Hi guys! I’m stepping in from my hiatus to talk about why I haven’t been online much lately: my fiancé and I are in the process of turning our mini school bus into a functional tiny home on wheels!
A disclaimer: I am no sort of expert on this process. My fiance (henceforth referred to as The Drummer) is 110% of the brains behind our operation, and we’re also indebted to a lot of the folks out there YouTubing their skoolie conversions. So while I do want to blog about this experience—since it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life—I’m going to focus more on the general aspects of what I’m learning along the way, and how the venture interacts with my mental health.
buying a bus: getting lucky
Buying any sort of vehicle is an investment—especially when that vehicle is also going to be your semi-permanent home. You don’t want to just throw money away for no reason, which is why I stress the importance of doing your research.
The Drummer and I were lucky in that my brother has worked in the automotive industry for over a decade, so we were able to pick his brain. Without my brother, we wouldn’t have acknowledged that a diesel engine is the better option in terms of cost effectiveness and longevity.
The biggest thing we learned (and ultimately the reason we went with a school bus instead of a camper van or traditional RV) is this: school buses are built to last forever. Where the average car might last for 20 years or 200,000 miles, buses are built more sturdily. On top of the sheer longevity of school buses, they’re also built to be incredibly safe.
A lot of the skoolie YouTubers will tell you that buying a bus really comes down to a lucky deal. Unless you have a really flexible budget, you don’t want to dump $5,000 into the purchase itself when you’re going to be out even more money to gut and convert the bus. The Drummer and I got extremely lucky: we got our bus from a school district for a fraction of the other offers we found. Our 2001 Chevy 3500 short bus has roughly 165,000 miles on it—which is 100,000 miles less than a lot of the other buses we were looking at.
We decided to go with a “short bus” for multiple reasons. For one thing, we were concerned about being able to legally drive a longer bus without having a commercial driver’s license. For another thing, our goal with this project is to simplify our lives. Plenty of skoolies out there have completely decked out their full-size school buses, but we didn’t really want to go that route. Either way, it’s good to know what you want when you’re going into it.
gutting the damn thing: when you want to give up, DON’T
In a lot of ways, The Drummer and I lucked out in this department; in other ways, not so much.
For one thing, since we bought a wheelchair-accessible bus, we had fewer original seats to rip out. But the few we had gave us absolute hell. Turns out, bus seats are bolted all the way through to the underside of the bus, and most of our bolts were too rusty to simply unscrew and remove.
On top of that, we also had to find a way to remove the wheelchair lift itself. (See also: more rusty bolts and a lot of confusing electrical components.) Fortunately for us, a mechanic in the neighborhood loaned us his grinder, so The Drummer basically just chewed the bolts off.
The gutting process took about a week, but it could’ve taken even longer. While most folks opt to completely gut the flooring (and sometimes the walls) of their bus, we decided to leave the existing floor, seal it with primer-sealer paint, and attach our own flooring on top. One of our biggest goals with this project is finding ways to repurpose what we already have, be it aspects of the bus’s original design or items we have on hand thanks to The Drummer’s grandfather’s stash of random pieces of wood.
The process of gutting the bus for conversion is absolutely a test of will. Throughout this first week, my excitement for the future was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of everything that we needed to accomplish. As much as we wanted those seats to come out in a matter of hours, it didn’t work that way, and we had to problem solve to get there. As much as we wanted to just start building, we had to assess the overall integrity of what we were working with.
So far, taking on this task has been a test of my (and The Drummer’s) patience, resourcefulness, and ability to problem-solve—all of which, I would argue, are important life skills, especially when we’re about to be living on the road. But I’ve also found that help sometimes comes from unexpected places: from my dad, an electrical engineer who FaceTimed us through the process of disconnecting the electrical on the wheelchair lift; and from the neighbor who offered to loan us a valuable tool.
The first week of our school bus conversion was the most stressful week I’ve had in a long time. And yet, it showed me what I’m capable of withstanding.
For the first several months of 2017, I was languishing in the pit of despair, where my depression convinced me that I was incapable of basic adulthood. This past month, though, I’ve had to get on my feet and do something about my living situation, by getting a job and then by embarking on this new journey with the love of my life. I’ve relearned something I thought I learned when I moved to New York three years ago: if you don’t challenge yourself, you’ll never know just how much you’re really able to accomplish.