The Pro's & Con's - Is A Skoolie Right For You?
Why A Skoolie
After living and traveling in a class A motorhome, I saw firsthand the lack of build quality that has become synonymous with RV’s. Not only does skimping on build quality save on cost, it saves the manufacturers weight. You see, most RV chassis (gas powered) can carry a minimum amount of weight. If you are living and traveling full time in a rig, you have your all your possessions plus the weight of your fuel and water storage. The total weight of water and fuel storage may surprise you. Most chassis leave around 5k pounds for storage. This may sound like a lot, but roll with me on this. Let’s say your fuel tank is 75 gallons, that’s 600 pounds right there. Our fresh water tank was 65 gallons, which is smaller than I would like, and that weighed in at 520 pounds. That is 1,120 pounds off of your 5,000 right off the bat. This figure doesn't even begin to account for fluid in your holding tanks! After you add your tools, clothes, cookware and outdoor gear you’re getting close to the GVWR and have possibly gone over.
When it came time to pick the next platform that would be my home, I had a few options that fit within my budget. My original goal was to purchase a used 5th wheel and convert it into a custom made boondocking rig. However, after some quick research I realized a few substantial flaws. First, 5th wheels are NOT built any better than class A’s. Similarly, 5th wheel trailers cannot hold much more weight than your typical gas motorhome. Lastly, once you purchase the 5th wheel, you still have to invest in a decent truck. Most people purchase a diesel truck and most purchase a newer model to curve the possibility of a massive breakdown on the road. A quick Google search will show you a 10 year old Cummins Diesel truck will cost you anywhere from $20-$35k. I won my skoolie in an auction for $3k with the Cummins 8.3 and the Allison 3060 World Transmission with 140k miles... Sounds like a good deal to me.
As mentioned before, the build quality is subpar for most manufactured RV’s. However, this is not the case for ALL RV’s. Some manufacturers like Marathon, Featherlite and Millennium use the Prevost chassis and are built by world class craftsmen with the finest materials available...they also run you upwards of $2.8 million. Additionally, you could go the diesel pusher or super C motorhome route with your traditional RV and save a few bucks, but not much. A 2008 Monaco Signature will still run you $250k and a typical super C of the same year will run you $90-$100K. The aforementioned rigs are only examples and all suggestions should be taken with a grain of salt. These rigs will still have issues and just because they have a high price tag does not mean they will be built to last. This only means that they were built much better than the typical rig that is pumped out of the factory as quickly as possible. I can point you to countless horror stories from those who purchased a brand new rig only to have it in the shop for 6 months to a year after purchasing, and once they’re broken, they take their time fixin them, even and especially when they’re under warranty.
With my skoolie I will be able to use the best materials and hire in professional tradesmen to build my home, for the projects I am not able to complete that is. My skoolie is a 40ft Bluebird All American. Without the seats, the bus weighs at or around 21k pounds and the total carrying capacity of the rig is 36k pounds. That’s right folks, our rig has a base carrying capacity of 15k pounds! Granted, as I write this introduction I have not taken the bus to a scale since the roof raise, but I am confident I still have plenty of wiggle room to build. I am in no way saying you should load your skoolie up. Just realize you will have a blank canvas that allows you to use quality materials that will last.
Overall, when all is said and done, I am building a boondocking rig. Boondocking is a fancy word for dry camping in the middle of nowhere. I want to build a bus that can carry enough food, water and supplies to be self sufficient for months. I want to build something that can be completely off the grid and utilize the voodoo magic of solar. This will power the machines that generate my mobile income. I want to be part of this amazing movement of people finding psychological and financial freedom by creating my own path. If my reasons for building a skoolie resonates with you, you are who we hope to inspire to build their own skoolie!
Mistakes I Made Purchasing/Buying A Skoolie
I sat in front of the computer screen refreshing the browser every 5 seconds. The auction only had 1:30 left and I increased my max bid to $3k. My heart was pumping and "my perfect bus" was being bid on by someone else on publicsurplus.com. Down to 30 seconds, my hands were wet from sweat as I refreshed the page over and over again. 5 seconds left, the other bidder bid $3k and my auto low bid went up to $3,050. The auction counter reset to one minute, a common thing on auction sites. I refreshed the page until it went down from 3...2...1...I purchased a bus. I paid for the bus immediately after and awaited word from the school district.
I will be the first to admit it, I got caught up in the excitement. I found a 40ft bluebird bus with the Cummons 8.3, Allison 3060 transmission and only had 135k miles and I wanted her BAD! Bad enough that I didn't consider the fact that I was bidding on this bus in Seward, Alaska and the bus was located in West Palm Beach, Florida. I will save you the Google Maps total mile search, but that is over 5k miles. It's a long enough distance that Google Maps zooms out so far you can see the curvature of the globe. I made arrangements to have the bus towed to a shop to be looked over for the drive home. Another aspect I did not consider, August-September is hurricane season. I also did not plan on having a 10 year hurricane pass RIGHT THROUGH West Palm Beach! Luckily, the bus made it with only one broken window. When I called the repair shop to ask how bad it could get, the receptionist said that if the storm was as strong as forecasted, busses typically roll over on their side by the end of the storm.
After the bus survived the hurricane, I asked to have any service records/decommission slips sent to me. The service records showed that the bus was very well taken care of. However, the decommission slip told another story. To learn more about what a decommission slip is, check the "how to research your bus" lecture. The report showed the bus would need about $10k worth of work.
At that point, I started researching scrap yards to see if I could make my money back parting out the bus. There was no way I was spending that much to get a bus on the road. I planned to tuck my tail and run away from this bad investment even though it stung. After the initial shock, I calmed down, talked with some friends and decided a $275 fee to have the bus looked over was worth the investment over just scrapping the bus. It turned out the bus wasn't that bad. A few ABS sensors and a new belt and the bus seemed to be in great shape. However, a little trick I learned the hard way was that school districts often swap the tires out on the bus after the auction pictures are taken. This is a VERY common practice, so be mindful if you decide to try your hand at auctions. In the process of making sure the bus was good to go, the shop had to replace all 6 tires to get it up to speed. New bus tires cost $480 each... Ouch.
This $3k purchase soon became a $7.5k purchase and I hadn't even driven it home yet. Now, if I could go back in time and give myself a mild to moderate beating, I would have probably purchased a great bus in AZ for around 6k with decent tires, but you live and learn. Regardless, the trip home had some expenses as well. Fuel for one, 3 or 4 repair shops as well. All in all, without food cost, I was at around $9k to get the bus to Colorado for the roof raise. I'm not going to lie, it is a trip I will remember for the rest of my life, but man did it cost some cash!
Is A Skoolie Right For You?
After 10 years of sporadic vehicle travel life and 4 years of full time rubber tramping, I can definitively state that the skoolie platform is one of the best for those looking to have a quality build for the best price. Those Sprinters are amazing...if you have 60k to spend BEFORE the conversion. I'm currently around $20k for my build and I have not skimped on anything. I am building my skoolie to be my full time home for the next 10-15 years at least. I am a huge proponent of this platform for those willing to put the work in and deal with adversity. This will not be easy. This will cost more than you expect. This very well could be the most rewarding project of your life if you decide to move forward, I know my skoolie is for me.