Do you remember what sparked the crazy idea to convert a bus into a camper or a tiny home? A flash from the past? A Skoolie at Burning Man? Maybe the idea just popped into your head one day.
My wife and I bought our first bus in 1984, it was on a whim. It was a lime green 1968 Blue Bird conventional church bus. The plan was to make it into a camper. That plan was a good one and in the long run, it prompted both my wife and I into passenger transportation careers.
Whatever the reason for that wonderful spark, the day has finally arrived and you are now the proud owner of a yellow school bus. Driving your bus home, you are thinking about how you are going to make it your own and all the future adventures for your family and you. You are probably thinking what are we going to do first: pull the seats or maybe paint the bus or leave it yellow. Yellow is a nice, cool color.
I have put together some steps to follow so you can bypass some of the problems we had with our first yellow Skoolie. I am a certificated school bus driver in California, so maybe law enforcement officers were extra hard on me because I should have known the law.
Step One: Go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and register your Skoolie as a housecar, motorhome, or RV. Each state and Canadian province have a different definition. These are three of the most commonly used names. If you choose to skip this step for whatever reason, you may end up in trouble that will cost you your budget and maybe even your Skoolie. A bus is a commercial vehicle that carries fifteen or more passengers plus a driver. It has limitations of where it may be driven or parked.
You need a commercial drivers’ license to drive a bus along with the proper endorsements. In California that would be a Class B license with a passenger endorsement, air brake endorsement if the bus has air brakes, and of course commercial bus insurance which is not cheap. If you skip step one in California and get stopped by law enforcement, and don’t have the correct paperwork, it is going be very expensive when they impound your bus.
Step Two: Get it insured as a motorhome. When inquiring about rates, do not call it a bus, bus means commercial. When asked about body style or manufacturer, then tell them a bus conversion as a reference if needed.
Who do you insure with?
Try your current auto insurance carrier. AARP members can get auto insurance through them. A lot of Skoolie owners on Facebook use All-state Insurance. The Good Sam Club has National General Insurance available to members as well as non-members if you contact them directly. Both our Skoolie and PD-4104 are insured through them. We have been with them since 1984 when we bought our first Skoolie.
Step Three: Remove all signage from the Skoolie, especially the words “School Bus” from the front, back and sides (This is a major item to take care of).
Step Four: Remove or disconnect all school bus equipment; strobe light, stop arm, red flashing lights.
Step Five: Paint your Skoolie a color other than National School Bus Glossy Yellow.
Wait, What? Your mind is now spinning with questions like; why? Yellow Skoolies have a coolness factor. What about the yellow Skoolies we have seen on YouTube, on the net or even seen driving down the highway. I see on average five yellow Skoolies a week, I also know it’s a matter of time before they get cited for not painting their skooolie. That is a ticket you may not be able to afford. All citations have a due date, with a court date (loss of your time) and repair due date, in this case painting a bus.
There are laws governing school buses and former school buses known as Skoolies. The difference is simple. School buses are painted National School Bus Glossy Yellow and transport children to and from school and school activities.
School buses have special equipment as required by law: 8-way flashing lights for crossing students, stop arm/s mounted on the side of the bus, strobe lights on the roof of the bus. Skoolies are decommissioned school buses and cannot have these items functional.
Don’t take my word for it. Here is the official letter of the law guideline. From the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration
Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17 Pupil Transportation Safety
IV. Pupil Transportation Safety Program
B. Identification and equipment of school buses
2. Any school bus that is permanently converted for use wholly for purposes other than transporting children to and from school or school-related events should be painted another color than National School Bus Yellow and should have the stop arms and school bus signal lamps removed.
These guidelines are in every state in the USA and Canadian province motor vehicle codes. Does everyone enforce their traffic laws the same? No. Can you get away with not painting your Skoolie a different color? Maybe if you live in the right state. The CHOICE is all yours. It’s your Skoolie to do with as you please. I wrote this article because I get asked these questions all the time. This should answer your “Whys”.
The state of California expects you, the new owner to remove all the school bus equipment and paint it a different color. Currently, there are no inspections required prior to hitting the open road and traveling.
The state of Wisconsin requires you to remove all the school bus equipment and paint it another color. Then they inspect it before allowing you to take it on the open highway.
Canadian provinces and the State of Alaska require you to remove the school bus equipment, paint it another color and add motorhome amenities: must have a minimum of four of these:
- Cooking facilities
- Self-contained toilet
- Heating and/or air conditioning separate from the vehicles original system
- Potable water supply system with sink
- 110/115-Volt system separate of the vehicles electrical system
The vehicle will be inspected prior to being allowed to be driven on public highways.
You should check with your local motor vehicle office to make sure you comply with their requirements.
As I am writing this article, I am speaking from experience. In 1996, the school district my wife was working for at the time was putting up a couple of 1964 school buses for sale via sealed bids. We looked at both buses 18 & 19. We like the look of 18 and were the successful bidders. The school district painted over all the school bus lettering and the school district’s name so we had a yellow bus.
The next day I went to my local DMV and, showed my bill of sale and changed the title on our BUS to BU for bus conversion. The windshield had a crack in it, but the district threw all the spare parts for our bus model in it including a windshield.
I made an appointment to have the new windshield installed at a local glass shop near my work. (I was managing the local dial-a-ride bus service and the glass shop was one of my vendors).
The day of my appointment, I drove our new, to us, Skoolie to work and parked it out in front of my office until the appointment time. I was proud of our bus and was showing it off to everyone that wanted to check it out.
Thirty minutes later, one of my dispatchers alerts me that Jonathan, our local California Highway Patrol Motor Vehicle Inspector (he inspects school buses and public transit vehicles annually for safe operations), is checking out our new bus. Like a proud parent, I walked out to greet Jonathan and show off our new bus.
Surprise! I walk out to say hi and hear, “whoever left this bus here is in a bunch of trouble, I have already found 10 motor vehicle violations. Any idea who left it here? A yep, it’s mine.
- Capacity exceeds 15 passengers (was a
- 78- passenger school bus)
- Front red lenses for the school crossing lights not covered or removed
- Bus is National School Bus Glossy Yellow
- No California fleet number on the side
- No company markings on the sides
- Yellow brake lights (legal when the bus was manufactured in 1964)
- Cracked windshield
- Exempt license plates on vehicle, a no-no for a privately-owned vehicle (DMV told me to keep the plates until my new ones came in. Their fault, not mine).
By Jon Usle
Jon Usle is 57 years old. At the age of 26, he purchased an old school bus to convert into a camper. Three months later, he and his wife became school bus drivers. Jon immersed himself in everything bus-related he could get his hands on, becoming a genuine Bus Nut. His knowledge of buses and bus operations opened many doors of opportunity and advancement. Jon worked his way up the ladder from bus driver to supervisor/trainer to general manager, through it all maintaining his Class B and school bus certificate.
In 2001, Jon stepped away from management to have more free time. He went back to driving school buses with his wife. When not “playing with buses,” Jon is an avid railfan. He also volunteers his time between rescuing and transporting Siberian Huskies and volunteering for his local search and rescue team.
Jon Usle can be reached at