Skoolie!: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle

Skoolie!: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle

by Will Sutherland


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School buses that have been converted into mobile living spaces — known as skoolies — are a natural extension of the tiny house craze. Buses are not only easier and safer to drive than an RV, they provide a jump-start on the conversion process with frame, roof, and floor already in place. Experienced builder Will Sutherland, whose creative school bus conversions have been featured in Road and Track and Popular Mechanics, is behind the wheel of this alluring look at life on the road. In addition to profiles of eight fellow skoolie fans and stunning photos of bus interiors designed for simple living, Skoolie! does what no other book on the subject has — it offers a complete, step-by-step guide to the conversion process, from seat removal to planning layout and installing insulation, flooring, and furnishings that meet your needs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635860726
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 10/15/2019
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 89,747
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Will Sutherland is a self-taught school bus converter who lives and works in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He documents his adventures on his Willbillys Facebook page and on Instagram. His conversions have been featured in Road and Track and Popular Mechanics.

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Regardless of how large or small your budget is, how many windows your bus has, how elaborate your interior is, or how large your solar array may be, you will undoubtedly enjoy your skoolie. It promises an adventurous life in a comfortable home that's also a reliable vehicle.

living the SKOOLIE LIFE

HOW CAN I begin to explain how exciting and inspiring it is to own your own home that is unlike any other? A home that can be relocated with ease while maintaining a comfortable setup with just a small carbon footprint? Tiny living opens up an entire new perspective on the American dream, whether it's in an RV, tiny house, van, or skoolie. I grew up in a time where "living in a van down by the river" was laughed at, but now that idea actually sounds like a great life!

LIFESTYLE CHANGES that come with owning a skoolie are abundant, such as not having to pay for a motel room if you decide to venture out for a weekend. And while tent camping is great, it's not something you can do year-round. Living in a skoolie will force you to be outdoors more often, adapting to the weather, getting plenty of vitamin D from the sunshine, and just living an overall more active life.

EVENTS that will make your skoolie shine range from music festivals to family gatherings. Anytime you have an overnight adventure planned, your skoolie awaits! Be prepared for lots of attention at festivals; everyone will be jealous of your setup. Being able to stay in my own skoolie during family reunions is one of my favorite benefits.

ENTERTAINMENT on board your skoolie can be as simple as a deck of cards or as complex as a projector screen and surround-sound system. A laptop or tablet with an Internet connection is all you really need for those rainy days, but there are fancier options. Flat-screen TVs are lightweight and energy efficient, and pico projectors can connect to your smartphone and provide a large screen. You can literally have a wall-size image in your bus for a few hundred bucks or less.

MAKE MONEY from your skoolie when you're not using it! The community of people who use Airbnb and other travel accommodation apps are on the prowl for unique places to stay. If you allow paying guests on your bus for two weekends out of the month, you could easily cover a couple monthly bills.

PEOPLE YOU MEET in the skoolie community are some of the most genuine folks you will ever encounter. Being a part of that community alone is worth the effort of building a skoolie. Instagram is a great place to connect, share ideas, and solve problems with other skoolie owners. Be warned: you will have to get used to doing impromptu "bus tours" for curious people you meet on your travels. You might be amazed at how many folks are intrigued by a skoolie.


WHEN YOU THINK of a school bus, you might not consider it as a potential dwelling. That's understandable. We are familiar with pull-behind campers, motor homes, conversion vans, and tiny houses, so why consider a bus instead? There are four very good reasons.


OWNING A SKOOLIE IS A WONDERFUL LIFESTYLE. It gives you the freedom to roam. "Home is where you park it" is just one phrase that summarizes life in a skoolie. Unlike most dwellings, your skoolie will be unique and customized to your needs and preferences. When you embark on a road trip and reach your destination, your home will always stand out rather than blend in, making it feel even more special. Also, you will make skoolie friends! When you meet a fellow skoolie owner, there is a connection like none other. You will speak the same skoolie language, share the same experiences, and, most important, have a similar view of how to live alternatively.


A SCHOOL BUS IS EXTREMELY DURABLE. A vehicle designed to transport 72 young lives is built with safety and sturdiness in mind. School buses are constructed on heavy-duty commercial truck frames by bus manufacturers such as Blue Bird and Thomas. The school bus body itself is framed with steel tubing and covered with steel paneling. On the exterior, there are additional thin sections of corrugated steel: known as rub rails, these are designed to minimize body damage from sideswiping and add to the structural integrity of the bus.

On top of a school bus, you will find a steel-framed, rounded metal roof designed to withstand extreme pressure from a rollover accident. Inside, light-gauge steel panels on the walls and ceiling are most commonly attached with rivets but sometimes (especially in older buses) they are attached with regular screws. Under the hood, nearly all school buses feature diesel engines, which are known for their commercial-grade durability and power. Needless to say, a school bus is built tough! By contrast, regular campers and RVs are constructed with affordability and weight in mind. A quick Internet search of "RV accidents" will give you an idea of what happens to them in a wreck. RVs are largely constructed with lightweight wood and fiberglass for the walls and roof. The roofs are flat, making them prone to water damage if they are not sealed and kept under cover regularly.

Tiny homes are solidly built and typically feature the same materials and construction as regular-size homes, but they are designed more for a permanent location rather than frequent travel. Tiny homes typically are mounted on trailers as a way to avoid building code restrictions and to make them technically movable (as in nonpermanent dwellings). They're not really designed to be routinely out and about on the highway.


SCHOOL BUSES ARE WELL MAINTAINED. School systems maintain their buses as a fleet. The phrase "fleet maintained" seen in ad listings is a good thing! Each bus gets routine oil changes and thorough inspections, and repair and maintenance costs are prebudgeted, so issues are quickly taken care of. By contrast, if you're shopping for an affordable used RV, it's possible the previous owner neglected to repair an issue in a timely fashion, which could lead to more wear and tear on other parts as well as a compromised overall mechanical function — problems you will have to face as the new owner.


SCHOOL BUSES ARE AFFORDABLE. Most school systems retire some buses each year based on age or mileage. I have found that most buses are kept in service for up to 10 years or 250,000 miles. Retired buses are usually auctioned off or sold in bulk to a dealer. A typical school bus may be auctioned for roughly a tenth of the cost of a used motor home or tiny house.

Used RVs and tiny homes simply cannot compete with the value of a used school bus. Sure, there are many happy folks traveling in traditional motor homes and sleeping in trendy tiny homes, but maybe you don't have that kind of budget, and maybe you want to go enjoy your life and independence sooner rather than later.

In addition, skoolies are simply cool! Skoolie owners soak up frequent thumbs-ups and peace signs from other drivers and enjoy giving the inquisitive couple at every stop a glimpse into their creative, unique, and liberating skoolie lifestyle.




There are several priorities to take into consideration when choosing the right bus for your skoolie transformation. Square footage is obviously a main priority, but what about maneuverability and your planned usage? Start by deciding what your bus will be used for and choosing an appropriate type and size. Then, it's time to shop around and buy your first bus!

which School Bus Is for Me?

THE BEST SIZE of bus depends on what you need. School buses come in three basic sizes: short, midsize, and full-size. A short bus offers the maneuverability of a van along with enough headroom to stand upright inside (which you can't do in most vans). Short buses are popular for weekend travelers and those who prefer a minimal amount of living space — a lot of people living in short buses spend the majority of their time outside, whether they're rafting, climbing, or skiing. Midsize buses offer a good blend of drivability and square footage. Plenty of couples live happily in their midsize buses year-round without compromising too much legroom. Full-size buses are for those who want to live full-time in their skoolies with enough space for all of the elements of a home plus space for kids or a lot of pets!

Sizing Up a School Bus

An easy way to roughly estimate the interior space of a bus is to count the number of passenger windows on one side and make a quick calculation. A full-size bus typically has 12 or more windows, a midsize bus has 6 to 11 windows, and a short bus has 4 to 6 windows. I have seen 3-window buses, but they're more like a van than a bus.

Estimate each window to be 30 inches wide, including the window pillars. This means an 8-window bus is roughly 20 feet long inside (30 inches × 8 windows, divided by 12 inches = 20 feet). Most buses are 71/2 feet wide inside, so multiplying the length in feet by 7.5 will give you the square footage of livable space. So, an 8-window bus will be roughly 150 square feet inside, and a 12-window bus will be around 225 square feet. By comparison, a typical tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.


Full-size buses are the norm for most folks who live in their skoolies full-time, but this also depends on the size of their household or family. If you have youngsters, you'll want to accommodate bunk beds. If you're planning to work from home, you may need space for an office. If you have three dogs, you may want a designated area for them. There are tons of different scenarios, so think hard about what would work best for you.

Inevitably, when you first sit down in the driver's seat of a full-size school bus, you will be intimidated by the vehicle's size. The steering wheel is nearly twice the diameter of those on cars, and the seat is more than a foot away from the driver's side of the bus, making it harder to visualize the overall width.

When driving a full-size bus, you need to pay close attention to the various mirrors that help you make turns and keep the bus centered in the lane. Also, buses take more time to get up to speed and to stop, so keep that in mind when turning onto roads or approaching a stop sign or red light. Fortunately, driving a school bus is something you'll pick up quickly and even grow to enjoy. Just remember to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road!


The midsize bus, also known as a three-quarters bus, is my favorite size. It's easier to park and maneuver on tight roads than a full-size, and it still has a decent amount of interior space. Unfortunately, midsize buses are less common than full-size because they're not in as much demand by school districts. Wheelchair accessible buses are often midsize or short buses and usually don't have as many miles as a full-size due to shorter daily routes. If you find a wheelchair-accessible bus and you don't need the chair lift, you can remove the lift to create a nice, wide side door that could be very useful, depending on your interior layout.

Midsize buses share some of the same driving characteristics of a full-size bus, but they make turns more easily and don't require as much space to turn around. Sometimes you can find a midsize bus that has a dedicated driver's door, similar to short buses, but this feature is rare.


Short buses are perfect for many people. A lot of van-life folks make the bold move from a van to a short bus because the pros greatly outweigh the cons. Short buses are typically just a couple feet longer than a van but up to 1½ feet wider. The biggest advantage over a van is that you can stand up in a bus. All van lifers would love to be able to stand upright in their vehicles, which is why the taller Sprinter vans have become popular. Unfortunately, Sprinter vans are not as wide as a short school bus — and definitely not as affordable!

A short bus is the least challenging of all school buses to drive. A short bus is built on a van chassis rather than a large truck chassis. Unlike larger buses, most short buses have a driver's-side door, which makes getting in and out of the bus easier and gives the driver a more conventional feel when maneuvering the bus.

Most short buses are the same width as a full-size bus (7½ feet), so the driver still needs to keep the extra width in mind when making turns and staying centered on the road. Although the overall height of a short bus is less than that of midsize and full-size buses, short buses still need more clearance than a van.


Flat-front buses are almost as common as full-size buses. A flat-front bus, also known as a flat-nose bus, is typically found in a full-size configuration with as many as 15 passenger windows! It is often assumed that a flat-front bus's engine is in the rear, making it a "pusher" style of bus (because the engine is pushing from the rear rather than pulling from the front). In reality, many flat-front school buses site the engine in the front, tucked below the driver's area. Midsize flat-front buses do exist, but they aren't as common as full-size. Compared to a conventional bus, a flat-nose bus with the engine in the front generates more interior noise when driving, but all school buses are relatively noisy compared to a car.

Driving a flat-nose bus is unique in that the driver sits above or slightly in front of the front tires, which maximizes visibility when turning the bus. This benefit aside, the same learning curve that applies to regular buses also applies to operating a flat-front bus.


Buses — including short buses — need more clearance than cars or RVs to get safely under bridges and down back roads (watch out for tree branches!). Measure the overall height of the bus (including things like roof vents or decks) so you know how much overhead clearance it needs. Post the minimum clearance dimension (10 feet, 12 feet, and so on) inside the bus so the number is clearly visible from the driver's seat. When you're barreling down the highway and see a road sign that says clearance 12' 6", you don't want to be trying to remember how tall your bus is (or asking the owner, if it's not your bus).


ONCE YOU' VE DECIDED to buy a bus, it is understandably an exciting time, but it is very important to be patient and hunt for the right vehicle! Finding a bus for your skoolie conversion can be done in several ways. The most common way is through online listings, such as Craigslist. Oftentimes buses listed online were purchased in bulk at auctions and are being resold individually, but there are also private sellers of individual buses.

Bus Auctions

Most school districts auction off their buses, and the vehicles are often bought in bulk by individuals who resell them for a profit. These auctions usually take place near the end of the academic year and are commonly under-advertised or heard about only through word of mouth. One way to find out where buses will be auctioned is by contacting local school bus garages and simply asking.

When bidding for a bus at an auction, you may have to compete with bidders who buy five or more buses at a time, which usually means they won't pay a lot for each bus. You will simply have to offer slightly more money than these buyers to win the bidding.

Before bidding, conduct a detailed inspection (see pages 25–30) of the bus and ask for any service records, or ask to speak with one of the mechanics familiar with the vehicle. Typically, buses at auctions can be inspected only while parked; they cannot be test-driven.

In recent years, many school districts have begun selling retired buses via online auction sites because they can tap a larger market and make more money. On auction sites, you can browse buses from all over the country and place bids. After winning a bid, you typically get a week to pick up the bus. If you're bidding long-distance, you'll have to assume the risks of a sight-unseen purchase (that is, no inspection or test-drive). If the bus is within reasonable driving distance, you should make the effort to inspect it before battling for the winning bid.


Excerpted from "Skoolie!"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Will Sutherland.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 Why a School Bus?
2 Bus Hunting 101: Choosing and Acquiring a Soon-To-Be Skoolie!
3 Layout and Design
4 Demolition
5 Exterior Makeover
6 Prepping for Construction
7 Insulation and Flooring
8 Interior Framing and Finishing
9 Skoolie Kitchens
10 Skoolie Bathrooms
11 Off-Grid Power
12 Climate Control
13 Water and Plumbing
14 Detailing Your Skoolie
Our Bus's Budget
Metric Conversions

Customer Reviews