The Best School Bus To Buy

When we entered the market to buy a school bus, we did a lot of research to figure out exactly what we were looking for. There were a lot of lifestyle and personal opinions to consider as well as objective facts that helped sway our decision to end up with a 2010 Chevy Duramax diesel short school bus. Here are some of the most important things to consider when buying a school bus.

In This Post:
Size
Price
Fuel Type
Rust
Engine

Size

The size of the bus you buy is the variable that is most up to personal preference and depends on your lifestyle and the context in which you intend to use the bus. If you like having a lot of space (comparatively) and only plan on staying in skoolie-approved RV parks (warning: there aren’t many) or BLM (Bureau of Land Management, A.K.A public land) locations, then a medium to long sized school bus could be right for you.

If you’re like us and you prioritize adventure and fitting into all the nooks and crannies you can find, a short bus is similar to the size of a Sprinter Van (any van lifers out there?) and can fit into most standard parking spots. They’re going to eat up less fuel and they’re the epitome of tiny living.

On this front, it seems that many people end up thinking they need more space than they actually do. Moving from a house or an apartment into a vehicle is not easy. Even though it’s an adjustment, a lot of people who pick long school buses end up finding out that the effort of carting around all that weight and those resources is more of a pain than it’s worth.

Remember: If this is a lifestyle you’re choosing, you’re likely doing it for the experience and not the living space or amenities.

Of course, if you have a whole family living in the bus, that extra space is more than justified. Ultimately, you know your needs better than anyone else and if it’s long bus or no bus, then the long bus is the better bus.

Price

Even if you’ve made a decision about the length of your ideal bus, price is a factor that is going to weigh in and potentially determine what you end up with. In our experience, long buses are practically a dime a dozen because every school district has a plethora of them. These buses get retired and sold off to dealers, private parties, or junk yards.

This is our general experience with the Northeastern United States school bus market in the spring and summer of 2019. Due to the large supply, long buses tend to be a lot cheaper than the average short bus you’ll find. Most medium to long buses we saw and heard of could be as cheap as $3,000 while we had difficulty finding any short buses selling for less than $6,000. The year of the bus and the condition of the bus will impact the price but if your dream is to convert a school bus and you’re on a tight budget, you’ll either need to bus hunt for an extended period of time to get the deal you need on a short bus or you’re looking at getting a medium to long bus.

Fuel Type

There’s really no discussion on this one. The answer is diesel. And the answer is diesel because in the long run, it’ll pay you back the extra price you spend on a diesel bus versus a gas bus and more by the time you’re on the road traveling. Diesel fuel has more energy per gallon than gas fuel. Diesel engines also generally last longer than gas engines. However, diesel engines can also be more costly to repair but if your goal is efficiency and longevity, then diesel is the better option.

Rust

It’s very important to check out your prospective bus for rust, especially on the body (red flag!) and the undercarriage where the important mechanics are. Rust on the body is a red flag because it indicates that there is likely even more rust under the bus. A little surface rust on the body is not concerning, especially once you scrape it off and treat it to prevent it from rusting out further. However, if scraping off the rust means you’re getting holes in the body (or if there are already holes), walk away.

Take a look underneath the bus and see how pervasive the rust is there. If the bus has been sitting in a field for a long time, that is concerning because moist grass under a bus only accelerates the rusting process. If the bus has been there for months (or years), the rust underneath is likely to be significant. Other signs that the bus has been sitting for a long time include any signs of animal visitors. In the medium bus below, we found a special surprise above the door-opening mechanism…

STILL, some of these signs may not necessarily be enough to stop you from buying. The bus we ended up with was sitting in a field for some months and had mouse droppings by the fuse box above the driver seat.

We checked out the rust on the bottom and decided that although it meant a lot of extra work for us, we would take the time and expense to replace parts, clean the rust, and treat the undercarriage.

The most important thing here is that you recognize what exactly needs work so you can make an educated decision about whether you have the time, will, and resources to do it.

Engine

We’re not mechanics and had absolutely no experience with bus engines so we had to do a lot of research on this one. The consensus seemed to be that the Cummins and DT466 engines are great for medium and long buses and the 6.6L Duramax is great for a short bus (which is what ours is). Do your research, get to know the engines you’re considering, and you should be fine.

All engines have their downfalls. For example, the 6.6L Duramax’s biggest downfall appears to be that without proper maintenance, its power injectors can fail which is a very expensive problem to have. However, if you keep up with regular maintenance requirements such as oil changes and oil filter changes every 10,000 miles, issues like this can be avoided.

This is why you need to collect as much information as possible on the engine that you are buying and obtain any available maintenance history for it. The maintenance history will show you what was done, when it was done, and what costs you may be looking at to get your maintenance back up to date. Our bus had no maintenance history and we expected the extra charges of finding out what needed to be done and getting it done.

One strong opinion we heard over and over again was not to get a 6.5L engine. These engines are typically found in gas buses and there are a million of them on the market but endless online reviews say to avoid them like the plague due to consistent problems.

Buying a bus is an exciting yet stressful endeavor with a lot to consider.
However, it only gets easier the more you learn what you're looking for.

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