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Buying a Bus? 5 Important Things to Inspect

Buying a Bus? 5 Important Things to Inspect

Today’s the day your dreaming, planning, and saving starts to become a reality. It’s buying a bus day! Are you nervous? Have you been searching the internet, looking at auctions, and now are ready to go buy your bus?

It doesn’t matter if I am buying a bus for us or for a client, I always get nervous. I wonder if I am buying a bus that might have some problems. One thing that puts my mind at ease is Jeff’s checklist of the 5 Important Things to Inspect Before Buying a Bus. When a bus passes the inspection, I feel better about the purchase even though there is no guarantee.

Buying a bus is a huge step.

For goodness sake, if you are planning on this being your home on wheels, you are buying your house! You should know what type of bus you need before beginning your search.  If you haven’t decided yet, check out What Do You Need to Know Before You Buy a School Bus? 

Are you ready? Let’s talk about buying a bus!


Buying a Bus? 5 Important Things to Inspect

For most people, price is a determining factor when buying a bus. Please don’t just buy the first bus under $2,500 because it looks like a good deal. Now, don’t get me wrong. You can buy a bus at this price point, but you just want to make sure it is in good condition before handing over the cash. You don’t want to buy a lower priced bus just to sink $5,000+ in it before your first trip.

Here are 5 important things to inspect before buying a bus

1. Chassis

The chassis is the frame of the bus. It is important that you check to make sure it is not bent or rusty. If there is damage to the chassis, walk away. Another bus will come along. Buying a bus with a damaged chassis is going to cost you an extreme amount of money in the future.

Pro-Tip: If the chassis is in good condition, while you are under the bus, check out the rear axle and u-joints.

2. Rust

Depending on the age of the bus, you can expect to see some surface rust. If you see more rust spots than yellow paint, walk away. A few places to check for rust are under the bus, the inside rear wall, the steps, and around the lights. Again, some surface rust is expected and can be sanded, treated, and painted. If there is considerable rust, walk away.

3. Mechanics

The Engine:

Jeff always carries a rag in his pocket when inspecting a bus. One of the first things he does is look around the engine for leaks, oil spots, and damage to the hoses. He will check the oil and antifreeze. When he starts the bus, he listens to make sure there are no problems. Next, he will test drive the bus, listening for any problems. Before you test drive the bus, crank it and let it run for about 15 minutes. When you return, park the bus in a different spot. As you are test driving, look to see if the bus is smoking. If you have a diesel mechanic friend, this would be a great time to cash in on a favor. Buy him lunch and his favorite beverage and let him inspect the engine prior to buying a bus.

The Transmission:

During the test drive, listen to how the bus changes gears. If it is a manual, make sure it changes gears smoothly. Put the bus in reverse, back up, and make sure you don’t feel a bump when it changes gears.

Ask the owner if the engine and transmission have been rebuilt. If so, is there a warranty on the rebuild that is transferable? Ask if the owner has any maintenance records and ask to see them. This will tell you how often the oil has been changed, and other maintenance that has been done on the bus. If the owner has the records and refuses to let you see them – walk away. Likely, he is hiding something. Make sure you know how many miles are on the engine and transmission.

4. Leaks

When Jeff is checking the chassis, he looks on the ground to see if he can find any spots where the bus might be leaking. Also, he will get under the bus in the front and feel around on the engine from underneath checking for leaks.  During the engine inspection, Jeff will look for oil leaks, transmission leaks, and radiator leaks.

After the test drive, he checks the ground where the bus was originally parked and where he parked it after the test drive.

Check the battery boxes for leaks. Is the bottom of the box corroded out?

Look around the windows for leaks inside and outside.

5. Tires

Tire inspection involves more that just kicking it with a boot. Take your time and check out the following things on the tires before making an offer on the bus.

  1. Tread – Pick 2-3 different spots on a tire and make sure it has 4/32 tread depth in the groove on the steering tires. The back tires should have 2/32 inch depth. If you don’t have a tread depth gauge (or whatever that thing is called), you can use the “penny trick” to check the tread. Place the penny in the groove upside down, if you see Lincoln’s head, it is time to replace the tire. Take your hand and feel the sidewall and tread while looking for any fabric that might show through. Make sure the tires do not have any bumps, dips, cuts, or knots.
  2. Wheels or rims- check for cracks and any damage.

Pro Tip: Check the date on a tire during the inspection.

If the tires need replacing, it is an excellent bargaining tool to get the price down. Jeff would tell you to bargain if you have to replace one tire, but if the bus is going to need all new tires, to walk away. A new tire will cost you anywhere from $500 and up.

After checking the chassis, tires, for leaks and rust, and looking at the mechanics you will have a pretty good idea about the condition of the bus. At this point, if nothing made you walk away, negotiate the price based on the results of your inspection. Keep in mind that no matter how detailed an inspection you perform, things happen.

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On our current bus, Jeff did a detailed inspection. Ten days into the conversion, on the way back from getting a generator installed, the bus started running hot. Yep, you guessed it! We had to replace the radiator 20 days before Katie’s Make-A-Wish Trip. See, there are no guarantees, but neither are there in life. So, just get out there and get your Skoolie dream started.

Have you purchased a bus recently? If so, tell me about your bus inspection process in the comments below.

If you are looking for some more information on buying/inspecting, or converting a school bus, we have an online course that takes you step by step through the conversion process. See more details at learn.skoolie.homes.

  • Marie Watson
    Posted at 12:30h, 05 January Reply

    Thanks for sharing some tips for inspecting a bus. It makes sense that you would want to make sure the tires are in good shape. You make a good point about how important it is to make sure the bus tires have a good tread. I would think that it is a good idea to get new ones if they are getting thin.

    • discoveringus
      Posted at 12:56h, 15 January Reply

      Marie, thanks for stopping by and agreeing. When people first purchase a school bus to convert they really don’t want to hear the cost of replacing all the tires. It is a must if the tires are thin, over 10 years old, or just in need of repair. Of course, it depends on how people are going to use the bus. If the intention is to convert it and leave it stationary then tires wouldn’t be as important as they would if driving it all over the country. In short, this is a topic that needs addressing due to the dangers of driving on unsafe tires as I am sure you would agree.

  • Tim Clark
    Posted at 15:51h, 18 April Reply

    Excellent article. Many thanks. Makes me think it would probably be best to hire a school district mechanic to inspect the bus instead of going DIY; seems like money well-spent.
    I am looking at converting a bus as a living (not driving) space that would facilitate the care of my wife, who has Alzheimers. We’re older, can’t afford to buy a house and there’s a terrific housing crunch here.
    But the bigger problem beyond conversion is how to find a place to park it and remain; no RV parks accept buses of any kind, including new purpose-built rigs. And definitely won’t accept any vehicle that’s more than ten years old.
    If you or any reader have a suggestion on where to advertise to find such a place it’d be very welcome.

    • Hana Bee
      Posted at 16:30h, 23 September Reply

      Hi Tim,
      My family and I are in a similar boat (or bus I should say) and are planning on converting a bus as a full-time living situation until we can save up enough to build. We haven’t completely secured a spot to put it, but depending on where you live, I have a few ideas that have resulted in some potential leads.

      1) Craigslist is an invaluable tool. There are all kinds of sub-sections that you could post an ad describing your situation and what you’re looking for. Under “housing wanted”, under “wanted” in general, under “barter”, under the “RV section”, under “Real Estate”. Also make a point of saying that it is potentially free money for anyone that would let you park your bus on their property. Providing electrical/water hook-ups isn’t very difficult, and you could factor the utilities into your rent. Also, if you get a solar panel or two it might open up your options where you could park even more.

      2) Good ol’ fashioned flyers. I was thinking of making and printing a few up and putting them up around town. Include a nice photo of you and your wife, the details of the size of your bus, and what you’re lookin’ for. If you are able to move to a more rural area, there again might be more options where people have a little bit larger lots and unused land. I like the idea of flyers because many people wont be cruising craigslist with the idea of looking for a tenant for their land. But, if they see it, they might be more willing to explore the option. The more professional and attractive the flyer, the more likely you will get a response. I would post them at community centers, grocery stores, cafes, post offices, churches, etc.

      3) Another idea is to do a bit of investigative work. If you see empty lots or unused areas around where you’re looking for, you can look up the owner and possibly get contact information and propose an agreement. Or, just knock on doors and put it out there. I’m sure the legality/ability of that varies state by state, but it’s worth a shot.

      4) The last thing I would do is contact your local sheriff, or whoever handles foreclosed/tax evasion land in your county. Tax evasion land is often available for auction, once or twice a year, and is VERY CHEAP. Most of the time the county just wants to make up what the property owes in back taxes, and the auctions aren’t very popular so your chances of getting land are good. You need to have cash on hand, but I have known people that were able to buy several acres for less than $10,000. Or, I have seen individual lots for around $3,000. It’s a longer process, but if you have a little bit of savings it would go a long way. Imagine owning land that you paid off, AND living in a bus! That’s my dream anyhow.

      I wish you and your wife the best of luck, and hopefully by the time you read this you have already found a situation!

  • Vivian Darin
    Posted at 13:33h, 18 July Reply

    Enjoyed the article immensely and comments as well. I hope to purchase as soon as possible. Next month perhaps.
    Interested in the course you have coming out soon.
    Thank You, Vivian

  • Vivian Darin
    Posted at 13:37h, 18 July Reply

    I totally enjoyed your article and comments. I plan to purchase a bus fairly soon (perhaps next month) and I’m sure I would benefit from it.
    Thank You, Vivian
    [email protected]

    • discoveringus
      Posted at 19:29h, 19 July Reply

      Hi Vivian, Thanks so much for the compliment. Keep in mind that we also offer a bus buying service. On our lot, we have a few buses for sale.They have passed Jeff’s 25 point inspection. If you are interested, here is our email. [email protected] Let us know if you have any questions as you search for your bus.

  • Orca Card Seattle
    Posted at 03:23h, 25 January Reply

    There are a few videos on YouTube that I watched last summer and it was pretty cool to learn about how people buy buses and transform them into their living space.

  • manoj chauhan
    Posted at 00:17h, 25 April Reply

    i like your article thanks…. for help….

    • discoveringus
      Posted at 23:22h, 25 April Reply

      You are welcome. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

  • Michael Hesterberg
    Posted at 12:22h, 05 June Reply

    After reading these comments, I see many persons thinking the county will just permit them to do whatever on their own land. Sometimes they can! More often they cannot! Be sure to check with ALL of the authorities in the area you want to place your rig, BEFORE placing a bid on any land!!!


    City, county, and even some state ordinances might hinder your plans. Crazy as it sounds, in California, out in the middle of the desert, you’ll be restricted by ordinances from living in a residence which isn’t a permanent structure. Some areas won’t even allow mobile homes which I own, and forces me to RENT a space from a mobile home park.

  • Isabelle Chandler
    Posted at 19:39h, 29 July Reply

    My fiancé and I are interested in purchasing a bus to convert (skoolie life, here we come!). My family and I are so excited, but we honestly have no idea what to look for when it comes to mechanical issues. This article and a few others on your blog have been very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing this information with everyone!!

    • discoveringus
      Posted at 01:37h, 05 August Reply

      Hi Isabelle, Thanks for taking the time to comment. We appreciate you stopping by the blog. If you need some help locating a bus, our business is helping people with their Skoolie conversion and that starts with buying a bus. Email me if you want more information. [email protected]

  • Casey
    Posted at 07:18h, 22 October Reply


    Thank you for your article! I’ve been cruising school auctions because you can get some really amazing deals on buses it looks like ($250+ under $1000 for sure). However, many of the buses are termed as “poor condition” and they won’t let you test them, just a visual check. I can safely assume, something big would need to be rebuilt as far as engine, transmission go. Could this be worth it still if frame is good? Do you know how much that big internal work usually runs?

  • Doreen
    Posted at 17:26h, 18 November Reply

    I found this so incredibly helpful. My problem is where to keep the bus while renovating it, any suggestions?

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