So I Bought a Bus... with @taleoftwosmittys
Names: Cody & Laura Smith (and our dog Raleigh)
YouTube: Tale of Two Smittys
Facebook: Tale of Two Smittys
We’re Cody and Laura Smith and with our sweet dog, Raleigh, we are converting a 2009 Blue Bird Vision into our tiny dream home on wheels. We used the hashtag #TaleOfTwoSmittys when we got married and have been posting to it ever since. This bus conversion is by far the coolest thing we’ve ever done so it only made sense for us to continue using this hashtag and name to share our journey! The acronym is what gave our bus his (yes, it’s a boy) name, TOTS!
What inspired/led you to buy a school bus?
For Laura’s 30th birthday, she threw a dart at a map blindfolded, and Cody had four months to plan a surprise trip around that destination. Luckily for all involved, that dart landed on Kalispell, Montana and Glacier National Park. Long story short, the trip was amazing and life-changing! We realized how much we enjoy the outdoors and beautiful landscapes and living without a schedule. On our flight home, we watched the Netflix documentary "Expedition Happiness" and we were sold! We wanted to see the country in a beautiful home on wheels that we built.
Did you have any criteria for what you were looking for in a bus?
Laura’s dad has been in the bus maintenance business his entire career, and we leaned on his expertise in this area. We quickly learned we should try to look for a bus from a hot and dry climate (avoid rust!). We also hoped to have low miles and, if possible, an activity bus with a few extra inches of headroom. Mechanically, we set out to find a DT466 engine with an Allison transmission. Because we ended up finding a newer bus, the DT466 wasn’t as common as with older buses, and we went a different route with the Cummins engine.
Where/how did you find the bus?
Cody contacted local school districts to ask about potential buses and kept getting directed to online auction sites. We found our bus in Phoenix, AZ after a couple of weeks of filtered searches. The site we used was Public Surplus. The bidding process was exciting if not stressful. We ended up spending a bit more than we wanted, but our bus (now named “TOTS the Bus”) was in tremendous condition, and spending the money on the front end will (hopefully) save us some money later!
How long were you searching before you found the one you bought?
From the first email with questions about a bus to many Google searches and phone calls to bidding on TOTS was about two months – we lucked out!
Did you look at multiple buses before buying the one you did? If so, what stopped you from buying the others?
We didn’t go see any buses in person before bidding on TOTS. Honestly, we really had our sights on this specific bus so we luckily didn’t have to go through the process with any others. We browsed several auction sites and even checked out postings for already-converted skoolies, but never inspected one.
Did you do research on what to look for in a potential purchase beforehand? What are some good resources that you used?
As mentioned above, Laura’s dad was our best resource for sure! He is a mechanic by trade and worked in the maintenance division for a major school bus company for almost 40 years. Fun fact, he was also used as a bus subject matter expert in court! This has been super helpful during the build, but it has been important to us to learn how to do the work in this conversion. This is our first build project of any sort. We have worked to build our relationship with the Skoolie community and have found great resources there. We ask a lot of questions through Instagram and online forums. YouTube has also been an invaluable tool!
When you first saw your bus was there anything that concerned you about it?
There weren’t any concerns with TOTS, fortunately. We knew this going into the purchase, but there is quite a bit of paint damage and a crack on the hood. Nothing too bad!
Was there anything that excited you about the bus you bought when you first saw it?
NO WHEEL WELLS!! We repeat…NO WHEEL WELLS!! Not having to work around wheel wells gave us so much more freedom in our floorplan design. Also, having an accessible bus let us remove the seats easily and quickly from the tracks on the floor. Another bonus feature of an accessible bus is the extra height. Cody is 6’0 so every inch helps.
What did you learn during the buying process? What would you do differently if you did it again?
During the bidding process specifically, we learned that there are all kinds of accounts bidding on buses – not just starry-eyed nomads like us. We were bidding and bidding against two other accounts and once we hit their threshold (of $7,000) they both dropped out and we won the bus! With the site we used (Public Surplus), we made sure to understand the entire process of bidding and actually paying for the bus. We had to make sure our financials were lined up and ready to go because payment was due three days after purchase. Additionally, Cody placed a very low bid on another bus before TOTS to understand the process of the auction and not let us be surprised by anything.
Do you regret getting the bus that you have instead of a different one?
We don’t regret our bus for one second!
What was the registration process like for you in your state?
In Texas, the DMV has an “Assembled Vehicle Manual”. Under “Converted Trucks & Buses”, the motor home definition says the vehicle must be “built on a motor vehicle chassis as an integral part of or a permanent attachment to the chassis” and must contain four of the following 6 “life support systems that are permanently installed…”:
a cooking facility with an on-board fuel source;
a gas or electric refrigerator;
a toilet with exterior evacuation;
a heating or air conditioning system with an on-board power or fuel source separate from the vehicle engine;
a potable water supply system that includes at least a sink, a faucet, and a water tank with an exterior service supply connection;
a 110-125 volt electric power supply.
Until we are done converting, we are simply registered as a private bus. This distinction, at least in Texas, prevents us from certain types of passenger transportation (chartering, charging for rides, etc.), but allows us to legitimately operate the bus on the road in the meantime.
Did you drive the bus home? What was it like driving it for the first time?
Cody flew with Laura’s dad to Phoenix and drove it from the school district yard to Dallas in a couple of days. It was smooth driving, however, the air conditioning in the front wasn’t working very well and it was a HOT drive. It only took a little bit of practice for Cody to get the hang of driving a 38’ vehicle.
Did you need any special licenses or have to jump through any legal hoops?
No – legally it was all very easy. In Texas, there is a rule about a vehicle under 26,000 pounds with a certain number of passengers NOT requiring a CDL. We did make sure we had a temporary trip permit through the Texas DMV.
How did you insure your school bus and what was the process like?
Regarding insurance, our first call was to our current vehicle insurance provider, Progressive. The commercial division was willing to insure the bus as it was but informed us that they would not be able to continue coverage as we progress through conversion. We have since spoken with someone else at Progressive who updated us that we are insured until the bus is completed and we are ready to move in.
Is there anything else you want to share for those that are in the buying process or will be in the future?
We know most people don’t have access to a bus guru but did learn that maintenance history details are usually accessible. Often, calling the school district will enable you to get to the maintenance team. Using the info from the auction site (VIN & school district bus #), Cody just told them we were buying one of the buses and wanted to have an idea of what he was going to show up to. They confirmed that there were no mechanical issues (except perhaps needing a jump after sitting a while) and that the bus was being auctioned because of the A/C issue. It was a special needs bus in the Arizona desert. They didn’t want to worry about A/C issues with the students. The beauty of school buses is that their maintenance records are (typically) very well documented for legal reasons. If you connect with the right person, you should be able to get really great information on your exact bus.