How to Pick the Right Type of School Bus for your Skoolie Conversion
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Converting a school bus into a tiny-home comes with a long to-do list and can seem overwhelming if you don't know where to begin. If you're anything like me, you'll feel like you don't know where to begin for the majority of the process.
Turns out, that the best place to begin is by getting the right school bus for your build. Simple, right?
However, there are multiple types of school buses out there that all come with their own pros and cons. So maybe not so simple...
I'm going to share with you some of the things we wish we knew before we started our school bus conversion, along with some things for you to keep in mind as you start your own research.
Let's begin with a really important step. This is something that has the potential to get frustrating or confusing, but it is so worth it. Take your time. Rewrite those checklists if you have to. I promise, this step is going to make the school bus shopping so much better and speed up the process.
1. Set Your Expectations
Before you even start the process of shopping for a bus, make sure you know what you want out of it. Do you want a pusher? How long do you want it to be? Do you want a specific brand? How much are you willing to spend?
When we were looking for a bus, we were specifically looking for a forty foot long school bus. We are planning on full-time living in our skoolie conversion for five years, so we wanted to keep it roomy and not have to compromise too much for our traveling. However, having a 40-footer sometimes limits us on where we can park it and camp. Because of our length, we are not allowed in the National Parks and some campgrounds cannot accommodate such a long vehicle.
There are ways to combat this though. Since we are towing, will be off-grid capable, and plan on backpacking a lot, we weren't deterred by those limits. But that is definitely something for you to keep in mind when planning your build.
We also wanted to make sure we got an activity school bus instead of a standard pick-up/drop-off kids school bus. If that makes sense...
An activity bus means it has the large pass-through storage under the bus. While they used to hold band equipment or football gear, now they hold our water tanks, battery set-up, and our other big items. We can this area of our skoolie the basement. This also means our school bus is geared for long distance and has fewer miles on it. Which are both pluses for sure.
So, point is to make a list of the things you for sure want in your bus. Figure out what will work for you. If you start shopping without knowing what you're looking for, things are going to get hectic.
Here's another tip for you that is probably counter to your thinking. It was for me at first.
2. Don't Overthink Your Floor Plan...Yet.
When building a skoolie, space disappears really fast! Like, seriously fast. So you want to make sure you are giving yourself enough space to work with. Having a smart floor plan is essential. But it's difficult to make a good floor plan when you can't fully visualize it.
Matthew and I spent the whole month we looked for a bus writing up one floor plan after another. We looked on Pinterest all the time and read other people's blogs on what they did to see if there was something we could copy. What we found out is that literally everyone is going to do their floor plan differently.
We finally came up with a plan we liked and though it was fool proof. But as soon as we gutted the bus and started taping it out on the floor, it became obvious our plan needed some more work.
Can you image! After all the work we already did? None of it was good enough?
That's right. Since we couldn't physically stand inside the bus and see what the space felt like and how it flowed, our floor plan was based purely off speculation. I would definitely recommend waiting until AFTER you have your bus to get too picky on your floor plan.
There are still a few things you should decide beforehand. If you have kids, consider a bigger bus to accommodate bunk beds and the extra clothing storage that will require. If you are planning on having guests over and need to have a couch that turns into a bed, then get a longer bus so you can make the living room large enough for that. If you're just traveling a week or so at a time and don't need to cram your whole life into one bus, then getting a shortie is great!
It isn't too late to change your plan while it's in tape form.
Your floor plan is going to be completely up to you. Sure, you can start with someone else's plan. But don't stop there. And before you start building it, use painters tape to mark it out on the physical floor of the bus. Walk through it. See if you're going to run into walls or stub your toes.
3. Look into the Types of School Buses
School buses come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, that each come with different backstories and functions. The bus that is perfect for me might be completely different than the bus that will be right for you.
SHAPES - Some buses will have the engine in the front or back of the bus. Flat-nosed buses can have the engine in the front or the back, so don't be fooled. The school bus we bought has the engine in the back, which is called a pusher. I like the fact that with the engine in the back, it is a quieter drive up in the front of the bus. Another thing to keep in mind is clearance and approach angle. If you are planning to take your skoolie on rough roads or up lots of hills, getting a bus that can accommodate those angles is important. In that case, a traditional dog-nose school bus might be your best bet. With the best approach angle and good clearance, you can feel more comfortable going up steeper hills and driveways. Having a rear engine flat-nose school bus, you're going to get a quieter ride, more under-body storage, and better traction.
SIZES - School buses range from 20 to 45 feet long. Buses that are 20-25 feet long are called shorties or minis. Buses that are 25-23 feet long are called mid-sized, and anything longer is considered full-size. Keep in mind that some camp grounds are going to have length limits. Also, if you are going to tow a vehicle, that's going to add additional length.
BRAND - All American, Thomas Built Buses, and IC Bus are some of the most common school bus brands you'll see. If you're looking for a shortie, you could even look at Ford for their school buses. We have an All American Blue Bird, which we absolutely love! However, both the exterior and interior are built with rivets. While that means the bus is really well built and durable, it is also a pain to take apart! If you want to avoid rivets, Thomas Built is a great way to go. There are a few other brands that I haven't mentioned as well. We personally aren't too partial to any one school bus brasnd but are very happy with our All American.
YEAR - Something to keep in mind about the differences in buses is the year. New features are introduced over the years, miles start adding up, and value changes. Finding a new bus might be difficult unless it comes with some damage. School districts are typically required to replace their school buses every so often, though this differs from state to state. In general, if you find a bus that is being sold simply because it hit a certain mile marker or age, you're going to be getting a better bus than one that is being sold because it is damaged.
SPECIALTIES - There are perks to getting specific buses. Like the extra storage from an activity bus. Another perk of getting an activity bus is that they are geared for long distance. You're not going to have the start-and-stop miles and the long amounts of time in idle associated with a typical school bus routine. Getting a handicap school bus also proves to have it's pros. No wheel wells! Building around wheel wells in your floor plan can be difficult, so eliminating them all together is a pretty great way to go.
Write a list of the things you need out of your school bus
Look on Pinterest for floor plan ideas just to get a feel for how much space you want
Pick the school bus size that works for your needs
Set a budget and try to stick to it as best as you can. Debt free living is so rewarding!
When you've done your research and are ready to start shopping for your school bus, read Where to Buy a School Bus for Your Skoolie Conversion. You'll find tips-and-tricks to finding places to buy a bus along with information on where we got ours.