Want to Live in a Schoolbus? Here Are 8 Key Upsides & Downsides

Thinking of a Skoolie as your home on wheels? Schoolbus owner Clinton Harris is breaking down 8 big reasons to say ‘yes’ and 8 to think twice.

white skoolie parked outdoors

In 2023, my living situation changed, and rather than scramble to find a somewhat affordable place to live in Colorado, I decided to live on the road full-time. As a freelance writer, I was already working remotely, but as a digital nomad, I could meet interesting people and document my adventures. I found myself in a position to do what most people only dream about doing after they retire.

At first, I looked at conversion vans. I’m sure you’ve seen your share of influencers on YouTube and Instagram living their best lives in these. Yet, conversion vans always felt dark and restrictive.

As a creative, my workspace is just as important as my living space. Why invest in the expense of a vehicle that wasn’t checking the boxes? So, I started looking at skoolies. 

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8 Reasons to Consider a Skoolie

What is a skoolie? Simply put, a skoolie is a decommissioned school bus, shuttle bus, or other bus type that has been converted into a tiny home on wheels. These converted buses are serious contenders to RVs and the holy trinity of Transit, Sprinter, and Promaster.

Skoolies offer a gateway for those entering van life, whether as a full-time nomad or casually exploring the highways. 

Skoolies Have Room to Roam

I’ve been freelancing full-time for over four years, so I know what working environment is best for me.  I need a place where I can comfortably put my butt in the chair for a few hours and not feel confined. Many of the vans I checked into felt restrictive, claustrophobic, and–dare I say?–coffin-like.

In a skoolie, I found plenty of room to move around, work, cook, and live.  Unlike many vans or RVs I toured, most had roofs high enough for me to stand upright. Always a bonus.

Lots of Natural Light

Early in my search, the lack of natural light in most conversion vans was a big disappointment. Skoolies don’t have that problem. My current rig is a 19’ long four-window mini-skoolie. 

With an additional sunroof, it gets plenty of natural light.  Natural light is vital in keeping you in a good mood and giving you better light to work with. All these windows have the added bonus that you can open them and let in a breeze if you want.

Unlike many conversion vans I checked out, I’ve never felt like the inside of my bus is a cave. 

Safety Ratings

School buses and other vehicles used in public transportation are held to rigid safety standards. After all, they’re built to haul precious cargo. Strong ladder frames, reliable motors, and reinforced bodies are built to withstand the hazards of the road.

RVs are held more to standards based on housing than vehicles, and conversion vans are designed with safety ratings more consistent with vehicle ratings. Buses are incredibly sturdy and go above and beyond to protect passengers.  You lose very few of those benefits when you convert a school bus into a skoolie.

Make It Your Own

One of the best things about a skoolie is the ability to shape it into a home on wheels. Many details are related to the personality of the rig’s owner. Some skoolies have full kitchens for those who live-to-cook, others might have a lounge area, meditation area, artist studio, or even a bathtub.

You can create your home based on what you love and value in your surroundings.

I outfitted my bus with a writing desk, a lockable storage locker for my belongings, and an antique leather steamer trunk that has been in my family for generations. Whether it is a bookshelf, potted plants, or a hammock, these details can add flourish to function or just make it feel more like home. 

Repurposed Items

As part of the make-it-your-own factor, you can reduce what goes into a landfill and create character for your skoolie with repurposed items. Bathroom vanities get a second life as a kitchen counter/sink, bunk beds can be reused as sleeping platforms, crates and boxes and other fixtures can be recycled into other flourishes that give your rig character. All it takes is some creativity (and watching some YouTube videos) to do the work yourself. 

Durability

Not only are buses built to strenuous safety standards, but they are also subject to state and local laws for regular maintenance during service. Regular oil changes, tire changes, engine maintenance, and other mechanical work keep the vehicles running while prolonging their lifespans.  By the time a bus is retired, the miles shown on the odometer might be high for just about any other vehicle, but the bus might have many more miles left to go. 

Cost

Skoolies are typically less expensive to buy and rebuild than a conversion van. This is one of the biggest draws to people living a non-traditional life. What you save upfront may give your budget more breathing room when it comes to upgrades and customization. Not to mention rising prices at the pump.

Size Matters

From a mini-skoolie short bus to a 40ft converted, triple-axle Greyhound, skoolies come in all shapes and sizes. A wide range of buses means a wider range of options for your build.  Some skoolies are capable boondocking rigs, which can be modified to be all-solar, high clearance overlanders with four-wheel drive. 

Others can become land-yachts with the limitations of large camper rigs when it comes to parking and finding campgrounds. My rig can get into any parking space that would fit a Ford F-250 while still giving me over 100 square feet of living space.

Drawbacks to Skoolies

As fun and versatile as skoolies can be, they also have their problems. Here are just a few of the negatives you should consider about skoolies.

Confusing Electrical Systems

Due to the lights, safety features, and standards buses are built with, decommissioned buses often come with a network of confusing electrical systems, which are sometimes gutted before being released to the public. Buses are built in some…creative ways, which means it can be very difficult for the average mechanic to understand how everything is built. 

No Skoolies Allowed 

Many established campgrounds will only accept RVs that are within ten years old.  Skoolies are also on the list of vehicles not wanted at some RV parks, not just because of their age. Many have closed their gates to these loveable vehicles because of past stigmas of skoolies or simply because they don’t fit the RV park’s aesthetic.

Rust

As with any vehicle, rust is a major consideration when choosing a rig that will last. Despite regular maintenance, skoolies are often retired from places with lots of humidity or de-icing salt used on the roads in wintertime.  Moisture is often trapped inside the bus, leading to rusted-out walls and floor panels, and even mold.

Over time, rust will lead to structural damage and mechanical failure.  Always have a vehicle checked out by a capable mechanic before purchasing. If possible, source your bus from a dry area like the Southwest desert.

Breakdowns

Breakdowns happen with nearly all vehicles. Parts can be difficult to find and expensive if they are available. Driving a skoolie can be an experience with a steep learning curve when it comes to self-reliance. You might find yourself becoming acquainted with replacing worn-out parts, how to access fuel pumps, and peculiarities of a bus not found on newer conversion vans. 

On the other hand, finding and fixing these problems might be easier (and cheaper) over time. Especially if you do the labor yourself.

Insurance

Good luck finding a reputable company that will insure your skoolie. Many insurance companies will consider a DIY build as a risk, especially when fire is concerned.  Many skoolie builds have incorporated wood-burning fireplaces to heat the living space when it gets cold.

It’s difficult to say how much these modifications compromise the safety of the bus. Many insurance companies won’t go near them for anything other than liability insurance.

Financing 

This part of buying a skoolie can be tricky.  You’re not likely to find a skoolie on a used RV lot. This leaves you with either buying a used bus and doing the work on it yourself (or hiring a builder) or buying a finished rig from a private seller.

Many banks will only consider a loan on a vehicle that is ten years old or newer. Most school districts are required to keep their buses in a fleet for a minimum of ten years. 

The price of a finished skoolie can limit your options when looking for a personal loan. It’s not uncommon for a finished skoolie to be $20-40k and beyond. Many banks won’t issue personal loans higher than $10k, even with spotless credit.

The pro with this, however, is not getting into a hundred thousand-dollar vehicle loan as you might with a conversion van.

The Pinch at the Pump

Unlike a conversion van, most skoolies suffer from low MPGs between fill-ups. Whether your rig is diesel or gasoline powered, the fuel cost can be prohibitive to how far you want to go.  Depending on the size of the rig and how heavy it is, skoolies can get around 8-12 miles per gallon—about the same as an RV.

One of the times a skoolie driver might get jealous of a conversion van lifer is at the fuel pump, where a Sprinter might get nearly twice the MPGs.

The Skoolie Stigma

Skoolies have long been associated with an element of American counter-culture that began in the 1960s. Though most people you meet on the road will wave or give you a big smile as you pass, others associate skoolies with a trouble-maker element or hard-core drug culture. In my experience, those sorts of people exist in nearly every group and neighborhood.

The majority of people I have met in skoolies have been families traveling with their kids, young couples, retirees. Higher end RVs can be cost-prohibitive for people living on a tight budget. It’s better to avoid judgment until you actually meet someone and they prove otherwise.

Unfortunately, in some places your skoolie can get a lot of negative attention, either from law enforcement or questionable characters.

Entering Van Life in a Skoolie

For many considering making the move to van life, options might seem limited.  Since 2020, the cost of conversion vans has increased considerably, and wait lists from reputable builders greatly limit your choices. The expense of a quarter million dollar conversion van might be enough to change the mind of anyone who was considering a life on the road.

Skoolies are an option for those determined to make a lifestyle of living and working on the road.

With increasing rent and the ever-widening gap in the cost of living, more and more people are bucking the conventions of a sticks-and-bricks lifestyle. A growing community has decided that a conventional lifestyle will never allow them to experience life on their terms. After all, the road is as much a community as any cul-de-sac–just more spread out.

We can meet the place we call home on a different level. We can make new friends along the way and find the kind of support in these friendships that’s been lost in conventional living. Many of us relish the newfound appeal of waking up in a new place every day.

We get to experience life in a way few rarely experience—and if we don’t like the weather (or our neighbors), we can just move. We get to make possible the dream of one day of exploring the USA, or just about anywhere four wheels can take us.

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Author: Clinton A. Harris

Bio:

Clinton A. Harris is a freelance writer, traveler, and journalist living full-time on the road in a converted school bus with his dog, Penny. You can check out more of his work at his blog, www.shake-some-dust.com, as well as his podcast, Shake Some Dust, which can be found on Spotify and ApplePodcasts.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for filling in some information I have wondered about. This would be a fun adventure.

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