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A Skoolie Affords This Millennial a Life He Loves

By Melissa Rappaport Schifman Editor-At-Large
Jul 16, 2019

Nicholas Heller grew up loving the great outdoors—whether it was in his hometowns of Minneapolis, MN, Mammoth, California, or San Antonio, Texas. While getting his degree in Environmental Biology from Western State Colorado University, he was a river rafting guide during the summers. Then, after moving back to San Antonio, he took a job at REI, where he could talk about the outdoors with customers—but was missing some of the experiences. Quickly moving up the managerial ranks, he was promoted to the Austin, Texas REI. That’s when he decided he needed to build his Skoolie with no prior building experience.

skoolie interior
Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Heller

What is a Skoolie? Simply put, it's a school bus converted into a home. I had never heard of Skoolies until Rise wrote a complete guide about them, as they are gaining in popularity as an alternative tiny home on wheels. A school bus already has a structure (walls, floor, roof), an engine, wheels, and many operable windows, so if you think about it, it's a great way to achieve a tiny home inexpensively, customized to your own needs. 

Full disclosure: Nick is my first cousin. Since we don't live in the same state and are half a generation apart in age, we don't see each other very much. But I recently caught up with him on what he was doing, and his story is worth sharing. So read on about how Nick converted a school bus into his own home and learned lessons.

Why did you decide to convert a school bus and make it your own home?

So many reasons! I am a traveler, an adventurer that loves exploring new areas, meeting new people and cultures. I wanted to live the life I love while I am still able to enjoy it truly. I was also tired of paying rent, moving all my things every year or so to a new place, and not owning my own home. So, a Skoolie just made sense for me, and at the time, it was all I could afford. I'll never regret quitting my corporate job to travel around the country for a year in the beautiful Skoolie that I built myself.

skoolie travel
Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Heller

Where did you find your bus to convert (and was it hard to find it)?

I was living in Texas when I started looking for my school bus. Luckily, Texas happens to be one of the best places to find a school bus because of the climate. In South Texas, school buses are not exposed to snow, salt on the roads, or sea air, all the things that cause rust. In addition, they usually come standard with window tint to help with overheating. Many school districts auction off their retired inventory, and you can purchase them directly through from the district. I researched that option, but I found a church that bought school buses from auctions, then they would make minor improvements on the engine and resell them. The bus dealer I found on Craigslist had 15-20 buses, and I got to test drive and inspect a few before I found the one I wanted.

How long did the conversion process take you, and can you tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you faced?

I worked a full-time job throughout my entire build, so I only had about two days a week to work on the bus. I also had difficultly finding a place to work on the bus. Luckily, my family had some property about two hours away from my work and residence. So with all that said, I was able to complete my build in about 19 months. If I just calculated actual working days, it took me about 60 days.

Do you mind sharing how much your Skoolie cost?

Not at all—the total was $25,000 (USD). The bus was $5,000, and the cost of all the materials for conversion was $20,000. I liked the process; I'd sell mine and build another one! 

How are you using your Skoolie now? (And do you plan to keep it indefinitely?) 

Currently, my Skoolie is my primary residence, and I have spent the last six months traveling around the West, exploring and doing all the outdoor adventures I love. I've met up with old friends, made new ones, hosted dinners and adventures all over the Southwest, and planning on doing the same through the Pacific Northwest and West. I love my Skoolie—but I would part with it for the right price, then I'd build another one because I loved the building process.

Knowing what you know now, is there anything you wish you had done differently? 

I could tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, so throughout the build, if I didn't like something, I just tore it out and redid it. I did this with my subfloors, cabinet locks (I had three variations before I got it to work), and dining table. I am pleased with the finished product in actual practice, although, in future builds, I might combine the shower bathroom into one dual-purpose room instead of two small areas. 

Do you have any tips for others on how they can save money converting their Skoolie? 

When I started this project, I didn't have any experience with building or remodeling anything, and I didn't even own any tools! So I went out and bought everything new, which was not necessary. There are so many places where you can buy arguably better quality tools for a better price than the most inexpensive brand new products. Since I've purchased my tools, I have found better quality, slightly used tools at garage sales, pawnshops, consignment stores, and online. The same goes for materials; you don't always need brand new things. If you do a little extra digging, some places have leftovers from huge home builds, which is excellent because Skoolies don't need many materials—you need to be a little more flexible.

Rise writes about sustainable home improvement. Do you see Skoolies as a more sustainable alternative to single-family homes?

This is a tricky question to answer, but maybe if you mean sustainable in reference to the environment. Living in a Skoolie makes me more aware of my impact. I generate all my energy through my solar panels. I have to be mindful of what is going into my gray water tanks, so I only use environmentally friendly/biodegradable products. Trash and recycling pile up quickly if I were to live as I did before bus life. Some have even converted their bus engines to run on plant oils and biodiesel to lower their impact even more.

Skoolie dog bed
Photo Courtesy of Nicholas Heller

Is this life sustainable for me personally? At my current status, I'd have to say yes. I am a single guy with a dog, so that I could be happy living this lifestyle for a while, but someday I'll want to settle down and plant some roots with my own home. I have seen families that live in a Skoolie full time, and they seem to make it work while being fulfilled and happy (they also had bigger buses than mine). I can see it being a more sustainable option for a single-family if they weren't mobile.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Like I said before, I had little to no experience with any of this process before starting the build. I learned everything alone through Youtube videos, online forums, and trial and error. It wasn't easy, but I was determined and hardworking. I am a firm believer that anyone can do this if they are committed.

If you want to learn more, Nick has chronicled much of his bus conversion story on Instagram. the_noblesteed). His tagline: "On a Mission to Inspire: Tiny bus conversion to explore and adventure Earth's natural wonders, seeking its edges and experiencing life." Pretty inspirational, Nick!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-10-16T18:37:02+0000

Article by:

Melissa Rappaport Schifman

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