It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a cross country hunt for a converted vintage bus to make our next technomadic home.
And why vintage? Why on earth would we consider buying a vehicle potentially older than we are?
How did we go from living in a 17′ ultra-modern fiberglass egg to considering life in a 35′ steel box that might have originally hauled passengers in an era before the interstate?
The answers are simple – the nostalgia and uniqueness sounds like fun, pursuing something new (eer.. old?) is certainly exciting, and so far life in a vintage bus seems likely to be a surprisingly practical choice as well.
Our Oliver trailer was a great go-nearly-anywhere pod. It was small and autonomous enough to go places that few other RVs would dare venture.
And we loved occasionally doing just that. We grew proficient at camping on city streets to remote boondocking spots. From urban Walmarts to state parks. Whether months in a commercial RV park, or weeks without hookups - we could thrive with it.
And we got good at it. So good that life on the road in our Oliver was starting to get too easy, and too routine. The negative sides of RVing were starting to show their edges.
We thought about taking on a substantial new challenge in the Oliver, such as heading into Mexico or even Central America. Or up to Alaska. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that we were ready for something entirely new, and not just a new destination. We have discovered that we both enjoy changing up our physical home, as much as our view.
For a long while, we’ve contemplated live-aboard sailing. But it is more and more seeming like a huge challenge to take on at once, requiring a substantial bulk of our savings to get started and even more so to maintain. And it would be especially challenging to maintain connectivity and keep up our online careers as we adapted.
Sailing remains a future goal for us, but we have decided it’s something for the more far off future rather than sooner.
And after our winter in St. John, we’d also like to start having flexibility to explore future such adventures around the world while maintaining a mobile home base in the US.
The Oliver was great out in the boonies, where we could make the outdoors our living room. But when we are stopped for longer periods of time in more congested areas, that meant that our “living room” was outside and on display for all our neighbors to see. If we wanted privacy, that meant closing the blinds and sealing ourselves off into a tiny little box. This became less ideal as time went on.
The Oliver also started to present other space issues for us. One thing we greatly miss about our previous stationary lives is entertaining, and the longer we’ve traveled the more folks we’ve met where it would have been nice to have space to host a card game, or offer crash space. The kitchen space also became limiting, and we were craving more agility to let our culinary creativity expand.
Plus, we had a growing cat who wanted her own dedicated nap and play space.
We couldn’t deny it any longer – living in a micro-tiny space had grown old, and we want more space!
The Obvious Choice
The obvious choice, of course, would be to move into a larger RV.
When thinking about trailers – we just couldn’t see any reason to ever want one any larger than our previous Oliver. Besides, we had mastered trailer life – it’s time for something new!
A motorhome felt like a better next step. We looked at some of the smaller motorhomes currently on the market, and there are very limited options.
To put it bluntly, most traditional RV’s are… exceedingly underwhelming to us (no offense to our traditional motorhome living friends).
Most RV’s age poorly, often starting to literally fall apart at the seams within just a few years. It is rare to see an RV more than 10 years old that isn’t ready for the scrapyard. The quality usually just isn’t there – our Oliver was an exceedingly rare exception. We’ve been spoiled. And let’s not even talk about the limited range of style available.
Most motorhomes are built to be as large and lumbering as they can be, yet on the smallest possible chassis. Many designs are overloaded (potentially illegally so) as soon as you fill the holding tanks and load up even minimal gear.
The higher quality motorhomes are priced well above our price threshold. While $125+k isn’t a bad price for a full time house, these RVs will depreciate upon driving off the lot. And it’s certainly more than we’re willing to pay for something we intend to park for 2-4 months a year as we travel abroad.
We want a home that is built to last. With solid bones to carry us. And which is packed with character, style, and grace that reflects our personalities. And we don’t want to tie up a huge portion of our cash in it.
There just wasn’t any way we’d find that on a regular RV lot.
A typical RV is designed to be used a few weeks or months a year, and driven only a few thousands of miles in that time. A bus on the other hand is engineered for constant commercial service – built to carry heavy loads of passengers and baggage, and to go millions of miles.
Buses, by definition, are built to last. And buses being used as RV’s are not being pushed anywhere close to their limits.
The ultra-high-end of the RV market has always used buses as a foundation, with many companies specializing in custom bus conversions catering to a clientele looking to spend whatever it takes to “get the best”. Wealthy retirees, rock stars, and touring bands have all sprung for custom buses, with price tags to match. We’re not that demographic.
Ten, twenty, or even thirty years later, these buses that once cost a fortune are selling used for a fraction of their original cost. But unlike a traditional RV, as long as it was well cared for, an older bus still has a relatively long life ahead of it.
Some of the high-end conversion companies buy virgin bus shells straight from the factory, but other professional conversion companies and talented hobbyists buy buses that had been in passenger service but which were being retired – such as older Greyhounds. Some of the best conversions are the byproduct of a talented hobbyist craftsman spending literal years working to perfect and polish every possible nut and bolt on a hobby bus. Others hobbyist bus conversions are made up of thrown together half-completed projects.
The key is tracking down the jewels and skipping over the potential money pits, or the buses requiring extensive renovation work before they are ready to be lived in.
And the vintage bus market is especially soft right now due to rising diesel prices, the economy and limited (or no) options for financing. With patience and a realistic eye, you can find amazing converted buses in the $10- 30k range. Add in some updates and put aside some cash for anticipated repair & maintenance, and one can end up with a unique longer lasting home on wheels for less than the price of a brand new ‘quality’ RV.
At some point over the past few decades buses morphed into sleek but rather dull looking boxes.
Buses also grew bigger, as state laws changed to first allow 40′ lengths and then 45′. Buses got wider too – stretching from 96″ across to a lane-spanning 104″.
For a bus carrying paying passengers, bigger makes sense. But for two nomads used to living in a 17′ egg, the formerly standard 35′ length is already more than enough! We already know that most RVs will never be able to go to the remote places we did with our Oliver. However, many public parks that we favor were built in a time before 40′ & 45′ RVs were legal, so they have a 35′ length max to maneuver and park.
After looking at several 40′ and 35′ buses, we simply know that a 35′ bus with 2 axles is what we want. Anything bigger is just too much for us.
Vintage buses do have their challenges however. While the diesel engines of these things were fairly standard for buses, trucks, boats and more – some of these buses just have parts that are made of unobtanium. And of course, time is not always kind. Corrosion and rust are issues to be on the look out for.
Hopefully we’ll be able to find a bus that hits a sweet spot – old enough to be stylish and affordable, but updated enough not to be a maintenance migraine.
Practical & Challenging
The more we’ve researched bus life, the more the idea has grown on us.
From a practical angle, it just makes sense…. By buying an older bus conversion, we can get an longer lasting RV for a fraction of the cost of a new (or even used) “sticks and staples” design, and we will get something that is stylishly uniquely ours and a great foundation for our own geeky customizations.
And as a bonus – learning bus systems and diesel engine maintenance is perfect training for our eventual life at sea! We look at our vintage bus experiment to be training wheels for sailing life – learning to deal with challenges of upkeeping systems in circumstances that might be challenging … without risking sinking or floating adrift at sea.
Now all we need to do is scour the country, and find the right bus for us!
Got a 35′ bus to sell? Fill out our information form to let us know about it!