How do you choose the right bus to convert into a tiny home on wheels?!
The beginning of a bus conversion adventure is SO EXCITING. You’re full of travel dreams and design ideas. We've gathered some tips on buying a bus here from our experience. We've had little to no issues with our bus in the 22,000 miles we've driven it and we like to attribute at least some of that with the preparations we made in selecting the right bus for us.
It's important to be diligent and thorough during the bus buying process. It can mean the difference between a relatively smooth project and a headache inducing stress-fest.
Remember, you can spend weeks or months (in our case two years! hah!) designing a beautiful living space that you’re truly proud of. If your bus doesn’t run well, or if it is on the brink of cost prohibitive mechanical issues, well, that’ll be heartbreaking. This is where patience & due diligence comes in. If you read through and still have questions, reach out to us, we're always happy to help!
A few quick thoughts to start:
- Do AS MUCH research as possible ahead of time,
- Take your time when viewing prospective bus(es), and
- Ask a lot of questions.
A LOT can change in a year... ? Last summer we parked our half done bus on a sunny piece of farmland in western Maine. Ben and I drove up on weekends to work on projects and enjoy a slice of the DIY life ahead. It was still a bit of a shell. There were so many brand new days ahead. ——...—— You can have a rough plan and ideas for a future leap in life, sure, be prepared, of course. But nothing is really guaranteed. Things change and evolve. YOU change and evolve. That’s the best part, actually. ? ——...—— You HAVE to just try... even after you feel like you’re DONE with a new challenge — give it another day, another hour. Remember why you started. How can you shift your perspective to continue moving forward? ——...—— Eventually the pieces come together and frustrations transform into progress and momentum. Stay open and enjoy the ride. ?
We hope in sharing our personal experience and lessons learned we can help others better prepare for their bus conversion purchase and adventure ahead.
Let's dive in.
Evaluate your bus conversion project budget (money + time, etc.)
Budgeting for a bus conversion doesn't just mean considering monetary cost. It's also about the amount time you have and are willing to spend converting your bus.
Have a spend range set in your mind, write it down. Mull it over. Just like a vehicle, remember that you’ll pay more for lower mileage and a better overall condition. If you have the resources to put in a little extra time perhaps a less expensive bus and extra elbow grease is the better way to go.
Curious what our bus conversion cost numbers were? Take a look at how much our bus conversion cost.
Tools - to buy or to borrow?
When mulling over your budget for the bus conversion build, don’t forget to factor in the cost of tools. You’ll either need to acquire them yourself or borrow them from family/friends/connections.
Work your network and see who you can find to assist you along the way.
Purchasing your own tools does have worthwhile benefits. If you have space to store them, they’re an investment that you can use for future projects and repair. At the very least you should own the tools necessary for mechanical repair and upkeep.
Patience - How much do you want this?
Converting a bus from scratch is NOT EASY. It often seems like every project takes twice as long as you planned and if you want it done right, it’s not always cheap.
You can't anticipate everything that will come up during your conversion project, TRUST US. You can at least think in broad terms about work you've seen others do that you're not interested in embarking on for simplicity-sake, etc.
For example -- one thing we didn’t really want to get into is metal work, patching, welding new panels. It's just too far out of our wheel-house.
Considering that fact ahead of time, we made sure to buy a bus that had SUPERFICIAL RUST ONLY. BUT — if you have the connections, skills and resources to do this type of work then it wouldn’t be an issue for you.
It's important to have these conversations ahead of time.
Where are you going to park the bus during your build project?
This is an important consideration. We found it absolutely necessary to have a power hookup (or generator), trash collection or nearby transfer station, water hookup and plenty of space to work. ESPECIALLY during the demolition phase.
We lucked out over the two years of our bus build with GREAT places to park and store the bus. We parked it at a campground during the off-season (when the park was closed) and also at friend's houses/land.
We worked our network of friends/coworkers and luckily never had a problem finding a spot to work.
Don't be shy, ask around.
Skills - essential & potential know-how required for a bus build:
There are several skill sets that you or someone you know will need to possess in order to survive this project. We approached this project as a major opportunity to GROW, learn and acquire really valuable skills for the future. It can be frustrating at times but in the end very rewarding. You'll need to dive into:
- Electrical (solar/auxiliary systems)
- Welding (maybe)
- Safe driving of a LARGE vehicle.
- I feel like we should add resilience & problem solving here too. 🙂 There will be times to want to drive your bus straight into a junkyard and never look back. It's TOUGH, but you find ways to push through.
You can always hire out for certain projects but if your goal is to save money, DIY determination is your friend. Ask your friends, co-workers and family for referrals too.
Our experience: We did everything in our bus build ourselves with the exception of solar. Ben assisted a mobile solar specialist with the install but knew that it would be much safer the first time around to be lead by a professional. He learned SO MUCH.
Special note of caution here: Solar panels collect electricity regardless if they're installed or not. Be VERY careful if installing on a sunny day.
Where do I FIND a bus to purchase?
There are a lot more resources now vs. during our search in 2016. Woohoo! Dive into good old Google for "used buses for sale". You can also scope out used bus dealers or vehicle auctions in your area. Sometimes you can get lucky locally like we did!
We found our bus on Craigslist. Our seller was knowledgeable mechanic, which was a HUGE HELP. There are plenty on there as well as on eBay. The prices have gone up a bit since our purchase. Forums like skoolie.net have a lot of information on specific engines / models you can scope out ahead of time.
BE CAUTIOUS, just like any other substantial purchase you make. Communicate directly with the seller.
What TYPE of bus should I purchase?
School bus, prison bus, church bus, short bus, full size, charter bus, etc. -- there are so many options.
Which is best for you all depends on your preferences and goals. There are pros and cons to each bus size and type.
- Will you be living in it full-time or just traveling part-time? Size matters.
- Where do you want to go with your bus? Clearance, tires, length, power matters.
How a bus was driven in it's previous life is an important consideration too.
Our Experience: We have a ¾ retired prison bus / mobile command center. It's 31 feet. It's substantial enough for two people but we can still take it and park it almost anywhere. IF we did another conversion though, we would go for a shortie bus (20-ish feet). Again, it's all personal preference.
How to Review Prospective Buses:
Find the Bus Manual online (if possible!)
This should be done before even going to look at the bus. It will give you specific knowledge necessary to understand each individual bus's needs.
We luckily found our 30 year old bus manual online as a .pdf. I bookmarked it and we refer to it ALL THE TIME.
No, we don't expect you to memorize the entire thing. There are a couple key points that will REALLY help you during the inspection process. Write them down on a note pad and bring it with you.
Maintenance Schedule - This will show the factory recommended basic upkeep so you can compare it to the actual maintenance history of the bus you're reviewing.
Engine operating parameters - Peak horsepower, peak torque, minimum rpm's (idle), and max rpm's are a good place to start. This will be very helpful when test driving.
Keep an eye on speed relative to rpm's when shifting gears and in your last gear to gauge the safest top speed. Make sure the bus isn't idling lower or higher than the recommended minimum rpm's.
Conduct a Visual/Mechanical Inspection
The overall message here is to look for signs of neglect and age. Look for rust, leaks, damage, etc. If you have time to be this thorough, DO IT. Again, we lucked out with our bus but we've heard a lot of stories of cost-prohibitive issues that arose post-purchase, etc. -- better safe than sorry.
Inspect the exterior, underneath and interior of the bus. Check for wet spots, mold, rust, etc. If you can see linoleum peeling/lifting, that may be an indication of leak issues and could mean moldy subfloor and a rusty floor below that. Both of which are fixable, but, less mess is obviously preferable.
Crawl underneath the bus with a flashlight and inspect. Many buses require regular manual greasing. Check grease points on your axles, steering assembly and drive shaft. There should be globs of grease coming out of the surrounding area. If they are very dry it could be an indication they were neglected and could result in premature wear of the area.
Evaluate surface rust vs. deep rust and pitting — the former is simpler to treat and mitigate while the latter requires more work, grinding and potentially cutting and patching, etc. — How much work do YOU want to dive into?
Inspecting tires is more than just looking at tread wear. Find out how old the tires are. These are NOT cheap but safe tires are a must. There is a four digit date stamp after the DOT code on every tire.
The first two digits are the week of manufacture and the last two digits are the year. Any tires six years or older should be changed. Another big killer of tires is stagnation. Check for signs of dry cracking regardless of age.
If you're considering chancing it with old or worn tires then STOP! Yes, replacing all 6 tires is expensive but it'll save you money in the long run.
If you're lucky, a blowout will only cause significant damage to the area where it occurred. This can be thousands in repair costs on top of the cost of new tires. Now consider having a blowout and loosing control of your bus on the highway... No explanation needed here. You do the math.
Fluids, hoses and belts
Take a look at your transmission fluid and oil dipsticks. The transmission fluid should be bright red and clean but chances are the oil will be dark regardless if it’s been recently changed or not. Dab the dipsticks on a white paper towel, let the fluid seep in and check if there’s any grime/debris left behind. If it’s super dirty chances are it hasn't been changed regularly.
Check your oil pan and all the lines. Check for seepage. Hoses are easily replaced, but you want to be aware of what you’re starting with. Look at the fuel filter canisters/filters, etc. They might have a date on them, otherwise make sure they don't look 100 years old!
Open the radiator and look at the coolant. If it looks really dirty and nasty it will need to be flushed and the fluid replaced. Doing a coolant flush might be something you’ll want to do anyway. It allows you to chemically clean the radiator which will boost efficiency and give you a chance to replace any hoses that are old and cracking.
Belts should be tight, straight and free of cracks and frays. Changing them is cheap and easy and should be done right off the bat to establish a good starting point for your own maintenance schedule.
Check the batteries for any corrosion around the terminals. If you’re lucky there will be a date on them as well. Most vehicles show the battery voltage on the dash. It should read about 12.5 volts with the key turned and around 14 volts while the engine is running. High voltage (15v and above) is just as bad as low voltage (under 12v) and can damage your batteries. It is, however, okay for a minor spike when the engine first starts, but it should level out quickly.
It’s just a good idea to evaluate the potential financial impact a prospective bus will have beyond the typical build process (mechanical, structural, major work/repair, maintenance). A record of regular maintenance and upkeep is always a plus.
Start it Up and Inspect Some More:
Now it's time to start the bus. Pay attention to how it starts. Let it idle for a while. Remember to refer to your manual notes here. Watch your RPMs and dash lights/sensors. Take a look at the temperature rise.
Exhaust Smoke Color - When the bus has warmed to the normal operating temperature the exhaust fumes should be fairly clean and transparent. Don't worry about a short period of white smoke after start up especially if it's cold out. However there are a few indicators to look out for before purchasing:
White/Gray Smoke - This only should be a concern if the engine has completely warmed and the exhaust hasn't cleared up. It could be an indication that coolant is being burned in the combustion chamber. Take this very seriously, it could be a death sentence for the engine or a VERY expensive repair.
Black Smoke - Too much fuel is being burned in the combustion chamber. Commonly known as running rich. Refer to your manual for corrections and calibrations.
Blue/Gray Smoke - Oil is being burned in the combustion chamber. The cause list is long here. Refer to manual and evaluate cost.
Keep inspecting functionality...
Toggle the lights, signals, radio, fans, heat/cooling etc.
When the engine is warm open your vents. If there's no heat coming out then there could be a circulation problem and a new water pump might be on your list of to-do's
Look under the hood while it’s running. Sometimes an otherwise leak free vehicle will show it’s true colors at this point.
Belts should NOT be bouncing up and down wildly or slipping on their pulleys.
Take it out for a Test Drive
If you can take it for a test spin, please do! This is hands down what sold our bus to us. It was a freakin’ horror show aesthetically (black chipped paint, that classic prison bus charm) but it started right up and drove beautifully.
If you can’t drive it, perhaps the seller can and you can ride along. It’s just a great indicator for what you’re starting with and how things feel.
How’s the power up hills, how does it handle, etc. Keep an ear out for knocking sounds, anything out of the ordinary.
Monitor the engine temperature gauge to make sure it’s staying at the appropriate levels. An engine that regularly runs hot would have been subject to high stress and potential damage.
After the test drive, take another peek under the hood and under the bus. Again, are there any leaks? There are a lot of things under pressure when the engine is running so post test drive is a great time to inspect for drips & leaks.
Go home and think about it.
Sleep on it.
It’s so easy to get starry eyed about a new adventure like this. Go home and do some research. Take another look at your budget, etc.
Use your negotiation skills and see if you might be able to get a lower price, etc. — sometimes patience pays off in this regard.
Questions to ask yourself and the seller...
What type of engine is it? You should know this at this point but still google it. Read up on everything you can on your bus engine beyond what your manual tells you. All engines have their pros and cons.
What’s the fuel economy, horsepower torque? Is it rebuildable or not? Where are it’s weak points? Do they still make this engine? Is it expensive to service?
What type of transmission is it? Same deal as up above ←-GOOGLE IT!
Where’s the title? Make sure you’re able to get your hands on a CLEAN TITLE for the bus.
- When was it last inspected and registered?
- Do you have any maintenance records?
- When was the oil last changed, filters, etc.?
- How long the bus has been parked/stationary?
Post-Purchase - Tackle those Tedious Logistics:
You’ll need to get your hands on a temporary plate from the DMV. This was actually really easy to do. I think it cost us $15 - $20.
If you want to be able to legally drive the bus on the road after purchase/during the build you’ll need to get it registered.
Bus registration steps vary depending on your state. Ask your town hall/local DMV.
To give you an idea of logistics/needs, in Maine, in order to register our bus as a motorhome, we needed to know/have:
- The GVWR (listed on a plaque near the driver’s seat)
- Approximate MSRP, this was fun… we negotiated using another skoolie pal’s bus in Kennebunk (a few towns over) as a precedent.
- The title (we didn’t end up needing it because it’s over 25 years old)
- Bill of sale (to pay sales tax, ugh…)
- proof of insurance*
In order to be road legal, Maine and New Hampshire require state vehicle inspections within 10 days (or so…) of registering. Check your state's regulations.
Our experience: We actually waited a FULL YEAR before getting our inspection sticker. We kept the bus off the road and parked for this time period.
Looking back, we wouldn’t recommend doing it this way. We lucked out with a well maintained bus that only needed a new transmission line BUT -- it could have gone the other way.
So much work had been done on the interior at that point that it would have been devastating if they found something major wrong or wildly expensive to fix.
Our suggestion: Get your inspection done as early as possible! If the inspection station has a scale get it weighed empty before you start the conversion. If they don’t then find one and get it done. You can compare this number to the GVWR which will give you an idea of how much weight you’re able to add during the conversion.
When we bought our bus in early 2016, our build hadn’t started yet and bus conversions were less popular than they are now.
At the time, our bus was set up like a mobile command center with a few bus seats and server tables/stands, very simple. Progressive insured us under a commercial auto policy, no problemo.
Progressive and many other insurance companies have since reevaluated their policies and chosen not to insure school bus conversions.
There is still a company who will, check out National General Insurance.
Our Experience: Moving from Maine to New Hampshire
We re-registered in New Hampshire this year and it was super easy. Again, we registered as a motorhome.
All we needed was our Maine registration and proof of residency.
New Hampshire doesn’t require insurance, just as an FYI.
More Awesome Information & Resources:
Check out our other posts on converting a bus!
Visit our Wild Drive Life Shop - All things we've tried and loved. Quality + value. We're always adding new gems you can pick up on Amazon.
Shop our bus build - favorite items, essentials and things we used in our bus build.
Want to hear more about the finance side of things? Check out our free Wild Finance Guide.
Follow @wilddrivelife on Instagram for daily bus views, real insight into the real bus life, outdoor adventures and lots of stories involving our dog Moose.
Congratulations on preparing for your bus conversion project adventures!
Whatever your reason is in pursuing this lifestyle make sure to have as much fun along the way as possible. We hope our notes help ease the stress of your buying process so you can have more time enjoying yourself.
Contact us for questions, we're always happy to help!