuses and write your own life story.
You have more power than you think. The night before we left for our first trip I had an emotional breakdown complete with waves of self doubt and questioning just about everything we’ve been working toward for the past five years. There were so many things left to figure out. We were on the first blank sheet of paper in a brand new notebook that scared the hell out of me all at once. This WILL happen. But you experience the greatest change and freedom when you step outside of your comfort zone.
Why not at least try living your dreams?
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
What we love most about Bus Life:
Alternative living allows me to embrace a touch of unknown and flow with the challenges and surprises therein. It’s a stretch for me but like a good sun salutation, it feels so good.
I shape my day around things that bring me happiness; putting physical and mental health at the forefront. I go to bed early and TIRED. I wake up early and EXCITED. THAT is my story, as I’ve always wanted it written. It’s not perfect but it’s MINE.
Ben and I still fight and have to deal with things like forgetting to put the cap on the water tank and having it glug all over the floor for 20 miles, etc. - C’est la vie en bus! :)
There are many ways to achieve your goals and find health, peace, security and fulfillment in life. Think about the type of lifestyle you want, the elements you’d like included on a daily basis, where you want to be, really picture it. Do yourself a favor and go for it.
Hard work and productivity come in many forms and it doesn’t have to be the 9-5. My dream was to freelance and not have my work limit my location. Our collective dream as a couple was to have freedom and financial stability. I believe you can have both. So this is what we worked toward with laser focus.
Have you ever fantasized about having a remote cabin in the woods where you can step out your door and be surrounded by fresh pine scent and crisp mountain air?
Or maybe dreamt about having beachfront property where the fishing is good and the surfing is superb? How about cozying up to a fire surrounded by mountain silhouettes fading into a desert sunset and listening to the faint songs of coyotes in the distance?
Whatever your image is this lifestyle presents the opportunity to experience it. And it’s not just mountains or beach or desert, it’s some of the most beautiful lands anywhere in the country! Our public lands are a gift worth preserving, respecting, and enjoying.
One day you can be bathing in the Mohave sun and the next mountaineering on Mt. Whitney. Add to that a multigenerational love affair with road tripping and you have yourself one tall glass of, “Yeah baby.”