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Build a school bus camper with 10 simple tips

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We first thought about living in a school bus camper back in 2017. At the time, my husband Nick and I rented a house in the country outside of Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

We felt lost, 24 years old with no idea what to do next.

We looked at houses, but they were too big of a commitment. One we weren’t ready to make financially or geographically.

There we sat, feeling stagnant, but craving freedom and adventure, so our focus turned to travel.

I had seen these beautiful skoolie tiny homes on Instagram and wanted to live that way, too. A flash of the episode You Live In What? came to my brain. There were just so many ways to build out a school bus and my inner wannabe HGTV designer creative juices started flowing.

I imagined the far off places we could camp in the middle of nowhere, and live a nomadic life…

We had a conversation about our options; we needed room for our dogs and I wanted windows. Nick wanted good mileage and a vehicle that didn’t need much work.

Whatever we bought needed to fit in our $3,000 budget.

So, we decided we’d take on a school bus RV.

Our school bus camper was a dream come true

We finally found a 30′ skoolie with tons of windows and only 32,000 miles. It belonged to a very small school and had been decommissioned because of age.

They were only asking $2,400! We looked at the pictures of the 1996 international school bus and we knew. We were so excited! We’d finally found our tiny home.

Sumar and her husband standing in front of their brand new school bus camper

Building out our school bus was hard. We spent one year renovating the bus, only to turn around and remodel six months later to prepare for our child. 

In this process of buying and fixing up a skoolie, we learned a lot. 

If you’re thinking about living in a school bus, here are our best tips and tricks for picking the right bus and converting it into a tiny home. 

1) Check the tires and undercarriage of the skoolie

For some, this is probably self-explanatory, but you may be like us and be so excited that you forget to check anything at all. A bus tire can cost you $500! It can actually be cheaper to buy a school bus camper than the tires for the bus. Did your mind blow, because mine did! School bus auctions can start as low as $300.

We got lucky in this department.

We didn’t know the first thing about buses, engines or what to look for. So my big advice to you is to start by checking the tires! There are six tires, and a damaged or worn tire adds up fast.

Crawl under there, estimate how the cost of tires could throw a big curveball in your plans. Also, while you’re looking at the tires, check for rust. You won’t typically see the rust by walking through; you’ll have to get dirty and scrape some dirt. We found the most rust on our bus around the wheel wells and the back end. A little rust can be treated, a lot of rust could mean you have nothing to lay flooring on.

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2) Make sure the bus doesn’t have speed restrictions

I wish we would have known about this before we bought the school bus camper. This one thing means that we must reroute our travel plans to avoid as many mountains as possible.

Some buses have a thing called a governor; it essentially caps the speed of the bus. Ours can’t drive over 65 mph.

Some governors are electronic, others are mechanical and connected to vital engine parts. The removal of the governor is something that goes over my head, it is possible…but expect to replace parts.

3) Don’t be afraid to rent or borrow tools

Patching up holes in the school bus camper's floor
Patching up holes in the school bus camper’s floor

For the love of God, get an impact! Rent it, borrow it, anything! To remove the seats, get an impact! We were not this smart.

Blood, smashed fingers and a tetanus shot later…we really wished we would have.

There are also so many tools that are needed to build a bus; saws, drills, hammers, oh my! Someone you know will have tools you can use, and you’ll save a small fortune. Not to mention you won’t have to find somewhere to store them when you move into your small space.

We haven’t met someone who isn’t thrilled about being a part of a school bus conversion, and will gladly lend out tools.

4) Check for window leaks in your school bus camper

Did you ever play with rain that puddled on the windowsill on a bus ride to school? Well, if you don’t check for leaks before you start building your school bus RV, that little drip will damage your hard work. It may not be detrimental, it may be as simple as repainting, or it could mean ripping up flooring.

The easiest solution is checking the windows and sealing the leaks.

Some school bus conversions replace the windows completely. It’s an option. We power washed the windows, doors and the hatches on the roof. This cleans the bus and indicates where leaks are. One leak can ruin months of progress and destroy materials.

5) Consider your height before buying a skoolie

school bus camper interior and insulation
Make sure you can stand up in your school bus conversion! If not, you may have to raise the roof.

We are short. With both of us under 5’8 (one of us very much under) we didn’t have to worry about the 6ft ceilings.

Even in the bathroom, where we are on a foot taller platform – we are still ok! That short!

But if you’re taller than those 6ft ceilings you may want to consider raising the roof. This is a project we know very little about. We have seen pictures and videos of families doing it. One family raised it so they could add a loft for their kids.

The point here, if you’re tall understand that the bus is not.   

6) Planning is everything with a school bus camper

When you think you have a plan, plan some more. We have changed the layout of our school bus RV several times while in the process of building. We bought a horse trough for a bathtub, but when we found out our family was going to grow by one, suddenly, that bathtub took up needed space.

Plan every inch in and under the bus.

Consider where you are wanting to put your plumbing, a propane tank and how that sets with the already running mechanics of the bus. You will be thankful later. Had we planned for the unexpected, had we planned every inch better (and every inch matters in a 240 square foot living space), or even just sat with the ideas a bit longer, we wouldn’t have had to buy unnecessary things.

Plan, take a week off and let it sink in. Plan for the unthinkable, because the unthinkable happens!  

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7) Get the right insurance for your school bus conversion

We had heard horror stories about insurance for a school bus conversion. I spent an entire week calling every insurance company I had ever heard of.

Typical insurance isn’t going to just bundle your school bus camper with your car.

Finally, after days of searching, we called Good Sam. They’re the only ones that didn’t say “yeah, no. We aren’t going to insure your school bus.” They informed me they were one of the only ones that insured school bus conversions.  

Good Sam is one of the only companies that will insure a school bus camper.

They asked standard questions, asked us to email pictures of the outside and inside of our school bus RV, and sent us our online insurance cards the next day. We’ve had a wonderful experience with the company; however, we’ve never had to file a claim.

The pricing may differ, but we got our skoolie covered for $100 a month.

8) Make sure your skoolie is legal

The finished interior of Sumar's school bus camper with wood floors and inlaid brick
Getting our school bus camper street-legal wasn’t as hard as we thought.

This could vary from state to state, or even town to town. Again, we had read horror stories! We had put off the legality aspects thinking it was going to be a grueling task.

Making the bus legal was probably the easiest part of the entire school bus conversion!

Let me start by saying I am no expert in this area. Where we lived the DMV wasn’t sure how to help us. When you buy a school bus, you’re buying a “personal” vehicle and if your bus has no air brakes you won’t need a CDL to drive it.

The general idea is that to allow your new home to be legal, you will first have to file paperwork (for some this may be all you need to do), others you will have to have an inspection and an inspection done by a state trooper.

Making our school bus legal was way easier than we thought! 

You may then have to prove that everything in the bus was purchased, for this reason, it’s important to keep receipts. I’ve only read about the extensive process to legalize a bus. Most people just need to file paperwork.

For some states you can’t allow your new skoolie to have anything school-oriented. For example- it can’t be the classic school bus yellow, the stop sign cannot say “stop,” be red, or functioning. You can’t have the long “by state law” on the back or any school info on the side (typically whoever is selling will take off the school info before you buy).

In our small town, no one cared. Because skoolies are typically few and far between, you’d be amazed at the lack of knowledge on what needs to be done for a school bus conversion to be legal.

We were amazed and skeptical at the ease of getting plates for our school bus. We passed a basic inspection and then showed proof of insurance, walked out of the DMV with plates and an audience that wanted a tour.

9) Know how to find parking for your school bus RV

The unfortunate truth is that some RV parks will turn you away because you’re driving a school bus conversion. It doesn’t matter how pretty your bus looks, they will not allow you. I tend to think “well, fine then! We wouldn’t want to stay there anyway.” Some parks care about a sticker that says RV (cue that paperwork).

To find an RV park that will accept skoolies you may just have to call around. I’ve honestly only heard of this happening to one family in California.

You can also add solar panels and a water tank and park at conservation areas or (almost) anywhere your heart desires.

There are many skoolie families who stay in Arizona for extended periods of time. The important thing is to remember that a bus drives differently than your basic car. Some areas may be difficult if not impossible to get to.

10) Find community in your school bus camper

We didn’t realize it when we bought our bus, but there is an amazing community surrounding the Skoolie life. There will be countless people to ask questions, troubleshoot ideas, and share your own build. From Instagram, Facebook and Reddit, you’ll find friends all over the country if not the world who are embarking on the same adventure.

We can only speak from our experiences and what we’ve seen other friends go through.

We would love to have you join in on this amazing adventure. I also can’t express the joy we feel when we look around our home, see all we built with our own hands. We have put blood, sweat and tears into this untraditional place we call home.

And we couldn’t be happier.

Read more stories about school bus campers: 

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