Last Updated on July 13, 2022
A school bus can make a great motorhome or camper for DIYers looking for a personalized experience on their adventures, while staying within budget. Converting a school bus into a recreational vehicle has become so popular that the converted bus has its own name and culture—skoolie.
If you’re considering converting a school bus into a recreational vehicle—and are conscious of the cost—use this guide to plan and price your budget.
First, decide what’s important to you about your future converted vehicle. What do you want to use it for? Where do you want to go? Who will be traveling in it?
Some campsites won’t allow vehicles greater than 40 feet in length to enter their premises. That’s something to consider. And larger buses cost more to operate (gas and repairs), and are more difficult to maneuver. Plus, they require more furnishings.
Once you’ve established your intended use for the vehicle, you can start planning what you’re going to put in it.
List everything you need and want. This includes:
- Windows, doors, and vents
- Flooring, ceiling, and interior walls
- Storage spaces
- Electric power
- Toilet, sinks, and plumbing
- Tools and accessories
- Adventure or picnic gear
- Personal belongings
Furniture includes seats with seatbelts for use while driving and seats for eating at a table. Also included are sinks, dressers, desks, couches, beds, and shelving. Don’t forget lawn chairs, hammocks, and any foldable tables for outdoor use.
Appliances often include an oven, microwave, toaster, refrigerator, and television. Though appliance can also mean a freezer, any appliance you keep in your kitchen, or a clothes washer and dryer.
More Skoolie Modifications
A school bus has two entrances/exits—the side passenger door adjacent to the driver’s cabin and the one at the rear. Are you happy with the location of those doors? Do you need more?
School buses already come with plenty of windows, so you probably won’t add any. However, you may want to change the type of window. This could allow for greater ventilation while not letting in any bugs.
You may want to cover up some of the windows to create privacy and more wall space for shelving and other items. Interior walls will help with insulation. And quality flooring and ceiling materials give the renovation a more finished look.
Everything you bring with you needs to be stored, so ensure you have enough storage space. That means storage for your clothing, personal items, adventure and camping items, tools for maintaining the skoolie, and more.
People love electric devices, including appliances, lighting, gaming devices, tablets, and phones. All of these need to draw power from somewhere. You need to not only list these items that draw power, but also how many outlets you need and where they will be located. A lot of people use solar panels to power their skoolie.
Most people have at least one sink on the inside, along with a toilet. This means you will need a plumbing system, a clean water source, and a means of removing waste materials.
From time to time, your skoolie and the items in it will need repairs. Be sure to bring screwdrivers, wrenches, a hammer, cutting tools, and a tape measure.
Don’t just bring items for use inside the skoolie, but also for whatever place you are visiting. A lot of the time, this will be outdoor items such as picnic items or adventure gear. Though you can also include camping gear, items for playing sports, and bicycles.
Personal belongings include everything from your clothes and electronics to pictures and bathroom supplies.
Once you have listed everything you want to bring into the skoolie (right down to the outlets), you should tally approximate weights for items. This way you don’t exceed the skoolie’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). If you don’t know your vehicle’s GVWR, you can look it up in the vehicle’s manual. The GVWR is the total amount of weight a vehicle can be and still be street legal.
And make sure you give a lot of thought to your design. It costs less money and time to make changes during the design stage compared to the renovation stage. One especially important decision to make is whether or not to include a trailer. This will help with the transportation of your possessions, but also means more weight. Some people have the bus altered, where the standard back section is cut and replaced with a trailer.
The right-sized Skoolie
The next step is finding a bus that is just the right size. You may have an idea of what size bus you want, but you may be surprised how little it takes to fill a bus.
Since you now know what you want in your skoolie and what you want to do in it, you can start mapping out a floor layout.
Before you buy the bus, use paper to draw a two dimensional blueprint. Or if you have the talent and technology, you could create a digital design. Begin with 8 feet of interior width and at least 12 feet of interior length for living space. These are the dimensions of the interior living space of the smallest bus size (20 feet).
Start with the section closest to the cab and build toward the rear of the bus. Draw the length lines longer as needed. When you’re done drawing all the items you want in your skoolie and in the place you want them, you will see how much cubic feet you need to place all of your possessions.
In the US and Canada, bus bodies are restricted to a maximum exterior width of 8.5 feet and a maximum exterior length of 45 feet (bumper to bumper). Once you include the width of the bus’s walls and the width of the interior walls you will place, those dimensions narrow by a few inches. And you need to subtract about 10 feet for the engine and cab. This would give you a maximum interior living space of:
35 feet x 8 feet = 280 square feet
Skoolie Bus Types
After you have determined your desired length, you need to select a school bus to convert, and there are several different types of buses from which to choose:
This bus is the smallest bus type, built on a cutaway chassis. It is 20-25 feet in length and transports up to 16 passengers (four rows of benches). This type is subdivided into Type A-1 and Type A-2. The former has a GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) of 10,000 pounds, whereas the latter has a GVWR of 14,500 pounds.
This type is larger than Type A and accommodates up to 30 passengers (7.5 rows of benches). It’s built on a stripped chassis with a passenger door located behind the front wheels. The engine protrudes into the cab next to the driver’s seat. This category too is subdivided into two types: Type B-1 and Type B-2. The bus is 30 feet in length.
This is the most common type of school bus. It accommodates 72 students (nine rows of benches) and can be built on a chassis with a hood assembly, a cutaway truck chassis, or a truck chassis with a cab. However, the entire engine is in front of the cab. Its GVWR ranges between 23,500 and 29,500 pounds and is 35 feet in length.
This is a long school bus with a major difference from the other types, a flat front similar to buses used for public transit. The engine is either mounted at the front of the vehicle (FE) or at the rear to the vehicle (RE). Its GVWR is between 25,000 and 36,000 pounds and the length is 40-45 feet.
Choosing to convert a multifunctional school activity bus could save you time and money if you’re happy with the color. If you choose a yellow school bus, you’re going to need to paint it.
When shopping for buses at online auctions, you will notice the length isn’t always stated. That’s why some people have come up with a way to determine approximate length. For every window on the side of the bus (not including the driver’s window) add 28 inches. Then add either 10 feet for buses with a dog-nose front or six feet for ones with a flat nose.
Skoolie Conversion Costs
Here are prices for items you will need to convert a bus into a skoolie (assuming you do the work yourself):
- One school bus – Prices vary depending on length, condition, and region. When shopping for used school buses, you will find many between 10 and 15 years of age. A 10-year-old, 72-passenger (about 40 feet in length) school bus will cost you about $5,000. A 15-year-old, 16-passenger (about 20 feet in length) will cost you about $1,000.
- Tools – You will need measuring tape, markers, screwdrivers, hammers, saws, drills, as well as tools specific to electrical work, such as electrical testers and meters. For plumbing, consider pipe cutters and crimp tools. Depending on which tools you already own, you could be spending $1,000 or more.
- Paint – You can either bring it to an auto body shop and pay around $3,000-$4,000 or you can buy the paint, brushes, and other accessories for under $500 and do it yourself.
- Wood – Most people use lumber or wood panels or some engineered wood product for their interior walls, floor, and ceiling. To cover about 15 feet by eight feet by eight feet of living space (a 25-foot bus) and create some storage spaces, it could easily cost you $1,000. Add another hundred for hardware, such as handles and hinges. Add a few hundred more dollars for trims and finishes. Then add another few hundred dollars for insulation.
- Appliances – Here is where things can get costly. A new fridge, stove, dishwasher, microwave, toaster can easily cost $4,000. You may also want a toilet and a sink or two, which will add another $1,000. In which case, you will also need to buy a pump, pipes, hoses, and other plumbing materials, which can add another $1,000 depending on the number of sinks and how many feet of pipes and hoses.
- Electrical – This includes lighting, heating, and air conditioning, as well as setting up electrical sockets and a power supply. The cost here can range greatly depending on how much power you want. The roof is an excellent place for solar panels and you could install a generator. This will cost you at least $2,000. If you want to add multiple power supplies and an air conditioning unit, budget $3,000.
- Furniture – This category can be costly as well. Let’s price out three beds, two benches, a table, a desk, a couch and two chairs. For new furniture, budget at least $,5000.
- Miscellaneous – This includes fees paid when acquiring the bus, the cost of transporting the bus from the seller’s location to your location, vehicle insurance, any needed repairs to the bus, and any customization or addition you want to make to the bus that’s not listed above.
The total for all the expenditures (assuming the furniture and appliances are new but the bus is not) is $20,000-$30,000, which is a pretty decent price to have your own tiny home on wheels.
Whether for permanent living or a summer getaway, buses make excellent projects for DIYers everywhere. If you’re ready to start this venture for yourself, then first things first. Time to secure a school bus, then begin the conversion process step by step!