The School Bus Drought of 2020

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Those of you already living bus life are all too familiar with the challenges Covid-19 has presented to nomadic life. With many campgrounds, RV parks, and even BLM land closed, finding a place to park the last several months has been difficult for many. Many places to refill water tanks turned their taps off.

Many repair shops had their doors closed when on-the-road repairs were needed. And while I do not promote the idea of “hoarding” by any means, road lifers have little physical space to stock up on any amount of extra supplies, groceries, or that coveted toilet paper, causing nomads to have to venture into stores more frequently than most during this pandemic.

Covid-19 has also presented challenges for those who are just looking to begin bus life, and they may not have even realized it. I’m talking about the 2020 school bus drought. It’s a thing. If you’ve already got your bus or you’ve just started your search for one, you likely wouldn’t have thought much about the current availability of buses now verse a few months ago. As Skoolie builders though, one of the services we offer is to locate the right bus for our custom conversion clients.

Generally, we try to source buses directly from schools as we know they’ve likely been well-maintained up to that point. When you buy a bus on craigslist that farmer Bob had in his field the last 15 years, you can sometimes find a gem, but you often get what you’d expect in that situation.

In the case of schools, they  usually rotate their fleet based on buses either aging out or hitting a certain mileage threshold. Sometimes, they retire them early based on the school budget, government incentives, or the like.

Most public schools auction off their buses, so you’ll often find them at local auctions or through auction sites like govdeals.com, purplewave.com, publicsurplus.com, and others.

Around March we were just beginning the hunt for a specific bus for a custom conversion we were scheduled to start in July. We had time. Plenty of time. And, we felt it would be a fairly easy find since we were looking for a full-size bus.

Traditionally, full-size buses have been cheap. I mean really cheap. The short to mid-size buses have always been the more desirable ones. A small bus means easier maneuvering, entry into a wider selection of camping situations, usually a little faster, and they’re inherently cute. Not always the case with big buses. 

Though we did know this one wouldn’t be a total walk-in-the-park, given that a family of six would be traveling full-time in the bus, we were looking for a full-size one with a rear engine so it would have the larger underbody storage compartments, with a powerful engine to allow them to actually be able to make it up the mountains, and preferably with tinted windows.

Just a couple weeks prior, after only a couple days of looking, we had found a bus with this exact description for another custom conversion client. Finding big buses had just always been easy peasy!

The first day looking for this bus began like any other, with my husband in the shop starting his daily grind on our current conversion while I sat down in my office that morning to begin the hunt. There was nothing that fit what we were looking for. Nothing at all. In fact, there were almost no buses listed from the schools’ period. This wasn’t usual.

Though it took me only a matter of seconds to realize why – Covid-19. The schools had all just closed nationwide. And while many staff members were still working behind the scenes, the folks in the transportation departments and who are in charge of selling the buses were the first to be furloughed. I mean, you don’t need transportation employees on-staff when you’re no longer transporting anyone.

Being a part of the bus community, we’ve developed a few relationships in the industry. I ended up asking everyone we know in the business to be on the lookout for the specific bus we were seeking.

One of the folks I asked was our local scraper who routinely gets dozens of buses at a time, some that are truly scrap, and some are in amazing shape inside and out. The latter of which
he can resell. But once Covid-19 hit, his shipments stopped, too. He did, however, advise us there were a handful of buses that had already been signed-off to be shipped to him before the schools closed, but they weren’t in transit yet. They were in limbo.

The problem for us was that he didn’t know for sure if or when they’d come, given the pandemic situation, nor did he know the makes, models, body styles, or anything else about them. The schools don’t give him any info in advance on what he’s receiving since they just consider them hunks of scrap metal at that point. So, we couldn’t count on if he’d get them, when, and especially not on the fat chance one of them would be the exact bus we were looking for, given the hundreds of different styles of buses out there.

Okay, no worries, we thought. There are always lots of full-size buses from bus sales companies and private sellers. We turned our search first to the private sellers, knowing bus sales companies are often fairly pricey.

Our shop is in Oregon, but after coming up with a whole bunch of nothing locally, we eventually stretched our search as far East as the Mississippi River. Still, nothing. I mean sure, folks had some big buses, but there was always something that made it not “the one.” Either the engine was too small (and what is bus life if you can’t make it up a mountain?), or there were mechanical issues, or it didn’t have the storage compartments.

Some of you may be thinking “but storage compartments can be added.” Very true, after all, we are professional welders, but they are nothing like the massive compartments in those rear-engine buses. If you’ve never seen them in person, they are sweet.

Because there is no driveline in a rear-engine bus, the compartments have no dividers going down the middle, making most of the underbody of the bus between the wheels all undivided stor-age. We couldn’t compromise on that – a family of six is going to need that space.

Finally, we found something promising 320 miles from us in Northeast Oregon! It was to be an entire day’s trip, which actually turned into an overnight trip. But the bus was not as advertised. We had asked all the right questions before we went – “Is there body damage?” “Are the tires good?” The fella said it was all great.

As it turned out, there was, in fact, body damage, but worse yet he admitted that before we got there, he decided to keep those good tires he told us the bus had and swapped them for ones that were toast instead.

We were so bummed out that it turned out to be a shady situation. Along the drive home, from the highway, we saw another bus in a field. It wasn’t marked for sale and it wasn’t the one we were looking for, but boy did it look sweet. We ended up knocking on the guy’s door and buying that bus from him! So it wasn’t a total waste of a trip, but we still didn’t have the full-size bus we need-ed.

That bus we saw in the field and bought spur of the moment! This picture was taken on-site where we found it! Talk about a bus drought…a fella ended up flying out from Colorado to buy this bus from us as-is since he couldn’t find anything like it near him!

Two other trips went about the same way, minus the part where we bought a random bus on the side of the highway. They were each a day wasted driving hundreds of miles to see buses that ended up not as advertised. One of them even had mold so thick on the entire interior of the bus that it was like a carpet. I know what you’re thinking…I must be exaggerating. But it’s the truth if I ever told it.

The pictures in the ad didn’t show any mold, so they must have been from long ago! And I kid you not, there was zero mention of the mold in the listing nor in our conversations with the guy. These experiences were becoming both ridiculous and time-consuming. It had only been a matter of weeks since schools had closed and already, I missed “the good ole’ days” of buying buses directly from honest schools.

We decided the only other option was to look
at bus dealerships. We knew it would be more expensive, but we were coming down to crunch time. To my surprise, the bus dealerships were low on used big buses, too! Mostly what was left were the newer buses at $20k+. So, I rang a couple of sales folks we have connections with bus dealerships and was told that between March and April people began “panic buying” the large buses.

They said their customers were telling them, they didn’t know if they were going to be able to keep their apartment or home through the duration of Covid-19 based on the impact it had already had on their lives, and they were buying the big buses to have an emergency home or to use for stor-age.

Honestly, panic set in for me, too, at that point. This family of six were listing their house for sale, banking on us to come through with a bus to build into their new dream home, and we had nothing.

Never could we have imagined we’d be in a situation where we couldn’t find the full-size bus we needed. Just two months prior the market was flooded with them – no one wanted these huge things. You could find one in any combination of amenities you wanted at a low price and close to home. Always. And now there just weren’t any. We’d entered a school bus drought.

After countless hours and miles of driving and searching for this bus, ironically, it eventually turned up a few miles down the road from us. The scrapper I mentioned earlier had finally got that handful of busses that had been in limbo, and could you believe there sat a 2005 good running 38.5-foot rear engine bus with huge underbody storage and a robust engine, for less than we expected to pay in the first place?

The catch – it had body damage on and around the storage compartment doors. At that point we didn’t care, we’d take it! We’re not auto body specialists, but we can learn. We’ve recently begun the conversion on this bus and just finished fixing that bit of body damage. If you want to see some tips on how we did it, you can check out our Youtube series below ‘Bus Life Studios’.

We finally found the one!

s Covid-19 continues to run rampant, will the school bus drought of 2020 continue? Like most things in these weird times, I guess no one knows.

There are some interesting things to think about though. The increased demand for buses paired with the current shortage of them has caused an increase in prices of the ones still out there. We’ve even had a bus dealer reach out to us to see if he could buy a bus from us to resell, as he hasn’t been able to get any supply from the schools either!

Around March when Covid-19 really began to feel serious to most Americans, the requests we received to do custom builds immediately sky-rocketed. Folks are looking to live in buses now more than ever.

Some are now wanting them as emergency fallback plans. There are the folks whose whole world of normalcy got turned upside down, and as a result, they are riding the wave and looking to live life differently going forward, taking the path of bus life. And then there is a story we’ve heard countless times in recent months – the people who have traditionally been tied to a stationary location for work but are actually wild-at-heart. These people have been longing to travel but were unable to because of their job and the availability of the internet almost everywhere Because of Covid-19 though so many people who were not able to work remotely before are now able to, and they aren’t going to let the opportunity pass them by. They are jumping into bus life and quickly!

That elusive bus for the family of six. You can see the body damage we began to fix.
Same bus…with all the body damaged fixed and a fresh paint job! Interior work on this one is underway as of the release of this month’s issue!

As for the schools, even when the staff who handle their bus sales come back to work, which many now are, they may still hold off on selling some of the fleet they had previously considered listing. Why? Because they have to still provide transportation for kids to get to school, but now with a new operating model – placing the kids six feet apart.

This causes a potential for the schools to need more buses than they previously needed. Some things will offset this, with some parents homeschooling who didn’t before, as well as schools rotating kids with half going one week and the other half going the other week, and schools also asking parents to drive their kids to school if they can.

While those measures may help alleviate the need for more buses despite the new spacing requirements, I suspect they certainly won’t need less. The six-foot spacing between each kid drastically changes the passenger capacity. For a full-size bus with a usual capacity of 84 kids, that same bus will now only be able to carry approximately 28 kids at most.

While many buses weren’t running full capacity, to begin with, this still has the potential to keep schools leery of selling their fleet, at least for some time until the world sees how this whole pandemic plays out.

For someone looking to enter bus life, you may not realize it, but your bus selection is now a little narrower and pricier compared to what was out there just a few months back. Though some people have caught on that the demand for buses is hot and are taking advantage while the prices are up, listing for sale whatever old bus they’ve had sitting in their driveway for years.

This is helping to offset the shortage for the time being, but doesn’t much help offset the increase in prices. But hey, that’s supply and demand.

The same can be said for much of the off-grid and nomad living appliances, components, and supplies such as solar, water tanks, etc. – there’s a lot that’s now out of stock and what’s there has increased dramatically in price. A conversion is now costing us about 20% more in total to build than it did just a few months ago.

If you’re considering jumping into bus life, don’t let any of the above deter you. My story here
is an informative one, but should not serve to scare you away. Despite it potentially being more difficult to find your dream bus right now and things costing a bit more, if you are in a position to start bus life, don’t let these things hold you back! Don’t wait for the market to level back out. Because that’s how life passes us by. Waiting.

By Ashley Reed

Ashley, along with her partner Zeno, operates Bus Life Studios conversion company based out of Eugene, Oregon. They specialize in both partial and full school bus conversions, as well as à la carte services.

Zeno grew up in an intentional community in Washington where they did most everything for themselves. There, he was raised learning engineering and building homes, learning about solar, & water systems, as well as all things mechanical. It’s this up-bringing that led him to hone the skill sets that he now uses to build beautifully functional bus homes. In his early 20’s Zeno bought his first school bus for $400, though he didn’t turn this passion into a career until he met Ashley.

Ashley has roots in the Midwest but spent the previous decade in Orange County, CA where she was an operations manager at a small software company. While successfully moving through her career, she was unhappy with the regular 9-5 and began taking evening classes for welding where she obtained several welding certifications. Trying to escape city life, she spent every weekend adventuring off-grid in her self-converted AWD camper van.

Both of them have a passion for tiny living on wheels, being off-road and off-grid, as well as a desire to live outside of the daily grind, they sort of fell into starting Bus Life Studios. Now, Ashley and Zeno’s personal experiences and styles mix to create conversions with unique combinations of clean modern simplicity and hippie funk.

You can reach them at: www.BusLifeStudios.com
Instagram: @BusLifeStudios
YouTube: Bus Life Studios
Email: TakeTheTrip@BusLifeStudios.com

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