Before Bus Life – Planning to Live in a School Bus

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Here are all the questions you might have if you are considering bus life. Why bus life? What made it possible? Where do I even start?

What made bus life possible?

Prior to bus life, we had fairly different lives than we do now. Here’s a throwback: Josh worked with heavy construction for his family’s business; running everything from scrapers to semi-trucks to dozers. He couldn’t take a classic summer vacation because he was one of those guys in the neon yellow shirts working from sunrise to sunset. Time off was usually limited to winter vacations.

man wearing sunglasses and safety vest inside a volvo loader

Since getting out of college, I had always worked in an office environment, as a structural engineer. My job led me about 5 hours away from home though, so as part of my on-boarding I bargained to be able to move to an office closer to home (or be remote) once I had been trained by my group. My plan was to move back home once were married. We had planned to get married May of 2020.

COVID brought changes

Little did we know, COVID would bring big changes to our life. Not only did this throw a wrench in our wedding planning, but the whole world went remote. Well, except the construction workers. I moved home earlier than planned. With all the unknown, we decided to nix the big-white wedding for May and instead follow COVID procedure with a 10 person gathering max. Our immediate families gathered around us at Josh’s grandma’s house for our wedding in April 2020.

We were newly married, I was working remotely from home, but Josh was still working long hours in construction. When he was young, Josh had dreamed of growing up operating equipment and working with family construction business.

However, his back didn’t quite agree with this choice. Bouncing around in equipment all day made him aware that his body may not appreciate this work style for the next 40 years. So Josh scouted around and found a new job in Massachusetts! It was still in the construction vein, but now he does computer modeling and grading for construction equipment. This new job could be performed remote, so that’s when Josh got an itch that we could really work from anywhere we wanted to.

What other options did we consider?

Campers

Before bus life, Josh had a pickup. Some of the more traditional ideas we considered were a fifth wheel or a camper. However, we felt that these options didn’t really feel like us. We wanted to be able to still cook fancy meals and have room to both cook at the same time, which didn’t seem to be a priority in many (or any) campers. Also most campers didn’t have adequate room for both of us to have separate offices.

suburban pulling a camper above a 2nd picture of an RV

RVs & Tiny Homes

What about an RV or a tiny home? Remember, we were just married; just finished paying our college bills and didn’t have much of a nest egg for ourselves yet. These had the size requirements to meet our kitchen and office needs, but at a higher cost than we could afford.

In addition, we wanted to ensure that the constructability of our home was as reliable as possible. Many RVs are made out an aluminum shell and particle board for the interior furnishings. By building our own home, we would be the ones to blame if there were any malfunctions and we could determine the quality of all of the materials we put into the build. Using a higher gauge of sheet metal on the exterior and plywood for our construction.

Why did we choose bus life vs vanlife?

We knew that if we were going to put in the effort to build the tiny house of our dreams, that it could grow and morph with our needs as we did. The flexibility of bus layout fit this much better than a van. We love to take the whole kitchen to cook and spread out with ingredients. Our couch can turn into a guest bed. If we needed to, we can easily sleep 4 people in the bus, potentially more if we get creative. Having a van didn’t seem like the best option for us if our needs changed in the future.

So we opted for as long of a bus as we could find. This provided the space we needed to perform all our typical at home tasks, having separate offices and still having room to live, have a giant kitchen, bedroom and bathroom where we wouldn’t have to “put away” a room to be able to use a different functionality. In addition, we made sure to plan ahead during our build, leaving Josh’s office large and mostly open in case a remodel is required in the future.

Preparing for the Build

Living in a Small Space

While Josh was doing job training for his new job in Massachusetts, we were already practicing living tiny. The apartment we stayed in had about the same square footage as our future bus would have! Although, it did have a bathtub; something I would come to miss in bus life.

Since our family was halfway across the country, we did Thanksgiving with just the two of us. We prepared the whole feast in our own tiny kitchen. We made bread, carrots, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and dessert in that tiny kitchen. Our meal was complete with a roast chicken as we were unwilling to eat turkey leftovers for the next month. This Thanksgiving test was a great way for us to see that we could still make great food even in a small space. This kitchen had less pantry and counter and storage space than our bus does!

Planning for our Future Space

In all our spare time in Massachusetts, we were dreaming about floor plans. What is a necessity? Is there a clever way to store that? What items will we need to purchase? We started making a list to prepare ourselves before we jumped into the build.

We brainstormed what our layout would look like. What kind of toilet did we want? Did we want a full size sink? This lead to us generating a list of the products that we would buy on our Black Friday shopping spree. We bought everything under the sun we could think of. Thanks to Amazon, we were able to ship it all home (to South Dakota) for Josh’s brother to move and reorganize until we got home. We probably saved 15-20% of our overall cost. Although some of our materials we should have researched more, such as an inverter and our stove. These we later found better alternatives that we have replaced (inverter) or that we could have designed around (stove).

If you want to see the products that we used and loved in our build check out our Amazon storefront here.

Shopping for the Bus

Josh had some very specific criteria that he was looking for in our future bus. It would need to be reliable! It was going to be our home after all. We didn’t want to have mechanical issues or be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Here is the criteria he was searching for at the start of our build:

  • Full size bus (40 ft long)
  • Caterpillar engine
  • Allison 3060 transmission
  • Pre-emissions (before 2004)
  • Minimal body work required

We found an amazing business to work with that turns around lot of busses. Josh talked to the owner and found out that the “dream bus” was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. However, Tony of AAA BUS found a bus that met almost all of the criteria; here’s what it had:

  • Full size bus, including air conditioning so it had higher ceilings
  • International engine, a DT466E
  • Allison 3060 transmission
  • Pre-emissions
  • A few dents in the body work near the flashing lights
  • No rust
a yellow flat nose school bus

Inspecting the Bus

This sounded like the bus for us, so Josh verbally accepted the bus given that the bus matched the description online. Then he bought some one way tickets to go take a look! Here’s what he found upon looking at the bus:

  • No leaks
  • Mechanically sound
  • No air leaks
  • Exactly as owner described
  • $100 to have all the seats removed from the bus
  • No rust

We decided this was what we were looking for, so we bought it! We paid $7000 for the bus (including the $100 to have all the seats removed). It would be possible to find a used school bus for less than this if you scout local auctions.

School districts are usually forced to replace their busses once they reach a certain mileage, which is usually quite low. The school district will set a mileage when there is usually more maintenance and make that their standard. Usually a school bus will have a lot of life left in it after this threshold.

Bringing the Bus Home

All Josh had taken on his one-way flight was his carry-on filled with camping supplies. He was planning to sleep in the bus as he drove it home. He left Phoenix around 1 in the afternoon and headed towards Flagstaff.

This all happened in early January, so it was cold in Flagstaff! Josh got the first taste of a very rustic (and cold) bus life. He had parked in a truck stop to get some sleep. Unfortunately sleep wouldn’t come; I think he was so excited to start this new project. So instead of sleeping, he hit the road again. This was the lightest our school bus would ever be, so Josh was able to make good time. Josh had 24 hours of travel and only lost about 30 minutes along the whole trip, just getting it home before sunset for me to see. He made sure to keep the fuel in the fuel level low as he ventured home, so that we didn’t have a ton of excess fuel and weight while we were working on the bus.

husband and wife in front of a school bus

On his drive home, Josh got the itch for the fun of travel. Once he got home he got to show me our future home. Here is our first picture together when I got my first glimpse of bus life.

The Family Construction Business

Josh’s extended family owns the construction business that Josh had worked for prior to his career change. They were gracious enough to let us use some of their shop space for the winter. As it turned out, South Dakota would have a warm enough winter where they could be out working. Usually during winter they are in the shop working on maintenance for all of the equipment for when the weather turns decent again.

They let us mooch some space of the heated heavy equipment shop (complete with heated floors) to work on the body work of the bus. One great perk of being able to use this space was they have an incredible set of high lift jacks that are Bluetooth operated. These jacks can raise a whole vehicle up 6 feet! We could raise the whole bus up so Josh could walk completely under the bus rather than being on creepers for his work.

The first work on the bus was in the wash bay.

Step 1: Pressure Wash

To make sure we had a clean slate to start with, we had to get rid of all the red Arizona dust. The nature of a school bus is driving down bumpy dusty roads. All the vibrations compact dust into every nook and cranny. There were pounds and pounds of dust. We pressure washed the whole thing and there was still some residual dust left, but at least we could see what we were working with!

We would suggest washing your bus with a garden hose if you don’t have access to a pressure washer. This will at a minimum let you know what you have to work with.

flat nosed school bus in a wash bay with a man and flashlight under the bus spraying water

Once the bus was clean we did a 10-point turn (minimum) around some of the family’s equipment to settle the bus into its spot for the winter. Next we could start the demo and metal working!

If you want to see the video accompanying this post, watch the video below!

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