There’s nothing quite like a DIY project, and you will have your work cut out for you if you’re looking into buying a used school bus. While the cost isn’t as bad as you might think, there are a few things to consider, both to ensure you get a good deal and some potential associated costs as well.
A used school bus will usually run you between $3,000 and $40,000, depending on the bus type and mileage. But it shouldn’t end there for you. You’re looking at a substantial cost if you want to convert it, so it's a good idea to know your business before you buy.
For instance, most school buses aren’t retired until they reach 250,000 miles or more. That’s a lot of mileage on a bus that spends most of its illustrious, kid-toting career in stop-and-go traffic. Despite that, the chassis is arguably the most important part of the deal and something you would do well not to overlook.
How to buy a school bus
Most people invest in a used school bus as a camper conversion project, and it's a phenomenal idea and a fun project. It's not like you’re going to use your school bus to take someone out on a first date. That would just be creepy.
Fortunately, buying a used school bus isn’t all that difficult. Most experienced buyers claim it's very much like a used auto sale—you just have to know where the market is. It's a good idea to check on a few other things too, like your state’s guidelines.
For example, while you don’t have to obtain a Class B CDL, you may have to obtain an air brake certification or get a special license (based on the weight of the bus). Of course, that depends on the state you currently reside in, as not all states—not even most—require it.
Marketplace for used school buses
You don’t have to look very far or very hard to find used school buses for sale. If you want a nice school bus and not something that is a third-party hand-me-down, you will have to check out your local, public auctions since that’s generally how public schools offload their retired inventory.
- Skoolie Livin Classifieds
- Facebook Marketplace
- eBay Motors
- SearchTempest.com (an eBay and Craigslist combination)
- Nextdoor App
There are plenty of online hotspots to help you find your dream skoolie conversion, but you might have better luck going down to your local public schools and inquiring about their school bus inventories and where they get auctioned off.
The convenience of knowing where an auction will be and when it takes place is much easier than dealing with an online purchase. If you opt for an online purchase, get your eyes and hands on the bus in question, with a thorough inspection before committing.
Not every school bus is the same size but you can expect to find similar years and miles to be closely associated when it comes to average cost.
- Short Bus Cost - $8,000 to $10,000
- Large Short Bus Cost - $6,000 to $12,000
- Medium-Sized Bus Cost - $6,000 to $14,000
Of course, they can cost a lot more than that, especially if the mileage is very low and the bus is in great shape.
Know the history of the bus
Buying a used bus should be just like buying a used vehicle. That means conducting a complete background history on it. You wouldn’t buy a used vehicle with absolutely no clue where it's been or what it's gone through, would you?
As we mentioned above, most used school buses have 250,000 + miles on them. Those are hard-earned miles too. The bus has likely had a transmission replacement at some point.
It's going to be well worth the time to go back and pull all of the oil changes, fluid changes, tire changes, accidents, cosmetic repairs, transmission changes, brake pad changes, and every documented case of the bus taking a left turn if you can.
If you have a friend that’s a mechanic or can hire one for their time, don’t feel awkward taking them along to check the bus over. A diesel mechanic is preferable since that’s the kind of engine school buses use.
Don’t be afraid to walk away from the deal if something looks sketchy. As a source of public transportation, there shouldn’t be any problems finding the history you want. Then again, if you’ve taken the time to visit a DMV, you know how the government operates.
The chassis is very important
When a bus starts to rust, it looks awful. For some reason, corrosion spreads like a wildfire on a bus. But that’s not all you should be looking for. Check that the flooring is solid. If you are doing a conversion, you don’t want the floor collapsing underneath you while you're catching some tunes on your rack.
The longer the bus is, the more imperative it is to check over the body. All buses deal with a lot of strain, in terms of physics, throughout their lifespan and more on a long bus. Check for corrosion around, above, and underneath the bus. The amount of corrosion will effectively communicate the true age of the bus.
What are the maintenance costs on a school bus?
You have the initial cost of the school bus to deal with right up front, which is easy enough to tackle since you know what you are spending and what you’re getting. Then there are the costs that too many buyers fail to consider until it's too late.
The average annual cost for maintenance on a school bus is between $2,000 and $3,000 per year. When you purchase the bus, you need to do a full maintenance regimen anyway, including changing all of the fluids, a coolant flush, transmission fluid change (don’t flush it), oil and air filter change, etc.
Tires are in another category of maintenance, mostly because they are so expensive. You can easily push $2,500 to replace all of the tires on your bus, depending on how many tires you have on it.
Fortunately, the type of tire that goes on a school bus typically lasts a very long time. When public schools purchase them, they usually get a ten-year warranty on them. You should probably consider a new starter battery as well, which will set you back $400.
You can wait on the battery until you are done with whatever project you are getting into but it should be calculated in your early costs.
Cost of converting a school bus into a skoolie
If you plan to do a full, all-out conversion from a school bus into an RV (skoolie), plan on spending between $20,000 to $30,000. Of course, we’re talking about insulation, electrical, interior walls, ceiling, furniture, appliances, TVs, and an exterior paint job.
The thing about a school bus is that, even without all of those things, it's completely liveable, if you want to roll out some sleeping bags. So you don’t need to go all the way right off the bat.
Electrical, heating, and cooling are going to cost you more than anything else. The electrical especially. Unless you’re an electrician, you will have to call in a professional to run the wiring and set up the receptacles.
You will also want a shore battery charger, gel batteries, solar panels, breaker system, backup inverter, primary inverter, and your typical electrical appliances to boot. Heating and cooling costs can be immense or rather tame, depending on what you want.
For instance, a nice wood stove installation will cost around $1,000, while a standard, RV propane furnace is less than half that at $400. As you can see, your price range can seriously vary, depending on what you want.
It also depends on what kind of climate you are in. Obviously, if you live in Alaska, you’re going to want a heavy-duty heater and an open window. If you live in Florida or Southern California, you’ll want the exact opposite.
When you finally sit down and calculate the purchase cost of the bus, all the way through to an RV conversion, you’re looking at anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000. On the bright side, however, it’s yours in a way a brand new RV can never be.
When you stop and think about it, a brand new 2022 Jayco Swift will run you $131,000, and you’ll be lucky to cram two of you in the back. From that point of view, a school bus conversion is a no-brainer.
A used school bus can either be expensive or a great budget buy, depending on what you want for your money. As an RV conversion, you can’t find a better vehicle, especially if you love a DIY project.
Just remember to do your homework before throwing a lot of money at one of these diesel-chugging beasts, as they have already been through the wringer.