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


By Will Sutherland

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 15, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

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.



This book is for my mother, Jane Barkley Sutherland, who is my inspiration for everything creative. Her support and encouragement to think outside the box, be unique, and love life have been the foundation upon which I live my life. I hope this book will help others discover their creative side, just as my mother did for me and for countless students she had throughout her life. Thank you, Mom.



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. Your Detailing Skoolie


Our Bus Budget


Metric Conversions


Other Storey Titles

Share Your Experience!


I am one of the millions of young adults who entered adult life six weeks after college with a daunting amount of student loan debt. The idea of owning my own home seemed as distant a possibility as living on the moon. But as it turned out, the economic recession that caused the housing market to crash enabled me to purchase a small (900-square-foot) home. I traded in my newer truck for a less expensive car, took on a second job, and just barely qualified for the house.

After moving in and settling down in my traditional home, I began to dream of living more uniquely and less trapped by my bills. Despite the excitement of owning my own home, I still felt part of a rat race where I worked to afford a house that I didn't actually get to enjoy very often.

It was around this time that the tiny house craze was born, and I wanted one! I picked a spot on my property, drew out some designs, and went to work digging holes for foundation posts. I had the entire foundation complete and was ready to build the walls when disaster struck. A derecho (a powerful thunderstorm) devastated our area, an hour west of Washington, DC, bringing down eight giant trees on my property and ruining my tiny-house progress. By the time I had cleared all the downed trees, winter was upon us, yet my itch for tiny living hadn't faded. I started to think outside the box and looked at a few recreational vehicles, travel trailers, and even box trucks.

Then, I found a school bus.

My friends thought I was nuts, but I had an overwhelming feeling in my gut that making a tiny house out of a school bus was meant to be. My first bus was a crash course of trial and error. Meanwhile, through social media, I was making new friends who were converting buses as well, and together we came up with all sorts of ideas and solutions. My first skoolie was an escape from the textbook American dream of going to college, getting a job, and buying a home.

With this book, I want readers to feel hopeful that there are other routes to successful, joyful lives that allow for more travel and outdoor adventures, all while having a smaller impact on the environment. I hope you'll use this book as a base for envisioning and creating your own American dream!

Why a School Bus?

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 a more active life overall.

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.

Why a School Bus Makes a Great Home

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 blending 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 no 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 a 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.

Bus Hunting 101Choosing and Acquiring a Soon-to-Be Skoolie

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!

A full-size school bus can be up to 40 feet in length, with nearly 300 square feet of interior space.

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 712 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

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!

Midsize Buses

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.

Midsize school buses offer the perfect balance of good maneuverability and a livable amount of interior space.

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

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 112 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 (712


On Sale
Oct 15, 2019
Page Count
208 pages

Will Sutherland

Will Sutherland

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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