What to look for in a bus. Bus Buying 101
One of the most exciting and slightly nerve wracking steps of journeying into bus life is shopping for the bus itself! It took us more than a year of looking at thousands of buses online and many buses in person until we could decide upon one. The thing is, we knew what we wanted and going out and seeing the buses just confirmed it, but many people go into this not knowing what they want and this could stretch out the process even longer. So here we have laid out exactly what you need to look at in a bus before you go see one. As well as some guidelines on how certain bus characteristics may suit your lifestyle, level of skill and budget better than others.
Let’s start with what characteristics you will need to look at in all buses you browse:
- Internal roof height
- Engine location
- Luggage Compartment
- Weight of the Bus
- Coach or City Bus
Internal Roof Height:
The internal roof height of most buses is the same. The difference lies in the shape/type of floor you have. Some buses have under storage that mildly affects the height. Then there are some buses that have a flat floor, whilst some buses have a sunken aisle. This will affect how you layout the bus. Also how much work it will take to convert and how you live in the bus later on.
Aisle – Some buses have an aisle that dips lower in between the seats, straight down the middle of the bus. This allows passengers to walk standing upright, to and from the back of the bus. This is all dandy in the commercial use of the bus but when you convert it this will add complications. You have 3 options if you buy a bus with an aisle:
Aisle Option A: Leave the aisle when you convert the bus and build around it. This would end up with your whole conversion built on either side of the narrow aisle. Ie: kitchen benches, couches, toilet, bathroom, would all have to be on either the left or right side of the bus. Your walking space would be restricted to the width of the original aisle. You could build the bed over the aisle so that’s not an issue. Then it just depends if you are happy with your walking space being about half a meter wide? Up to you. This is the most frugal option.
Aisle Option B: You can fill in the aisle. This only works if you are short enough/your roof is generously high enough by chance, that when you fill the aisle in, you can still stand up. This wouldn’t be very difficult and you can even use the aisle as a mini storage area under the floor if you are weary that you need more storage space. For example small water tanks could be placed here, or your canned goods storage, or shoes etc. This is a relatively cheap option as well.
Aisle Option C: You can flatten the floor around the aisle to match the depth/level of the aisle. This option is costly and usually requires an engineer to assist with the planning, as this requires that you move part of the chassis in some cases. This is totally plausible but will take quite a bit of money and a long amount of time as well. In some cases, you need to just cut off the layer of raised flooring and weld in a new floor frame. This is is still timely, costly and hard work. You would have to REALLY know what you are looking at and know how well equipped you REALLY are to potentially handle doing some of that work yourself. You’d have to feel very confident you won’t wreck the integrity of the bus frame, and thus the safety of the bus in the process.
Flat Floor – Your next option would be to just keep hunting until you find a bus with a flat floor. And good news! There are plenty! City buses almost always have a flat floor, but lot’s of coach buses do have a flat floor as well. We found Australian Bus and Coach Sales (www.abc-sales.tradetrucks.com.au) has many buses with flat floors and they were very well maintained. They always made sure to mention the type of floor in the ad, making the search much easier. Also, as they are former bus lifers (in their childhood they lived in a bus, we met them) they cater very well to future bus lifers and have a lot of knowledge to share for anyone interested.
Why does engine location matter? This will affect maintenance accessibility, cabin noise and a couple more things. Let’s have a look at the 3 usual types:
Rear Mounted Engine – A few reasons why this is the preferred engine location:
- Less noise into the cabin. Usually the bed is placed over the rear mounted engine in living space in most layouts. This works well as you’re usually not in bed while you are driving.
- Easier to work on. The engine is USUALLY accessible through a panel on the outer back end of the bus. Some do access it from inside the bus. Although, in this case you can have a gas lifted bed over it (properly insulated of course) so mechanics can easily get to the engine.
Mid-Mounted Engine – This engine location leads to loss of luggage space in coach buses. Also it isn’t ideal to access for working on and leads to lot’s of noise in the cabin.
Front Mounted Engine – Usually older buses have these. They are very noisy, let off a lot of heat and reduce the buses entire cabin space. As a converted bus can only be 12.5 metres from front to rear, this reduces living space significantly.
There are 3 types of engine transmissions with slight variances. It’s very important to know what type of transmission you have. Different transmissions require different levels of skill to drive. They also require you to complete different types of Heavy Rigid Licensing Courses. This will affect how much your licence course will cost and how difficult it will be to learn/drive later on.
Automatic – This is the most basic and easiest to drive. Especially for long distances this is ideal for ease. If you usually drive manual, an automatic is not as fun, but it does significantly reduce the effort involved. The only downside is that automatic gearboxes are less sturdy, less reliable for lasting a long period of time. They wear down easier and that is something to consider, maintenance wise.
Manual – Synchomesh Gearbox (a.k.a Synchro) – This is the usual gearbox in a manual car. So you normally clutch and shift as in a manual car. Buses sometimes more and sometimes less gears than a car though. They could have a split gearbox which can have as many as 12 gears (but trucks have these more often). More than likely you will have a close-to-normal type in a bus though. It will likely be 4 to 6 gears. If you can drive a manual car well, then you can drive this type of bus.
Manual – Non-Synchromesh Gearbox (a.k.a Non-Synchro) – This is the most challenging to learn to drive. The Heavy Rigid Driving Course for this could involve an extra day (a third day) to be able to get the hang of this. A Non-Synchro Gearbox means that you need to double clutch and rev match between every gear. This includes for up AND down shifting. So for example: if you are in 1st gear, you then clutch in, go to neutral, you rev match [rev so the engine is not in idle], and then you clutch in and go into 2nd…and so on…). This is not a massive issue if you are a good manual car driver. Best for those who enjoy driving and love the challenge.
Eventually, double clutching and rev matching can become second nature as manual car driving does as well. And if you are lucky you will find an “old school” driving teacher who can teach you how to hear/feel the engine and be able to shift without clutching [a very rare but attainable, badass skill!].
This comes down to personal preference and how much shit/stuff you really have/want to put into the bus.
Size, location, chassis location and are they through bins? Some of the questions you may have. For our bus, we decided on the maximum under storage with through bins, a chassis which is not in the middle of the bins [rather it’s high up under the floor] and the largest size we could get.
This is important for such decisions as: where are you going to put your water tanks [fresh water, grey water, black water], can you build a frame to hang off the chassis or sit a frame onto the chassis to properly hold the weight of these water tanks, do you need 3 through bins because 1.5 are for the large amount of water you want to bring, .5 is for all the electrical and the 3rd is for your storage space/tools? These are just a few things to think about.
Weight of the Bus:
Each bus has an information plate welded to it that discloses the 3 important MAXIMUM weight amounts for that particular bus. Most buses of similar length and type (coach or city bus), have similar weight allowances but each one differentiates a little and this can affect your conversion in the following manners:
TARE WEIGHT – [Summary: The weight of the bus without your built-out motorhome items inside (so the functioning bus with frame, the flooring, roofing, a bit of fuel/fluids in engine, and nobody in it)]
The maximum allowed Tare Weight affects the basic items at the start of your build like your walls and flooring choices. Since you are likely rebuilding/redoing the floors and walls remember these items you choose for your fit-out all together must not weigh more than your maximum tare weight. Usually this isn’t a huge problem but good to note.
GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) – [Summary: the weight of the bus frame and including EVERYTHING (your bed, kitchen, chairs, lamps, fuel, water in water tanks, etc) in the bus and EVERYONE who has a seat in the bus (ie: if you have 4 seats then it includes 4 people at a weight of 68kg with 60kg of luggage per person)]
The maximum allowed GVM for the bus you choose affects the fit-out of your bus conversion. GVM affects how much you can build with heavy wood or steel and how much stuff you can put in it as everything has a weight. For example, in some buses you may be able to account for a full sized fridge while in others you may have to go with a half-sized fridge etc.
You can use our handy FREE GVM Calculator in the Free Stuff Section of our website to figure this out in advance! This will help you figure out if you can fit that fridge, that dishwasher etc even with their weight.
GCM (Gross Combination Mass) – [Summary: the fully loaded bus with all motorhome stuff in it, the people who have seats in it AND INCLUDING while towing a lawful trailer (so the full bus + full trailer = GCM weight total)]
The GCM affects how much you can tow with your bus. So if you are planning to live in the bus and then tow your car or motorbikes or your boat behind the bus this is very important to note.
Buses come in many lengths and weights. Remember to note that your converted bus cannot exceed 12.5metres from front to rear end. Within that 12.5m you can have a few options for number of axles as well. This is important as it affects the licence you need to drive it and therefore the cost of the licencing course.
2 Axle – A 2 axle bus is typical and depending on the maximum GVM of the bus as well this determines which Licence you need to drive it. Most 2 axle buses only require a Medium Rigid Licence. This is slightly cheaper than a Heavy Rigid. Two axle buses are easier to drive as well as they are more closely related to driving a normal-ish…reaaaally long car.
3 Axle – A 3 axle bus is slightly more rare. Some older, cooler looking buses have 3 axles. One axle in the front, and two in the back (one back one is a lazy axle). It’s pretty badass. But this involves a Heavy Rigid Licence to drive. There is one drive axle and a lazy axle in the back [it just rolls along] so there’s a bit more finesse involved in driving a 3 axle.
Coach or City Bus:
This is a matter of preference as well but the key differences also affect your fit-out, storage and weight/sizes of the items you can put in the conversion. It also affects The key differences are:
Under Storage or None – Coach buses of course have the under storage. Some have 2 to 3 under storage areas. There are some city buses with 1 or 2 small under storage compartments though, so all hope for extra storage is not lost if you want a city bus!
Airbag Suspension or Not – Coach buses also have airbag suspension. This means the bus sits on bags of air, literally. This leads too a smoother ride while driving and lets the bus lower to the ground when you are parked which allows ease of access in and out of the bus. For a bus with airbags we highly recommend you have some jacks that you put under the bus when stationary for a long time to keep the bus level and the airbags under less tension. City buses simply have coil-overs/coil suspension. This leads to the bus rocking quite a bit while you walk up and down it when parked…but you can totally get used to that. Eventually a normal house will be weird to you when it doesn’t rock LOL.
Higher GVM – Coach buses usually have a higher GVM which allows for carrying heavier/more load. This allows you to build a more comprehensive (ballin’) bus conversion.
BIGGEST TIP: Hire a heavy rigid mechanic to take a look at the bus with you! The minor investment can save you thousands in the long run!
And, voila! This is step 1 of the basics to consider!
You’re now miles ahead of where you were in knowledge and can head on this venture better prepared!
For more starter tips from this point, check out our Bus Life Myths BUSTED page. I wanted to include this page for some confidence building. Anyone can do this!
Good luck & have fun with it!
We are Amanda & Dylan!
We want to share with you our travel and bus-building experiences so that we can take the guesswork out of it all for you.
We've written very informally to keep it fun but we hope these tips and tricks help you along your journey :)
MORE BADASS CONTENT:
BROOME, WA ; is it worth the trip?
A Traveler Essentials Mini-Guide: For Buslifers, Vanlifers and travellers who love nature. Have you wanted to venture…
Inspirational Videos of Thoroughly Happy Aussie Bus Lifers
I really love the stories that these bus lifers have, these videos showcase 2 different perspectives on…
Should you buy a Registered or Unregistered bus? What if you’re buying interstate?
There are many things to consider when you purchase a bus! Is it better to purchase a…