There’s a huge range of prices for bus conversions, and it’s not always obvious when you’re looking at a good deal. There are a few reasons for this and I’m going to cover them in this article:
- Buying a Bus at Auction
- Buying from a Private Seller
- Buying from a Used Bus Dealer
- The Best Way To Buy A Bus!
First off, convenience is a big thing. Convenience drives most of our purchasing habits, it’s simply that the value of our money is greater than the value of what we’re trying to do. A soda machine charges $1 for a can of cola that you can buy for less at the grocery store, but people buy it because it’s easy, it’s ready to drink, and you don’t have to buy 12 of them. You see a nice restaurant and the prices are high, but people pay them. It’s easier than cooking yourself, especially if the food requires experience or skills you don’t have. You don’t have to source the ingredients yourself or worry about buying too much and having leftovers. That concept carries on through most everything we do, and applies equally to buying a bus.
There are a couple common ways to shop for a bus. You can buy them from a dealer/reseller, you can buy them from a private seller, or you can buy them at auction. There are pros and cons to each.
Buying a School Bus at Auction
Buying at auction is almost always going to be the least expensive option. School districts are usually required to auction off their vehicles, so they use sites like publicsurplus.com and govdeals.com to sell them. You can see and bid on buses from across the country, and most auctions will allow you to contact the seller and get questions answered that aren’t covered in the (typically not very good) description. Since these aren’t being sold for profit, the seller is more likely to point out any flaws and provide an honest description.
But it isn’t all roses, there are some major downsides to it as well! Since you’re looking at a marketplace that covers the entire country, the bus you like may be thousands of miles away. Not only does that rule out looking at it in person before purchase, you also have to figure your time and fuel costs to get it home. Most diesel buses will get around 10mpg, and with diesel averaging over $3 per gallon you’re looking at over $300 in fuel for every thousand miles from home you are. On top of that, a cruising speed or 55 or 60mph means you’re looking at 17 or 18 hours to drive that 1000 miles. You probably won’t be sleeping in an unconverted bus (not very successfully at least!) so factor in hotel rooms… If you’re in Tampa, FL bidding on a bus in Seattle, WA, you should plan on another $2000 in costs to get your bus home after the purchase. Or maybe you should add $2000 to the price you’re willing to pay or a local option?
If you do find a bus at auction locally, you still almost certainly won’t be able to test drive it. Some lots may start it and let you see it run, but that’s not a sure thing. You have to trust the information in the description and the answers to your questions about how well it drives, and even then you may get an accurate answer that’s still wrong… Consider that a school bus running a route may spend its entire life at speeds below 35mph. If they tell you it drives great, that doesn’t mean it drives great at highway speed! It isn’t uncommon to have tires way out of balance or worn unevenly in ways that don’t matter until you go over 50mph, and then it turns into a shaking, wobbling nightmare!
Also, there maybe a buyer’s premium attached to an auction, which is an extra amount you are charged on top of the purchase price. The auctioneer is paid by the seller already, so if this seems like double dipping, that’s because it is. The charge will be listed in the auction so keep it in mind as you bid.
Buying a School Bus From A Private Seller
Craigslist is a staple of this, but recently Facebook’s marketplace has been showing some promise. These buses will be owned by an individual or organization that is able to sell it directly, usually not a school. Generally you will find buses other people have bought from auction and are now selling (for whatever reason), and things like church buses.
A church bus might sound like a great idea, but keep in mind that unlike a school district, churches don’t tend to have bus fleet mechanics that stay on top of maintenance and repairs. When something stops working on a church bus, it may just not work any more. And when they go to sell it, it may be because enough things stopped working, or some other lack of maintenance is catching up with them. Also, churches often buy used school buses, so they have a MUCH smaller investment in their bus. A school will have to pay $120k to replace a bus, but a church likely paid under $10k to buy it a few years later on the used market.
A private individual selling a bus can be a variety of difference circumstances. They’re surely not the first owner, and possibly not even the second owner. They may be “flipping” buses by buying at auction and trying to sell direct with a nice markp. They could be someone who bought a bus because they wanted one, but discovered the reality of owning a bus didn’t match their dream and now want to pass it along.
Private sellers are more likely to let you take a test drive, try out the various functionality of the bus, and crawl on top and below and really get a good feel for it. They’re also the most sensitive to price and thus the most likely to sugar coat any issues with it.
Maybe worst of all is the private seller who bought their bus and started converting it, and for whatever reason stopped and is now selling their bus. People who sell their projects tend to be poor at judging that project’s value. They know what it would look like when it was done, and they know how much money and time they invested in it. THe thing is, it doesn’t matter how much time you put in, it doesn’t matter how much money you put in. Those are your costs. The value of what you’re selling exists in a marketplace with lots of people selling lots of things. You could spend $50 on paint and have an overall better looking bus that the market will pay $500 more for. On the other end of the scale, you could grind up $100 bills to make your white paint green and paint it on and add nothing to the price someone would pay for it.
You’re buying a bus, not the energy that went into it. Buses are still a item with relatively high supply and relatively low demand, which works out well for buyers. You can get a great bus for $2000-$3000 in good condition with great features… But in the same marketplace you will see people selling lesser or comparable buses for 2 or 3 times that amount. People tend to point at classic cars as disproving this idea, but they’re really the opposite. They stopped making them a very long time ago and their numbers keep getting fewer while they enter peak nostalgia for people who suddenly don’t have kids living at home or who just made their last mortgage payment. Those prices will continue to go up but are still not based on time and money invested.
Finally, some people will sell a fully converted bus. This is relatively rare, as a good bus conversion isn’t something you would get rid of if you can avoid it. Sometimes it might be that the owner has died or taken ill or some other unavoidable circumstance, but I’m personally wary of someone selling a completed conversion. After all, if it’s great, you wouldn’t sell it, right? The bigger issue for me with a completed conversion is that I see a conversion as a pretty personal thing. You build it the way you think is best, optimized for your usage. How likely is it that someone would have built your perfect bus for themselves?
Buying a School Bus From A Used Bus Dealer
So the obvious thing here is that buying from a dealer is almost guaranteed to be the most expensive route, but people keep buying from them! How can that be?
Well, first off you should understand that bus dealers have access to the same buses that you or I do. They’re buying from govdeals and publicsurplus. It’s very rare that a district is allowed to sell a bus without it going through that process. But these bus dealers have a few advantages that you and I don’t.
Bus dealers have bigger budgets than individuals. That’s just life. They’re not looking for that “perfect bus”, they’re looking for 10 buses a month that they can turn over with minimal investment.
Bus dealers are experienced at buying at auction. They know the questions to ask that will affect their bottom line. When they call the maintenance supervisor, it might not be the first time they’ve spoken. This isn’t their first rodeo and that experience counts for a lot.
Bus dealers also know what it takes to get a bus home from the other side of the country. They have a driver (or a team of drivers) that pretty much just do this.
It’s all known costs that can be plugged into a spreadsheet to determine if a bus is worth bidding on, and if so how high they can bid and still profit. And unlike you, they can bid on (and win) a bunch of buses where you’re going to focus on buying one individual bus. Their primary competitors are going to be exporters who buy a bus and drive it south of the border, not an individual person trying to build a skoolie.
So why would you buy from a dealer? Convenience. You can go to that dealer and look at a bunch of different buses in person. You can start them, you can (probably) drive them. They’ve probably been washed off, they’ve probably had any minor issues corrected like light bulbs or fuses, they’re probably current on basic maintenance like oil changes and tire inflation, etc. You don’t have to factor in the fuel and time to drive it home from another state, and they aren’t going to be upset with you asking a bunch of newbie questions.
Of course, they all say they “only buy the best” buses. I’m sure that’s their intention, but isn’t that everyone’s intention? If it’s on the lot for sale, it meets some minimum level or another. It’s not magic. But it’s not necessarily awful. The market is what it is. If you can save 4 days of driving and $3000 of fuel and hotels and all the uncertainty of buying a bus you’ve never seen in person by spending $3500 more for a local bus you’ve seen in person and test driven, wouldn’t that be worth it?
So What’s The Best Way To Buy A Bus?
My first bus I bought from a transportation company who listed it on Craigslist. I’m the third owner of it. My second bus I bought through Facebook marketplace and I’m the second owner. My third bus I bought at auction and it was by far the cheapest, but also cost me 4 days of driving and hotel rooms. I’ve met people who have bought buses through every one of the described mechanisms and almost nobody has anything really negative to say about their purchase experience. Although there is some selection bias, as the people I meet have successfully converted (or are still successfully converting!) their bus.