School buses are great for a lot of things, particularly hauling dozens of students around the neighborhood. But here’s one application of school buses that more and more people have been doing over the last few years: converting them into tiny houses.
So how exactly do you turn a school bus into a tiny house on wheels (THOW), and is it even a good idea? School buses actually make great starting points for tiny homes, with the right size and sturdy frame to easily convert it into something you can comfortably call home.
In this article, we discuss all the basics surrounding school-bus-turned-tiny-houses, and why the “skoolie bus” might actually be the best option for you.
Why School Buses Make Great Tiny Houses
Here’s one fact that may surprise those of you new to the tiny house lifestyle: school-bus-turned-homes actually predate the tiny home movement. Back in the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t rare to see old school buses turned into travel homes by hippies and groupies, but the movement slightly died down in the 80s and 90s.
With growing interest in THOW living, more and more people are rediscovering the old school bus trend – and it might even be better than the traditional THOW. In fact, school buses that have been converted into tiny homes have their own special name in the community: skoolies.
So is a skoolie bus better than a normal THOW, and what is the average bus conversion cost? Here are some things for you to consider:
1) More Affordable Start
For many people, tiny house living starts out as a necessity; it’s a lifestyle you are forced to choose simply because it’s the best option you can afford. And if you’re willing to put in the work, a school bus definitely opens up one or two options when it comes to your initial bus conversion cost.
So how much does a bus cost? There are quite a few factors that influence the cost of a used school bus; everything from mileage, condition, type, and its age. You also have to factor in whether you are buying just the frame and the shell, or one that still has an engine intact. Surprisingly, most retired school buses still have decent engines, because school systems tend to retire buses once they reach about 100,000 miles.
All in all, a used school bus can cost anywhere from under $1000 to just above $20,000. The average cost you can find would cost anywhere from $5000 to $10,000.
Remember: The great thing about buying a used school bus to convert into a tiny house is that all you really need is the frame and the shell, meaning even the cheapest used school buses should work great.
2) Tons of Space and Customization
The tiny house philosophy is all about customizing your home to fit your needs and your family’s needs. To get the most customization possible, the best option will always be to build your tiny house from scratch – buying your own trailer and designing your house on top of the trailer from square one.
But the school bus conversion option gives you a good in-between, for those who don’t want to imagine an entire house out of thin air. It grants you the existing frame and shell to work on your house, without limiting you in the many ways that a pre-built tiny house or pre-built RV would. Build the rooms, bathroom, kitchen, and exact space you want.
With all the space in a standard 34-foot long school bus, you have all the space for a custom job you might need. Whether you’re tricking out your school bus as a fun bachelor pad or making something that comfortably fits a family a five with a full kitchen and bathroom, it’s totally up to you.
3) Safer and Sturdier for Travel
Traditional mobile tiny homes are literally houses built on wheels, meaning even minor road altercations could cause serious damage to your home. Driving your tiny house around is always a case of hoping nothing goes wrong on the road, because your house might not be able to withstand it.
Skoolies don’t have to worry so much about slight bumps and minor crashes. School buses are designed and built with high safety standards that most tiny houses can’t match. This means that if something happens on the road, your tiny house school bus should have the capabilities to withstand all but the most serious crashes.
3 Steps to Convert a School Bus into a Tiny House
Step 1: Finding a Used School Bus
The first step, of course, is securing your used school bus. Where do you even start looking? Much like a car, when buying a school bus it’s important that you understand the different kinds of school buses out there, and the type of school bus you would like – its model, make, size, and year.
Thankfully, there are one or two bus buying and selling online platforms you can visit. Check out the following sites:
You can also check out sites like Craigslist and eBay for any local school bus deals from private sellers. If you’re willing to drive a few hours, you’re guaranteed to find a lot selling an old school bus. We recommend buying the bus locally and in-person, because this gives you the opportunity to have a one-on-one with the owner about the bus and the current state of the engine (whether the engine needs to be refurbished or rebuilt).
Some other things you need to look out for include:
- Body issues: Your skoolie bus will be mostly DIY work to save on your bus conversion cost, so you need to make sure that the frame and shell is in good enough condition to handle the work over the next few months. Has the frame become rusted? Are the floors sturdy for a bed, bathroom, and kitchen? Are there any holes anywhere? Will everything still be intact in two years?
- Size of bus: While it might be tempting to get the biggest school bus and convert it into the biggest THOW possible, you need to think about the actual experience of owning and driving something that big. Can you comfortably drive and maneuver a full-sized school bus? Is the bus conversion big enough for everything you need in your wild drive life – from a kitchen to a bathroom?
Step 2: Gutting and Preparation
Now that you have your school bus, it’s time to gut and demolition the insides. Most skoolie bus conversion owners stop after ripping out the bus’s benches, and simply build their house on top and alongside the existing floors and walls. However, you might want to consider demolishing the floors, walls, and ceiling of the bus. This gives you the chance to ensure that your tiny home is mold-free and insulated just the way you like it.
Simply put, the amount of work that goes into the pre-installation and preparation phase depends on how thoroughly you want to do the job. Some skoolie bus homeowners are happy with just ripping out the benches and living with the same floors, walls, windows, and ceiling of the original school bus.
But for a true customized job, you will need to tear all this out – unless you’re happy living with ceilings with no insulation, eroding floors filled with old student accessories, and windows not made for living.
Step 3: Floor Plan and Installation
With your school bus gutted and prepared, you can now draft up your floor plan followed by the actual installation of everything that will make up your tiny home. Like with any floor plan, it’s important that you go over this a dozen times: every inch matters.
Know which areas are designated for which pieces of furniture and appliances, and figure out the best way to make your lifestyle work in your home. The difference between a good floor plan and a perfect floor plan is the difference between a cramped area and a comfortable space.
Installation can take months, especially if it’s a DIY project. Windows, countertops, air conditioners, cabinets, walls, floors, composting toilet, ceiling, and more.
While all of these can be installed with basic skills you can learn off online videos and guides, the most difficult parts will be setting up your electricity and plumbing; for these, you might want to get professional help. These need to be done perfectly – have your water and gas lines installed by a plumber, and your electrical set-up installed by an electrician.
Important Tips and Reminders
Getting legal can be a huge issue when it comes to converting a school bus into a THOW or private RV. Buses are normally considered commercial vehicles, meaning if you register as a normal bus you can end up paying over $1000 in registration as opposed to just over $100 for a mobile house. Each state has their own rules and requirements; here’s the typical breakdown of requirements for registering your bus as an RV or THOW:
- Electric or gas fridge
- 110v power supply
- Cooking appliances, sourced with onboard fuel
- Drinking water supply
- Temperature power sourced other than engine
For specifics relevant to your state, check with your local DMV to figure out what you need to present to get your skoolie bus conversion properly registered, or you end up paying tons of extra in unnecessary fees.
Parking and driving a huge medium-sized or full-sized bus can be a new wild drive life experience and one difficult to acclimate yourself to at first. It will take some time to adjust to manipulating a bus that size, and new drivers are advised to drive with extreme caution for their first few days on the road.
When overnight parking your skoolie bus conversion, ensure that you do research in the community, particularly if you don’t intend to stay in one place for a long time. For short-term parking (a few hours during the day or partly overnight), large store parking lots like Home Depot and Wal-Mart should typically allow free parking, but some will have signs indicating this isn’t allowed.
Free Camp Sites is a great resource for those looking for short-term and long-term parking options for their bus conversion project.
You will need a lot of help building your skoolie bus exactly the way you like it, so here are some of the best resources you can find on the internet for help:
- Skoolie.Homes – A platform dedicated to skoolies, with school bus conversion guides, tips, and services for those seeking professional help. Learn more about the wild drive life of owning a bus conversion.
- Skoolie.Net – The unofficial platform of the Skoolie bus conversion tiny house community. For anyone looking for discussions and a place to find other skoolie bus enthusiasts.
- r/skoolie – The subreddit for all things skoolie bus, which might be a better alternative for school bus conversion community-centered discussions. Ask anything from how much does a bus cost to building a kitchen in a used bus, and all other lessons learned every day in a typical school bus conversion project.
Hey, there! We're Ivan and Manuela from Croatia, and we're crazy about tiny houses. We don't own one (yet).
This website is a result of our passion to share all the knowledge, photos, tips and tricks that we were able to learn while studying everything possible about the tiny house movement.