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by | Bus Life, The Lills, Vintage GM Bus Conversion

Buying a bus - What kind of bus should I buy  - Purchasing a skoolie - The LillsA


Congratulations!!! Bus Life is so close, you can taste it and we are so excited to cheer you on! Below, we share things to consider when buying a school bus or coach bus.

When considering buying a bus to become your new home on wheels, there’s so much to consider. What size bus will be big enough for my needs? What type and year bus should I look for? How much should I spend on a bus?

The questions can become overwhelming, so we broke it all down into a simple list of things to consider and added bits about what learned by acquiring our dream bus.

What size bus should I buy?

School buses range anywhere from 20 to 45 feet in length, so if it’s just you and your mate, you may want to consider a mini/short bus (20-25 feet long). Buses that are 25-35 feet long are considered mid-size, which will provide more space, if you have a lot of things. If you have a larger family, you may want to consider a full-size bus (35-40 feet long). If it’s just you, you may want to consider converting a van.

The two of us started out by living and traveling in our 80 square foot, 1978 VW bus (with our cat & dog). Now, we’ve upgraded to a 40 foot vintage GM bus.

What type / brand of bus should I buy?

When it comes to buses, there are so many different brands and styles. Our recommendation is to begin your search. Go online and search on, Facebook Marketplace, and any other sites that list vehicles / buses for sale. If you see one that gets your attention, take a look and write it down if it looks good to you. Compile a list of the buses you enjoy and from there, you can begin your education. By going and seeing a few buses in person, asking questions and gathering data, you will begin to better understand your options. The more information you gather, the more easily you can determine what is right for you.

After 2 years of traveling in the little VW Bus, we discussed upgrading to something with more space, so we made a quick search online and found a 1930’s International bus that just made us so happy. We spoke with the owners and we just didn’t have the kind of money they were asking for in our piggy bank, so we kept searching.

On our second search, we found our 1961 GM bus that was sitting in the New Mexico desert. It was listed for $5,000 (which we also didn’t have), but we drove a few hundred miles to see it anyway. We immediately clicked with the owners and they explained they NEEDED to get the bus off the property, as they had just sold their land. They were going to send the vintage bus to the crusher, if nobody bought it. Miraculously, we were able to work a deal and trade our design work for the bus, meaning we didn’t have to spend one penny on the bus itself. You never know what the Universe has in store, so dream big and start your search now!

What year bus should I buy?

New Bus – A newer bus may cost more, but it probably hasn’t been ridden into the ground or neglected. You can expect the wear and tear to be minimal and you can focus your time and energy into building the interior of your home on wheels, rather than having to trouble shoot mechanical issues, repair exterior issues and all of the unknowns that can come with an older bus. If you’re looking to convert a bus quickly, we’d recommend looking for a newer bus.

Old Bus – An older bus, guaranteed, will have to be inspected professionally to really understand what you’re working with. Buses with age can often take a lot longer to convert and often have hidden costs. Parts are also something that can hold your project at a standstill, as they can be harder to find with older models or more unique vehicles. All that being said, if your dream bus is vintage or old-school, we say go for it! There are so many amazing old buses out there, just waiting to be rescued and restored!

Since rescuing our ’61 GM bus, we have found resources for hard to find parts and we have connected with people who know our type of bus inside and out. For us, rescuing a piece of American history and converting it into our future home on wheels has been worth the extra time and effort.

How much should I spend on a bus?

If you have thousands to work with, you’re going to be able to find a reliable vehicle that is conversion worthy. If you are working on a tight budget, don’t fret! The right bus for you is out there at the right price! It just takes searching and not giving up to come across your future bus.

*Don’t underestimate bartering! Many people selling these buses often want them off their property or out of the way…so see what types of products, skills or services you have that can give you more purchasing power.

The two of us have kept our costs to a minimum, by bartering for the bus, doing the majority of the work ourselves and getting creative when challenges arise.

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Get a feel, behind the wheel!

Any time you go to look at a potential bus for you, be sure to test drive it (if it’s running). Comfortability in the driver’s seat is incredibly important, if you intend to drive your bus long distances.

When test driving a bus, make sure it shifts gears smoothly and that your rpm’s aren’t idling too high or too low. Feel how the bus handles, takes turns, reverses and switches gears. Take your time and make sure you test everything.

*Air Rides – For buses that use air systems to run the bus, check the air system, air bags, brakes and suspension. Any hisses mean there’s an air leak.

As mentioned, our bus didn’t run when we found it, so we weren’t able to take a test drive. It runs on an air system and we’ve been learning all about the ins and outs, since getting it to our friend’s shop. We’ve fixed air leaks & air lines and we’ll have to replace the air bags in the near future.

See that the bus is mechanically sound: If you have a mechanically inclined friend, bring them along. The mechanical workings of big buses require being inspected by someone knowledgeable, especially newer buses that may be built with advanced technology. Being able to recognize minor and serious issues can save you from many unwanted challenges and disasters.

Our 1961 bus is built pretty straight-forward. Every issue we’ve ever faced, we’ve been able to repair on our own or with assistance from friends. We knew when we chose our bus, that we’d be gaining an education by being willing to learn how to do as much as we can on our own. We don’t recommend going this direction, unless you’re willing to give up any idea of a completion date for your conversion.

Check the tires:

Tires on big buses can cost hundreds of dollars each, so be sure to take a look at all of them, when inspecting a bus for sale. Ask the owner how old the tires are and look for cracks and/or brittleness. Have they been sitting in the same place for a very long time? Safety, as always, is #1 and you can’t go anywhere without good tires.

The night our bus was to be loaded onto a trailer and shipped to the East Coast, the front passenger side tires fell apart. We were 1,800 miles away and called the local tire shop, there in New Mexico, late in the evening. By chance, the employees were still at work for a meeting. They connected us with a guy who was willing to pick up the tire from the shop and deliver it to our bus. He even replaced it for us, so our bus could load and make its way to us. The experience was a nightmare and a miracle all at once.

Listen to the motor and look at the smoke:

Have the owner of the bus turn over the bus. Stand near the backend of the bus and listen to the motor. It should sound strong and the smoke should be clear. BLACK SMOKE, IS BAD FOLKS!! Black smoke can mean dirty fuel, mechanical issues, that the motor could be burning too rich or that the bus has a bad / problematic engine.

Our GM bus wasn’t running when we found it and it hadn’t been turned over for a decade. We had to trouble-shoot and make lots of repairs to get it purring. It took over 2+ weeks, but we saved tons of money that otherwise would have gone to a mechanic. We wouldn’t recommend investing in a bus that isn’t running, unless you have the skills to get it going yourself or if you have the money to have someone else make it go.

Check for rust:

Rust is a disease. It spreads and once it steps over an imaginary line, it’s game over. You really want to find a bus with minimal rust issues. Be sure to check the exterior, interior, engine compartment, undercarriage and roof.

Rust on older buses can be hidden beneath the paint, BEWARE!

Our 1961 fishbowl bus was pretty much preserved in the New Mexico desert, but the moment it arrived in the Southeast, it started showing signs of rust. We went from working on the interior conversion, to changing lanes and focusing all of our time on removing ALL of the old paint, attacking major rust spots and rust-proofing the entire bus. We literally spent 6+ months doing this to put a stop to the rust.

Check the electrical systems:

Most buses come stock with a boatload of electrical wires that lead all up and down the body of the vehicle. Make sure ALL lights are working properly, inside and outside of the bus.

All of the wires in our bus are coming out. They are from the 1960’s, so we want to make sure everything is clean, organized and safe.

Check the batteries:

Make sure each battery is fully charged, using a multi-meter. Set it to 12 volt and connect the leads appropriately (positive/negative) and you should get a 12.5 volt reading or better on a good battery.

Our bus had zero batteries, so we invested $600 in 4 new ones.

Check ALL window seals:

The last thing you want is to have leaks. They suck. Seriously. They can lead to major water damage on the interior, so be sure to check every seal (window, skylight, windshield, etc.) on the bus, unless you’re prepared to replace them.

We weren’t thinking about window seals when we found our bus. We knew it was going to need an incredible amount of love and work to transform into our dream home on wheels. Once we got it to the East Coast, it sat in a field for a while, before going into the shop for exterior work. The first rain we had showed us that we had window leaks here and there. They were old, so it made sense and we wanted to replace them all. We called one of our GM Fishbowl resources and they had inner and outer window seals available for around $40 each. With 10 windows around our bus, we’re looking at $400+ for new seals. We have done some research and we can also choose to replace them on our own. They just wouldn’t be factory grade.

Inspect the exterior & interior:

Take your time and look for body issues on the outside of the bus. Are there any dents, nicks, cracks, holes, rust spots or missing pieces? Are all of the accessories (bumpers, lights, windshield wipers, windows & seals, etc.) in good shape? All of these factors go into the price of the bus and the cost associated with fixing or replacing parts.

Buses With Seats Inside – When it comes to the interior of the bus, does it have seats? Seat removal can be a challenging process and you’ll have to have a place to discard them when you’re done.

Buses With An Old Conversion – Some buses have already been converted partway or fully to have a living space. If you’re looking at one that is built to some level, ask the owner if it is registered as an RV or Class A Motorhome on the title of the vehicle. This can save you a ton of aggravation, when you’re ready to insure and register your new bus.

Bus With An Empty Interior – A bus with nothing in it is like a blank canvas. You don’t have to spend time tearing apart the inside to make room for your new vision, but you do have to start from the ground up.

Look at every nook and cranny, including the doors, stairs, floor boards and ceiling panels. There can be hidden issues lurking behind design facades, like rubber mats.

A previous owner had started converting our bus, but he didn’t very far. The seats had been removed and the only thing that was really there, were some pipes that ran to two water tanks in the bay storage area. We had overall, a blank canvas to work with, which excited us, as we had a vision.

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Where are you going to keep your bus?

Before finding your bus, be sure to consider where you’re going to keep it and work on it, if you plan on converting it into a home on wheels.

At home – If you are lucky enough to keep your bus at home, you are going to save a lot of time and money on your conversion! Being able to step right out of your front door and make progress when you can, is a gift.

*Just be sure to check your town/city ordinances, as some don’t allow you to park recreational vehicles in your driveway.

At a family or friend’s house – If you have a nice enough family member or friend who is willing to let you keep your bus at their house, that’s awesome! Storing a bus somewhere else can cost heaps!

At a storage facility – Some storage facilities have spaces available to park / garage buses. This is an option, if you need time to find a more permanent location for your bus.

Before shipping our bus to us, we thought we could just park our bus on the driveway of the house we were staying at. We soon learned, the city we were in wouldn’t allow people to park such large vehicles at their homes. Also, the shipping company wasn’t too fond of the idea of dropping off a 40 foot bus in a small community with tight roads.

We had 3 days to find a place for our bus by the time we learned all of this. We made over a dozen phone calls and eventually, we connected with an awesome bus guy in our area who had a friend with a shop and a big heart. They have let us keep and work on our bus there for over a year and we feel so blessed.
If you need a place to keep your bus, start calling and researching NOW!

Getting insurance can be tough!

Not many insurance companies are willing to insure a bus converted into a home on wheels. There are so many risks, as they are relying on you to have constructed a safe living space. Be sure to do more research and find a company that will insure a converted bus in your area.

Most of the insurance companies we called, said flat out “NO” to insuring our bus. A few companies said that they would insure a vehicle with a living space, only if the vehicle was built with those features originally. We were lucky though. Our bus was previously registered and currently titled as a Class A Motorhome. Finally, we connected with a representative from Liberty Mutual, who made it happen!

Tags & Registration

If you plan on purchasing your bus and driving it legally to the next location, you’re going to want to get a temporary tag from the local DMV. Fees and requirements vary among DMVs, but you’ll want to bring the bus title, proof of purchase and identification.

Then, you’re going to want to register your bus in your name at your local DMV. Registration fees vary among DMVs and some States require an inspection of the vehicle. You’ll also need the bus title, proof of purchase and identification.

Enjoy the ride!

The journey to finding your bus is an exciting one, so be sure to enjoy the ride! Enjoy the bumps, the ups and downs and stay open to the possibilities! Challenges will arise. They come part of the package. Just know you have the power to see your dreams realized and never give up. We are rooting for you and we welcome you to the community! If you have any questions about bus life, bus conversions or finding your perfect bus, feel free to contact us!

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Turn your new lifestyle into a brand and business that you can take on the road!

One of the most asked questions we get is, how do you make money living and traveling in a bus? The two of us have been brand builders since 2010, digital nomads since 2017 and we we ran our branding & design business on the road from our VW bus for 2+ years. The experience inspired us to convert our big GM bus into a bigger home and design studio on wheels, so that we can continue our lifestyle and continue to help other bus lifers achieve their goals and thrive.