How To Buy A School Bus for Your Conversion
Updated: Mar 31
Buying a School Bus
When you have finally decided that you want to start a bus conversion, the first question many people have is how do you decide what type of school bus to buy? This is an honest first question since, for many of us, what we know about school buses is limited to our memory of taking one to school as a kid. Even though this maybe all you know, the process of finding the right bus is not as hard as you would think. Finding the right bus for you is only three key decisions away. The first decision is determining the correct length and body style. The second decision is narrowing down the drivetrain options, and the third decision is evaluating the overall condition of the bus. Once you decide and understand these three easy steps, buying the school bus will be one of the simplest parts of your conversion.
If you interested check out my video on this topic.
Body Style and Length
The first key decision is finding the right length and body style of your bus. There are many different types of buses out there, everything from full length buses to vans, high-tops and low tops (explained below), truck chassis or van chassis, flat noses (with pusher or puller engines) to dog nose buses, diesel or gasoline engines, air brakes to hydraulic brakes, the list can go on and on. In order to narrow down the list, you need to answer one simple question, how do you see yourself living the buslife? Answering this question will quickly take that large list down to just a few. This question is quintessential because you need to consider how the vehicle size and style will affect your intended lifestyle. I have three easy tips that can help you to start working through this question.
Tip One: Traveling style
The first thing you might want to consider is, what type of traveling you see yourself doing or where you see yourself parking?. For instance, if you see yourself as a frequent traveler, zipping all over the country, then maybe a full-length school bus is not going to be the most ideal. Likewise, if you want to free camp and explore some amazing backcountry locations, a full-length bus may still not be ideal. It is important to know that many national parks, state parks and backcountry mountain passes have length restrictions. For example, Glacier, Zion, and Arches NP all have 21-28 foot length restrictions on certain roads. Therefore, if you’re looking to travel all over the country, length is something to consider. However, if you are a family of 4 or a group of friends looking to live the buslife, a full size bus might be the right choice for a happy lifestyle. For those of you who are looking for a little bit more room, then a full-length bus could be a great choice. You will still be able to get around the country and it will just effect some locations where you can stay or the roads you can take. However, just because you choose to buy a larger school bus, does not mean you can’t visit national parks or awesome locations. It simply means, you will just need to either find an alternative mode of transportation or tow a car behind your rig.
Purchasing a van style bus or a mid-size truck chassis bus has some great advantages since they are extremely mobile and can get into almost all NP (as long as they meet the restrictions) and obviously don’t need much room to park while still giving you the opportunity to build in what you need to be comfortable. These types of vehicles will require you to really consider what you need and to be very creative in your design options to insure you have multi functioning components.
Tip Two: Ease of Driving
The second decision you are going to want to consider is, how different styles of buses drive? The biggest difference between a truck chassis school bus and a van is that the larger vehicles have an amplified tail swing and turning radius. When you are trying to decide which bus is right for you, it is important to remember these factors. A vehicle with a larger wheelbase and size equals a larger tail swing and wider turning radius, likewise, the smaller the wheelbase the less effect you will have on tail swing and turning. Most of the time, flat nose buses will have shorter wheelbase than dog nose buses, resulting in a better turning radius. If you are someone who is not overly comfortable with larger vehicles, then this will be something to seriously consider when looking for a school bus. Also, you will need to consider the blind spots that each vehicle has and how comfortable you are driving a vehicle with this encumbrance. Another thing to consider is that, depending on the size and weight of the bus you buy it may have air or hydraulic brakes. These two types of braking systems require you to brake differently, a little bit of practice can quickly solve this issues.
Tip Three: Interior Space
The last thing that you will want to consider is the interior height of the school bus. Essentially, school buses come in two different styles, high tops and low tops. In my opinion, unless you’re looking to raise the roof, there is no point in a low top roof. Many times people don’t know that buses come in different body heights and that you don’t have to settle with a 5’10” interior. This even includes mini buses. For example, Thomas Freightliners in the 2000’s came in high top and low top models. My personal bus is a 2004 Thomas Freightliner high top and has a factory 6’ 4” ceiling. If you are looking for a bus with a higher ceiling than 6’ 4”, you will have to look into the process of doing a roof raise. For your information, a roof raise can cost around $8-$14 thousand (if done professionally) so it might be worth looking at a few high top buses before committing to the cost.
It can be difficult to imagine the way you see yourself living the buslife, especially if you have never lived in a small space or lived on the road previously. Hopefully, these tips have help you to start asking the right questions about which body style and length will best suit your needs. The most important part about choosing the right bus is to consider your options before you pick the first bus you see.
The second key point to consider when buying a school bus is the drivetrain. I am sure for most of us, this section can cause a lot of anxiety because most people are not diesel mechanics and have little experience in this area. But, don’t worry you do not need to be a master mechanic, engine guru or handy man to figure out what drivetrain is right for you. All you need to do is learn about is the different between what I am calling a mountain bus (high geared) and a highway bus (low geared) and that not all buses are created equal. If you know anything about the different types of pickup trucks on the market you also can understand the bus market. If you go into a truck dealer and want to buy a new pickup truck, the sales person is going to be able to show you various models. These models will vary in engine size, suspension height, transmission options, and rear wheel options. The reason these options exist is because people will need a truck to perform differently, depending on its intended use and environment. School buses are manufactured exactly the same way. Buses are designed for their use and environment. For example, you can find buses, which are made to pull up mountains with ease and buses that are designed to run at highway speeds. It is important to get the correct drivetrain for your intended lifestyle.
A mountain bus is going to be a bus with a high gear ratio overall. Simply put, a high gear ratio means that you will have higher torque, lower top speed, and higher RPM’s at cruising speeds resulting in lower gas mileage. These buses will be able to climb and descend mountain passes with ease and get you through back roads quite easily. However, on long stretches of roads and highways they will typically not be able to sustain highway speeds efficiently and have poor fuel mileage. If you are going to be traveling long distances or plan on circumventing the globe, this is not the style bus you want. These buses would be used in perhaps urban areas or rural areas with hills.
A highway bus will have a lower gear ratio overall. This will result in better fuel mileage and higher top speeds. Unfortunately, this means the bus will have less torque and power, meaning it will not accelerate quickly from a stop and will be slow climbing inclines. Even if you plan on crossing major mountain passes this option will work, you will just be very slow up the mountain. These buses would be used more so in suburban areas and rural flat areas where greater distances between stops In my opinion, a bus that has a lower gear ration is ideal since one of the biggest expenses is fuel. If you can increase you fuel economy any percentage it will save you thousands over time. I changed my rear gear ration on my bus and increased my fuel economy and speed by 25% and have already recovered the cost of the gear change. Many of us will be traveling through the mid and southwest where the roads are relatively flat (other than over the Rockies) and we won’t need the torque to make the climbs and even if we do need to climb the scenery is usually beautiful so why not take our time.
Bonus Tip - Something to Consider:
As an extra tip, when looking for a used school bus consider what type of environment it was used in. It is possible to find buses with various engine and body options depending on environment. For example, engine breaks, air conditioning, block heaters, and cruise control. If you find a bus that was used in Arizona, it will likely have an air conditioner built in, which could be used while driving. Similarly, if you find a bus that was designed for colder climates, it will mostly likely have a built in engine block heater and diesel tank heater. Depending on what type of traveling or environment you plan on living in, one of these options might be good to look for in a used school bus. There is also a sweet spot on the age of the bus and ease of working on the engine and the amount of “control devices” that are on the engine. Right now, some of the newest buses that can be purchased aftermarket are 2008 buses, which have more devices, attached to the engine then a 2004. Another consideration is the type of engine in the bus such as a Cummins, Caterpillar, Navastar (International) etc. and the ease of getting parts for your particular engine around the country.
Condition Of the Bus
This tends to be the most over shadowed part when people are buying a bus. Most people are so excited to have found a decently priced school bus online or at auction that they forget to check the overall condition of the metal and frame. There is a phrase that is used in the bus community, “a rusty bus is always going to be a rusty bus”. What this means is that you might have found the perfect body size and shape, the prefect drivetrain for you and you are set on this being the best bus, however it is excessively rusty. Walk away! I can guarantee that you will fight the rust all the way to the junkyard. This is not to say that you can’t buy a rusty bus and bring it back to life, it is just that rust will always return in time. Besides rust dooming your “home” to the junkyard, maybe years or decades down the road, during the conversion you will be fighting rusty bolts, water issues and rusted wheel wells. It is not worth putting yourself through the hassle, especially when there are tons of buses on the market. You just need to keep looking. It is worth spending a few thousand more to get yourself a rust free bus even if you have to transport it to your build location. It will cut weeks out of your build, trust me on this one.
Where to check?
If you are going to look at a school bus and have never seen a ‘good’ vs. ‘rusty’ bus, I want to give you some places to look, which will help you determine if a bus is in decent shape for a conversion. The first place you are going to want to look is under the bus. You will want to bring a flashlight and look over the general underbody. You might see surface rust, but as long as it is not flaking off or you can poke through the metal, it is workable. The next place you will look is in the wheel wells. It might be hard to peek in around the tires but make sure you do a solid once over. Road water and salt will spray up in the wheel wells and over time can rust out the metal. If the underbody looks in decent shape I typically then look at the backside of the bus. Specifically, below the windows just above the bumper. If you see paint bubbling or clear signs of rust seeping out of the rivets/screws. That is telling you that the window gaskets or lights are leaking and have begun rusting out the back wall from the inside. You can use this same technique on the sides of the bus below the windows. Lastly, give a good look at the passenger side vs. the driver side underbody. Typically, due to road spray and the fact that the driver side is toward the center of the road, it will have worst damage. If you find this to be true you may want to walk away. Many buses on the used bus market are going to have signs of rust because they are old and have driven 150,000-200,000 miles. What this means is that you need to find the best bus you can. Do not expect a rust free bus or one that looks like it came out of the factory. Find a bus that you think you can work with and that is going to be manageable. If a bus has surface rust, it is possible to sand blast or clean it then recoat the underside of the bus. This will give you many more years out of the frame. It all comes down to finding the best bus and one that you are comfortable with.
As I explained throughout this entire blog post, there are a plethora of options when it comes to the combinations of condition, styles, lengths and mechanics. The last thing you want to do is settle on the first bus you see. The right bus is out there so don’t settle right away. You will want to give yourself the proper time to find and start off with the right bus. The perfect bus will not amazingly appear in front of you. You will need to go out and start looking, be willing to get under the bus and look for rust, ask questions to the seller, and try to get as much information as possible. If you are buying it from a school district or bus company directly, ask for the service records. Take it for a test ride, see if there is any wheel shake in the steering, look at the steer tires for unusual wear, check the tires for tread depth (they cost about $300 a piece) Think of buying a bus as the same process as buying a house. I think everyone would thoroughly look over a house before they buy it or bring an inspector along, so find a mechanic who you trust and have them give you an opinion. You would never buy a house that has serious water damage or foundation issues so in the same way you would never want to buy a bus in bad condition. The right bus is out there for you; just keep looking till you find it.