Archive for the Tiny House Category

Shipping Container Homes: Hard-Learned Lessons from Those Who’ve Done It

Shipping Container Homes: Hard-Learned Lessons from Those Who’ve Done It

shipping container homesI get asked a lot about shipping container homes when people learn that I’m into tiny houses, and I do have some experience working with shipping container homes. My good friend, D.I. built his own container home here in Charlotte, using a 40-foot container. It was the first one I’d ever seen built out in person and it was neat to watch as D.I. built it over two years, learning along the way.

Living in a shipping container may sound a bit … unconventional. You may envision an old, rusty boxcar or simply a big metal box.

shipping container home living room

Surprisingly, shipping container homes are quite beautiful and economically friendly. Many are drawn to their affordable nature and modern lines. They do require a fair amount of work and preparation (and there are a few quirks to be aware of), but with effort, you can create a beautiful home from something ordinarily discarded and save thousands doing it.

 

What Is A Shipping Container Home?

what is a shipping container home

If you aren’t familiar with shipping container homes, they’re quite interesting. Charlotte happens to be home to one of the largest fabricators of shipping container homes, and I was invited to take a tour of their facility. It was really eye-opening to see how much work went into prepping the containers, so they were ready to build with. The common perception is, “it’s easy because the box is already there.” I learned both from watch D.I. and from my plant tour that’s far from the truth. There’s a lot of effort that goes into turning a container into a home.

Shipping containers are big metal boxes (like a boxcar or the box atop the trailer of a semi-truck), sometimes referred to as Conex boxes. These containers are typically built overseas (usually in China) and are used to ship goods all around the world. Shipping containers are widely available, and many are used only one time on a one-way trip from China (since the U.S. receives more goods than it sends back).

stacked shipping containers

These metal (aluminum or steel) Conex boxes are used to ship all types of materials—some hazardous, but mostly benign. Once they’re used and retired or put out of commission, they’re often stored near ports around the United States. Shipping containers are inexpensive to procure and readily available.

Shipping containers have been used to transport goods since the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the first shipping container was patented for use as a converted home (although people used them as homes and buildings years earlier). Because the modular containers are easy to combine, there are large buildings built from multiple containers, including a mansion made of 31 containers and a hostel large enough to house 120 people!

Most people who live in shipping container homes, however, opt for the tiny house version, using one or two shipping containers as their home. Thanks to the availability, sturdiness, and modern look of Conex boxes, they are customizable.

Why Build A Shipping Container Home?

why build a shipping container home

Admittedly, I’m drawn to the idea of shipping container homes. My one hesitation is that I have no experience with metalworking. I’ve never used a plasma torch or welder before. It’s definitely one of those things I want to learn on my bucket list, but from seeing people actually do it—before you build a shipping container home, you need metalwork experience.

Due to the metalwork, shipping container homes are a little more advanced in terms of building and modifying. They aren’t always the right fit for the typical hobbyist or DIYer who doesn’t have prior building skills because there is quite a bit of technical work required (the obvious metalwork, plus other skills like concrete, engineering, etc.). The big appeal of shipping container homes really comes from the modular design and the modern look.

container home kitchen

That said, there are many other reasons why a shipping container home is an appealing option. The biggest draw of building or buying a shipping container home is that it’s often quite inexpensive. You can find single-use shipping containers for under $5,000 and you instantly have a shell to work in.

Shipping container homes are very strong and sustainable. They’re built to last with a tough exterior that holds up to hurricanes and earthquakes. It’s also nice to give life to the used containers that would ordinarily go to waste. Many shipping containers are used once and then sit empty in ports (or get melted down).

Shipping container homes are also fairly easy to transport intact. Yes, they’re extremely heavy, so they aren’t exactly a tiny house on wheels, but moving a shipping container home to a new foundation is doable without disrupting the structure of the home itself. The containers can be stacked to expand into multi-story homes or configured in interesting modular designs.

The Pros and Cons of Shipping Container Homes

pros and cons of shipping container homes

There are a few drawbacks to living in a shipping container home. One of the biggest challenges is that metal is conducive to heat and cold. Shipping container homes require insulation and ventilation for comfortable living.

Unlike wood, concrete, brick, and stone, metal is a little trickier for temperature and condensation control. They are also loud in windy climates. Thermal bridging is a huge issue in a shipping container home; the metal skin acts as a heat sink, drawing the heat out in the winter and bringing the heat in during summer. This all adds up to a less efficient building and can lead to moisture and mold issues if not properly managed.

welding shipping container homes

Shipping containers also require welding abilities to modify. Unlike wood and other home construction materials, you can’t simply create a window or cut a vent in your home without planning carefully. Welding takes time and is costly, so you’ll want to be cautious as you plan. It’s also a bit more difficult in remote locations because they don’t make battery-powered welding units.

Obviously, planning windows, vents, and other modifications means you need to be aware of load-bearing and structural elements before you make a change to the container. Openings cut in the skin often lead to you needing to reinforce the structure because each cut you make weakens the whole structure.

Shipping containers also require a concrete foundation or, at minimum, piers. You can’t simply put your container house on the ground unsupported and I’ve seen many novice builders attempt to skimp on their footings.

Laying a foundation takes time and adds to the expense associated with the project; it also means you need to be certain exactly how you want to plan the layout of your property. A shipping container home should be viewed as a more permanent construction (although they can be moved intact to a new foundation). It is a cost that you should make sure to budget in for expenses.

shipping containers in a row

Work with a contractor or someone with previous shipping container home-building experience, especially if you’re new to the world of tiny home building. Shipping container homes tend to be one of the more advanced tiny home options. Although they’re ultimately a simple structure, there are certain quirks and issues to be aware of.

Of course, you can find pre-made shipping container structures, but they’re often quite expensive. Creating a shipping container home by yourself is less expensive, but you’ll still need to enlist the help of experts. Even to procure the shipping container and move it to your foundation is a big undertaking. You’ll need a crane to deliver the container and set it atop your foundation. Shipping containers are extremely heavy. Depending on the length (20 foot or 40 foot) they weigh between 5,000-8,000+ pounds. You aren’t going to move a shipping container yourself.

When I worked with my friend, D.I. on his 40-foot container home build, the need for welding skills was a big issue. He didn’t know how to weld or use a plasma torch at all when he started to build his container home, so modifications were a challenge for him. It was important to plan ahead so he could have a contractor do all the welding at once (rather than paying him to return over and over again).

The other challenge D.I. faced was his container home was so immobile. You really need a crane to even move it a short distance or adjust it slightly on the foundation. This means when you get the container installed, you need to be certain of the exact placement you want.

container home bedroom

Finally, another big barrier is that local building code enforcement officials are often unfamiliar with shipping container homes. As a result, it can be tough to get the proper permits for them.

Although there are building challenges, the final look of a shipping container home is really appealing. They have a modern, architectural quality which I find really appealing if done well. They’re inexpensive, extremely durable, and are easily customized.

Here are a few reviews and honest takes on the pros and cons of living in a shipping container home:

 

How Much Does A Shipping Container Home Cost?

how much does a shipping container home cost

Shipping containers themselves, depending on size, cost anywhere from $3,000-$5,000+. It’s much less expensive to buy a shipping container that’s been used for a single ship than to buy a brand-new container. As long as you do your research and ensure the container didn’t contain any dangerous materials, the use is almost always undetectable. You can work with scratches or dents to cover them (or remove) as part of the design, even a little rust can be ground out and repainted.

The biggest mistake I see people make is not factoring in expenses of building a shipping container home to include transportation and placement of the container itself. The second biggest mistake is the foundation build, too often people skip or skimp on this step.

Even if you take the DIY route, chances are you will need to enlist expert help on factors like solar, electric (remember, metal is conductive), plumbing, and modification, especially if you don’t have much welding experience.

shipping container home room ideas

As I said before, because aluminum and steel are conductive, they must be insulated and ventilated carefully to prevent the buildup of condensation and to simply make living more comfortable. So, expert insulation, heating, and cooling will need to be configured into your cost as well.

That last area where I see people get tripped up is that you will also need to consider fees for permits, architectural designs, and plans. As far as permitting goes, as I said, there are many cities without much familiarity with zoning for shipping containers used as dwelling structures, so you’ll need to work with your local officials on the proper approval. This often will include hiring an engineer to work out plans to make officials feel comfortable signing off on it.

The question of cost really comes down to how much planning you will need to do, what you can DIY, and what you’ll need to outsource. Once you’ve procured the container itself, the other pieces can either add up or be done on the cheap.

Here are several outlines of storage container build-outs with pricing:

As you see, the costs vary greatly depending on your plans and the level of architectural design you want to put into your shipping container home. If you’re most concerned with functionality, then a single shipping container buildout is an inexpensive tiny home option.

 

How to Find and Buy A Shipping Container

If you’re ready to find and buy a shipping container home, you need to start researching the size you want. Shipping containers typically come in two standard sizes: 20 foot and 40 foot. The best containers for homes are listed as “HC” or High-Cube containers. HC containers are 9 feet “tall” (as opposed to the standard 8-foot container). That said, shipping containers come in many other sizes as well; you can find them ranging from 8-53 feet. The next most common size is 45 feet, but again, 20- or 40-foot containers are standard (and the easiest to find).

When choosing a size, don’t forget that you’ll be building inwards. You’ll need to frame out the inside and insulate it as well. Depending on your choices for these, you could be eating into your interior by 6-8 inches off each wall.

Shipping containers are graded by condition. “A grade” means the container is good quality with a clean interior and watertight with in-tact seals. The container grades go down to “C grade,” which usually means rust is present, and the container is 10-14 years old. The prices vary by grade but for living, chances are you’ll want to pay a little more for a higher quality container.

container home rooms

Shipping containers are also graded by the following: “One-trippers” meaning new containers that contained only one shipment. “Certified Cargo Worthy” meaning they’ve been used for multiple shipments but are in good condition. “Wind and Watertight” (WWT) indicating they’ve been used but are still in decent condition. “As-Is” means the container may have rust, doors that don’t seal or pinholes in the metal. Containers graded “As-Is” should probably be avoided for dwellings.

The other factors to consider are the land where you plan to place your container (and if you already have a foundation or will need to pour one). You’ll need to ensure the land is accessible for large trucks or cranes so your shipping container home can be placed.

To buy shipping containers check out:

  • Shipped is the biggest new and used shipping container marketplace online
  • BoxHub is another big new and used shipping container marketplace
  • Craigslist and eBay are also options for finding shipping container homes

Before you buy, you’ll want to review these resources and guides for buying a shipping container home as well:

 

Building Your Own Shipping Container Home

If you decide you don’t want to take the DIY route to building, there are certainly options for fully designed and built-out shipping container homes. These are, of course, going to be more expensive, but because the modular design is favored by architects, you can find really beautiful “pet projects” for sale. The design and build quality of these homes are often excellent.

Resources for pre-built container homes are:

Like most of us in the tiny home world, though, chances are you enjoy putting in the sweat equity. (I know I do!) Shipping container homes are a more advanced project and they require certain skills, like metalworking. Building the internal walls, insulation, plumbing, and electrical can all be completed yourself, but there are considerations so follow expert resources and instructions. It takes quite a few manhours to complete a DIY container home build.

building container home

Great examples of people who successfully DIY-built their container homes are:

Before you start your build, you’ll need floor plans and a strong idea of how you want your finished container home to look. As with any tiny home build, the planning portion of the process is vital.

For great shipping container home floorplans, you may want to view:

The fact that shipping container homes are pretty straightforward (one 20- or 40-foot-long container by 9 feet high and across), means configuring floor plans isn’t terribly challenging. Considerations like plumbing, window placement, and access to grid services are really all you need to keep in mind in terms of layout. If there are any dents or areas of your Conex box you need to cover, figure that into the design as well.

designing container homes

As you design your home, consider the needs of each person who lives in the home. Some shipping container homes are built in sections. One container may serve as the main living area, another container may become a guest area, and another container serves as the office. It depends on the functionality, amount of space you desire and how many containers you can afford or access. The good news about shipping containers is you can always add more, expand, and build out in the future.

After seeing the amazing floorplans and designs of shipping container homes out there, I’m sure you’ll feel inspired too. If you’re looking for a strong structure with a modern look and feel, a shipping container home might be the right type of tiny home for you.

Your Turn!

  • Do you prefer the modern design of shipping container homes?
  • What skills would you need to learn for your shipping container home build?

All About Teardrop Trailers: Take Your Tiny Life on The Road

All About Teardrop Trailers: Take Your Tiny Life on The Road

teardrop trailersI’ve been wanting to build my own teardrop trailer for years now, having seen my first teardrop trailer “in the wild” during a visit to Yellowstone National Park. We’d stopped to take some photos of elk and noticed an older couple happily fixing lunch under their pop-up galley hatch. Much to the embarrassment of my friend, I walked up to them and struck up a conversation. (I even got invited to join them for lunch!) Since that moment, I’ve been in love with the simple design of the teardrop trailer.

Whether you’re looking for a full-time living option or a weekend away, a teardrop trailer is a fun and functional tiny living project to take on.

yellowstone national park travel

What Is a Teardrop Trailer?

what is a teardrop trailer

Teardrop trailers originated back in the 1950s and 1960s when they were featured in Popular Science Magazine as a weekend project. They caught on like wildfire as Americans came home from WWII and Americans began to buy cars for the first time. People began to explore all that the US had to offer all from the comfort of their personal cars.

This led people to want a way to camp in a way that was a little bit more comfortable than a tent and campers hadn’t even been invented yet. Picture dad packing up the family for a weekend camping trip. He’d want a trailer he could hook to the back of the car and pull along. Often, these small popup trailers featured storage, perhaps a cooking grill or fold-out dining area (referred to as the galley), and in many cases, a small sleeping area.

This nostalgia explains the popular resurgence of teardrop trailers in the last few years. These trailers are popular with the Boomer Generation (and Millennials looking for an affordable way to camp with a little luxury). With enough space and utility for simple outdoor living, and enough comfort so campers aren’t exactly roughing it, teardrop trailers are a nice weekender solution.

teardrop-trailer-towing

Teardrop trailers are definitely small, they’re somewhere between a step-up from tent camping and a step-down from a typical tiny home, skoolie, conversion van, or traditional camper. There are, however, people who live in teardrop trailers full time (like this teardrop trailer couple on YouTube).

I personally like teardrop trailers because they’re the perfect balance of the creature comforts of home with a great kitchen. Yet, the trailers are small enough to easily tow behind most cars. Having towed my tiny house before, I have a newfound appreciation for smaller trailers—there’s not as much to worry about when you go out on the road.

Because teardrop trailers are meant to pull along behind a car, they’re built with an aerodynamic “teardrop” shape. Which not only saves on gas and makes them way easier to tow but looks great too.

towing a teardrop trailer

Teardrop trailers are an “all-in-one” camping solution. Simply pack in your goods, attach the trailer to your car, and head off on your next adventure. Many people keep them fully stocked so all they have to do is add their fresh groceries on the way out of town and they’re on the road fast.

They weigh very little (most less than 800 pounds), making them easy to tow along without effecting your gas mileage or speed. For camping, they leave a minimal impact, barely touching the ground with two wheels and stabilizing bars. Once you’re ready to move on, in just a few minutes, you fold everything back up and leave no trace. Having a comfy bed and a way to cook meals saves you thousands in hotel room costs and expensive dinners out.

oregon travel

The compact teardrop camper trailer can be used for part-time or full-time living. There are teardrop trailers that function as tiny homes. Some teardrop trailers are large enough to feature a bathroom, kitchen, and shower. Other, smaller teardrop campers simply provide an area for sleeping, storage, and the back galley for cooking. They usually sleep two people comfortably and are perfect for a camping trip.

I like that it’s a small package I can tuck away easily. Since it’s a smaller build, versus building an entire tiny house, it’s an approachable DIY project for almost anyone. That’s what attracted me to them, it was a challenging project that was still achievable and save thousands in the process.

ask the experts about teardrop trailers

Why should someone choose a teardrop trailer over a camper/RV?

rustic trail teardrop trailers
Rustic Trail Teardrop website
Jonathan & Kathy

“They are quick and easy to set up at the campsite as well as lightweight where just about any vehicle can tow one. They can usually fit into a standard garage which is great for those with HOA restrictions. They tow easy for folks that have little to no towing experience.”

camp inn teardrop experts
Camp Inn Teardrop website
Craig Edevold & Cary Winch

“Teardrop campers are the easiest camper to tow and can be towed with the average automobile. This saves having to own larger tow vehicles just for camping. They are also less stressful to tow, great for people with limited towing experience. They also are easy to store and maintain compared to other campers and RVs.”

timberleaf-teardrop-experts
Timberleaf Teardrop website
Kevin Molick

“People who value the ability to spend more time outdoors, have less maintenance, less mechanical complications, and more maneuverability will appreciate a teardrop trailer.”

runaway campers teardrop experts
Runaway Campers website
Stephen Shives

“There are many reasons to choose a mini-camp trailer, but only the individual can determine if it is a suitable option. Some of the benefits of a teardrop over an RV include: affordability; ease of maintenance and storage; and fuel efficiency.”

What Are the Types of Teardrop Trailers?

what are the types of teardrop trailers

There are several types of teardrop trailers. Because teardrop trailers are a great DIY project that’s easily customized, the varieties are practically endless. There are options for different sizes, shapes, and skins. Typically, though, most teardrop trailers fall into a few categories.

The three most popular teardrop trailer options are:

  • Traditional style: aluminum outside, insulated inside.
  • The Woody: Made from layers of wooden panels and a natural wood finish on the outside.
  • The Foamie: Made from insulation foam with an overlay.

teardrop trailer design

There are also various shapes of “teardrop” trailers. The classic teardrop shape is the most popular, but there’s the reverse teardrop, square, and several other shape options. The classic teardrop offers an aerodynamic quality that’s easy to pull along with a car without lag (but most small camper trailers are lightweight enough to pull along without impact) that looks great too. There’s also the canned ham shape trailer, which isn’t as popular but is a fun option as well.

No matter what shape camping trailer or which skin you choose—metal, wood, or foam—most teardrop trailers consist of wooden ribs connecting the two walls resting on top of the floor and anchored to the frame of the trailer. The trailer then sits atop a two-wheel base trailer with a hitch to tow along behind you. The walls are usually made up of layered materials—wood, insulation, and/or aluminum sandwiched together using epoxy or liquid nail.

national parks travel

Teardrop trailers are relatively easy to build and take minimal woodworking skills. Teardrop trailer kits and parts are so readily available, so it’s easy to piece together a part-DIY and part store-bought version of a camper trailer. The most challenging piece of a teardrop trailer to build is the hatch for the galley kitchen (depending on the size and shape of your trailer). But overall, a teardrop trailer is a fairly easy project even for beginners and a simpler design can make it manageable for just about anyone. Many teardrop trailers even feature a small table that folds out for eating, a covered space for food preparation (or relaxing), and a sleeping spot. Basically, it’s an all-in-one camping solution, a home away from home.

A teardrop trailer is perfect for a weekend away, to supplement as your tiny home when you travel, or with the right build, a full-time dwelling. It can even serve as a guest bedroom if you live in a tiny house!

ask the experts about teardrop trailers

What do most people get wrong about teardrop trailer camping?

rustic trail teardrop trailers
Rustic Trail Teardrop website
Jonathan & Kathy

“Underestimating what their true needs and abilities are. We have had customers who went smaller only to find out they needed larger because of physical limitations.”

camp inn teardrop experts
Camp Inn Teardrop website
Craig Edevold & Cary Winch

“The struggle we see with someone new to teardrop camping is trying to use their decades of tent camping experience as a reference to how to teardrop camp. Just because you are used to doing something one way while tent camping does not mean you should continue exactly the same in a teardrop camper. Teardrop camping should be easier than tent camping. For example, a teardrop with a sink and built in water system. This is much simpler than using tent camping methods.That can take a little bit to get one’s head around that after doing it the tent camping way for decades.”

timberleaf-teardrop-experts
Timberleaf Teardrop website
Kevin Molick

“Many assume they cannot go off road. many teardrops are now able to go wherever any 4wd can pull it.”

runaway campers teardrop experts
Runaway Campers website
Stephen Shives

“It’s not RVing, it’s CAMPING! Most of your time should be spent outdoors; your mini-camper is a comfortable place to sleep at night.”

How Much Is A Teardrop Trailer?

how much is a teardrop trailer

If you’re DIY-ing your trailer, you can get away with the buildout budgeted anywhere from $500 to thousands of dollars, but it seems like the sweet spot is $2000-$4000. Buying a teardrop trailer or mini camping trailer readymade will run you between $10,000-$20,000, so opting to DIY is a cost-saving endeavor. As with all DIY projects, your budget is determined by how complex or simple you choose to make it.

Here are a few cost breakdowns of DIY teardrop trailers:

In the debate of DIY vs custom made camping trailers, there are a few different options to choose from. You could buy a teardrop trailer kit or follow a DIY tutorial/guide and source all of the materials and labor yourself. You could also go out and buy a custom-made trailer (the most expensive option). Most teardrop trailer enthusiasts choose to DIY because frankly, it’s a fun project to show off!

national park

For teardrop trailer kits, check out The Teardroppers, which offers an array of teardrop trailer kit options. The Chesapeake Light Craft kit is also a fun and unique teardrop trailer kit option, so beautiful it almost looks like a piece of sculpture.

As for pre-built custom trailers, if that’s the route you choose to go, there are many options out there ready to buy (and to have customized to your preference):

If you decide to build it yourself, the most important thing is to have fun with the project and find a camping trailer design you’re excited about. Teardrop trailers are all about carefree camping and enjoying the mobility of taking your home on the road.

For the cost of a few nights at a hotel, you can build a teardrop trailer and take your bed anywhere you want to go!

ask the experts about teardrop trailers

If you were to buy a teardrop trailer, what three things would you look for when evaluating a model for sale?

rustic trail teardrop trailers
Rustic Trail Teardrop website
Jonathan & Kathy

“Price point, quality of construction and materials used, and features for the money.”

camp inn teardrop experts
Camp Inn Teardrop website
Craig Edevold & Cary Winch

“1) Intended years of service. For some a teardrop camper is a stepping stone to larger campers. In this case an older used teardrop or a basic “entry level” model is ideal. For those who plan to travel well into their retirement years going to a more refined durable would be more practical in the long run. 2) Features and options. Our experience is the only regrets most teardrop buyers have is not getting enough options and accessories when they get their teardrop. Buy right the first time. 3) Reviews and owner feedback. Find an online forum for the brands you are looking and participate on there beforehand. Find out how happy the owners are when using their campers. Be apprehensive about asking input on forums about options and accessories, the unique configurations are often the most vocal.”

timberleaf-teardrop-experts
Timberleaf Teardrop website
Kevin Molick

“Fit and finish, aerodynamic profile and ergonomic layout”

runaway campers teardrop experts
Runaway Campers website
Stephen Shives

“The company’s/brand’s reputation for quality and service. Will the size be adequate for my needs. Can options be easily added later.”

Ready to Build? Here’s How to Start Your Teardrop Trailer Project

how to start your teardrop trailer project

Just like I harp on planning with any tiny house build, a great teardrop build begins with planning too. I’ve found many tutorials and build walk-throughs online to get a feel for both the project and the lifestyle associated with teardrop trailers.

I recommend beginning with the Teardrop Trailer Build post on planning to get started. You may also want to explore the resources at Oregon Trailer. Teardrop trailers can be outfitted with water access, electricity, ventilation, heating, and even plumbing (again, depending on the size and your plans for the trailer).

oregon travel mount hood

There are many teardrop trailer plans and building guides out there. A few to explore are:

ask the experts about teardrop trailers

What advice would you give to someone who wants to build their own teardrop trailer?

rustic trail teardrop trailers
Rustic Trail Teardrop website
Jonathan & Kathy

“When you build something the first time that is when you make the most of your mistakes. It usually takes 3-4 to work out the problems. If a person is highly skilled in construction and does a lot of research then I say go for it. Although the old saying that you can’t beat a man at his own game still holds true.”

camp inn teardrop experts
Camp Inn Teardrop website
Craig Edevold & Cary Winch

“Plan to be involved in this hobby for years to come. Most teardrop home-builders will typically end up building at least three campers in time before they are truly satisfied with their creation.”

timberleaf-teardrop-experts
Timberleaf Teardrop website
Kevin Molick

“Use a welded frame that will outlast the top structure, use kiln dried lumber for the cabin, apply aluminum skins to the undercarriage, apply three coats of spar varnish to the exterior before applying sheet aluminum.”

runaway campers teardrop experts
Runaway Campers website
Stephen Shives

“If you have a target date you’d like/need to use it, be honest with yourself about the skills and time you have to invest to finish the project to the level of your own satisfaction.”

Choosing a Camping Trailer Base, Parts, and Accessories

choosing a trailer base and accessories

If you plan to build a teardrop trailer, finding all the parts and accessories is a big step in the process for your build. I’ve spent hours researching and selecting each item that is going to go into my build. The biggest item you’ll need is the trailer itself.

Trailer bases for teardrop trailers are generally available in 4 x 8 foot or 5 x 8-foot sizes, but some people make their own custom sizes. As long as your trailer meets DOT requirements and it can hold the weight of your build, you can make it any size you want. Look at various teardrop trailer plans to decide on the size base you want. For those who don’t want to build their own trailer, many big box stores (like Home Depot, Harbor Freight or Northern Tool) sell towing trailers to use as the base of your teardrop trailer.

teardrop trailer for building

From there, you’ll need to figure out what the materials are needed for the outer shell of your teardrop trailer. Your two main options are to skin it in a stainless steel or aluminum cladding or go with a more natural look like the “Woodie” style. My plan is to go with stainless steel as it’s the most durable option and looks great too, the downside is potential for “tin canning” which causes ripples in the metal as it expands and contracts in the heat.

The interior structure can be built from your standard materials whether it’s standard 2x4s or a skeletonized piece of plywood or MDF. The two big considerations to take into account here is what tools you have available to you (plus your ability to use them) and weight. Options like MDF can add several hundred pounds to your build, so make sure your trailer can handle the weight.

oregon coast travel

The galley is the most difficult but iconic element of the teardrop. Even after years of woodworking and building my own house, I’m intimidated by its complex curves. To lift and hold open the galley hatch you’ll need struts, the hydraulic component for opening the back door.

Another consideration is that you’ll need to balance structural integrity with insulation in the walls. Many people “skeletonize” the walls with a router on MDF or plywood, allowing a ridged frame while still keeping you warm inside. My plan is to create my wall panels by cutting them with a CNC machine to create the cavities for the ridged insulation foam.

exploring with a teardrop trailer

Finally, many people want to have some basic power in their teardrop to charge their phones, run a few LED lights, and power a Fantastic Fan. Some even go as far as having AC in their trailers. For most people, a pretty simple power system and a couple of batteries will meet your needs, if you have a solar panel to top up along the way. You also should make plans to connect to shore power because many campsites will have an outlet for you to connect to.

The best places I’ve found for compact appliances, trailer parts, and accessories are below, but Amazon and eBay also offer a big selection of teardrop trailer parts and accessories, like fans, doors, and appliances.

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend the weekend or explore the world, then a teardrop trailer is a great DIY tiny life project to take on. I would suggest trying a smaller trailer as your first build to see how you like it, then expand from there.

roadtrip with a teardrop trailer

As I said, you may even decide to design your teardrop as a tiny house, or as a “vacation tiny house” for camping. Teardrop trailers certainly beat roughing it, offering you a nice, comfortable bed, a place to cook, and storage in a small, easy-to-tow package.

ask the experts about teardrop trailers

If someone wants to get into teardrop trailer camping, what advice would you give to someone starting out?

rustic trail teardrop trailers
Rustic Trail Teardrop website
Jonathan & Kathy

“Don’t over think it but don’t under think it either. Look at several different models and make a list of essentials and start there. Don’t buy a bunch of stuff that you might not need just because of the excitement of doing something new. The camping industry thrives on people over spending on cheap made stuff that they may not need simply because they are excited about their new adventure.”

camp inn teardrop experts
Camp Inn Teardrop website
Craig Edevold & Cary Winch

“Look at how you travel, in distance, time on the road and type of camping venues. Take this and double, maybe triple, it all because once you go from tent camping to a teardrop camper you will travel far more often, far more distance and in locations you never thought you would. Use this increased travel potential for determining your teardrop camper needs.”

timberleaf-teardrop-experts
Timberleaf Teardrop website
Kevin Molick

“Make sure their tow vehicle is rated for at least 50% over the actual weight of the trailer. Many buyers assume their little car can tow a 1500 lbs trailer if their rating is 1500 lbs. They should factor in gear, water and supplies and weight of car passengers.”

runaway campers teardrop experts
Runaway Campers website
Stephen Shives

“Keep it simple to start and don’t go all out buying every camping accessory that looks cool. After several times out, you will discover the things you need the most, and won’t have wasted time and money on the things you may never use.”

Your Turn!

  • Would you like a teardrop trailer for fulltime living or just camping?
  • What’s your favorite teardrop trailer design?

Van Life: Enjoy The Journey To Your Next Adventure

Van Life: Enjoy The Journey To Your Next Adventure

living the van lifeAre you ready for the ultimate in freedom lifestyle? Van life has the potential to be as romantic as it sounds—just you (and maybe your significant other, or your pet … or both) on the open road.

I met Van Lifers Wesley and Savannah (and their pet hedgehog Hermie, who has more Instagram followers than I do) at our Portland conference. I got to check out their fantastic van and I just fell in love with the whole idea of living the van life. I can totally see myself driving around the U.S. seeing all the national parks in a van like theirs. After meeting them, I’ve been very tempted to hit the road and become a YouTuber as I tour around.

Living in a van as an alternative or “less-traditional” approach to the tiny life is certainly an awesome option. Van life lends itself to portability like nothing else, which is why this lifestyle is perfect for many outdoor enthusiasts and those who have wanderlust. After all, if you love spending time mountain climbing, biking, or surfing, living in a camper van provides the perfect way to take your home base right into the outdoors.

What is Van Life?

what is the van life

Consider it a step up from camping. With van life, you’re converting a van into a camper or a tiny home. Van life offers a nice cozy shelter, plus the ultimate mobility of a car. It’s perfect for singles or couples looking for the pursuit of Instagram-worthy adventures on the open road.

You may scroll through the awesome pictures of #vanlife on Instagram or watch YouTube videos of people who make living in a van work well. It’s the ultimate in simple, minimalist lifestyle options. Most converted camper vans offer significantly smaller square footage than a traditional tiny house.

The biggest factor about living the van life is asking yourself if you can handle living (and driving) in your tiny house. This is especially something to consider if you’re taking your relationship on the road. While tiny living itself presents logistic issues in terms of privacy and space, van life takes those challenges to the next level.

van life on the road

But for many van lifers, freedom, and adventure are worth the sacrifice. Besides, as I learned more about the van life, I realized it’s really not far from living in a traditional tiny house like mine. It’s all about learning to simplify and owning only what you need to survive. Minimalism isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it and let go of your attachment to owning “stuff.”

Most people who live the van life do it because they love travel, exploring, and adventure, and they love being outdoors. This makes van life an especially popular option in warmer, outdoorsy areas like California, Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.

Van life has been around for decades, in fact. Think back to the images of VW vans decked out with shag carpeting and custom murals as they journeyed to Woodstock. Eventually, van life gave way to the more practical, family-style camper van that was popular in the 80s and 90s. Over the last two decades, however, there’s been a return to the original love of the free and easy lifestyle of van life. Young couples realize taking their lives on the road (and sharing their adventures online) is exciting, fun, and yes, even comfortable.

ask the experts

Advice you’d give to someone just starting the van life?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“Try the life out in your car for a while. Go on road trips in your car or SUV before you fully commit to the lifestyle. There are a lot of ups and downs, and pros and cons, in vanlife, just like in life. While the freedom to do as you please is appealing, there are still so many chores vanlife requires on a daily basis, like, finding where you are going to sleep for the night, every night.”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“Learn to minimize and prioritize the necessities but also things that you love. As you are minimizing, keep high quality multifunctional things.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“Try it first. Hire a similar vehicle for a week or more and try to get a feel for vanlife. Create different scenarios, sleep in different environments try to replicate real van living, source water from various places for example and be honest with yourself.”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“If you’re taller than 5’10” make sure you double check the width of your van!”


The Pros & Cons of Living in A Van

pros and cons of van living

The challenges of van life come from living in a very small space, of course, which is an issue for tiny lifers as well. Vans being vehicles present other challenges too, such as weather that’s too hot (vans have AC, but when you’re stopped, it gets very warm) and too cold (most vans aren’t awesome when driving in the snow). There are ways to insulate your van, which will help with temperature control, as can connecting to an alternative power source. There’s also general car maintenance that’s necessary, but the cost of caring for a van is typically lower than caring for a more traditional dwelling.

Most people who live the van life are young with mobile careers, allowing them to work from anywhere. Some earn a living as social media influencers living the van life and sharing their gorgeous photos online. Some are sponsored by companies who support their outdoor lifestyles (surfing, skating, climbing, running, etc.).

the van life

But not all van lifers are Millennials and younger folks. Van life is also a great option for adventurous seniors. After all, many original “hippie” Baby Boomers are approaching retirement age and they still have a fondness for the freedom of van life. What better way to see the world than traveling around in your camper van, living the original van life dream?

Are you wondering if living in a van is right for you? Here are a few great resources I’ve found with honest takes on the pros and cons of van life:

The greatest aspect of van life is that you can go anywhere! Settle in any spot for the night, camp out in your van and move to the next spot tomorrow. Van life is always an adventure. With many options for DIY van conversions and customization, you’ll have a comfortable bed, kitchenette, and storage added to the van, making it essentially a very tiny house on wheels.

So, if you’re ready to pack up and hit the road, consider van life a great option. Check out these van life photos to get inspired!

ask the experts

Best thing about the van life?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“Surprisingly, the community. The people and the connections we’ve made on the road feel like we have a pretty extended van family. Sometimes we catch ourselves van-pooling for months at a time with strangers, but it feels like we have known each other forever. We trade stories and skills like climbing and surfing. We connect with each other and make lasting relationships. We always say we have friends all over the world because of vanlife.”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“The freedom to bring your home to many amazing places in this world and often have the best views right out of your bedroom window.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“It’s the perfect balance of comfort and freedom.”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“The freedom, and the low cost of living.”

What Are the Best Vans to Live In?

what are the best vans to live in

There are several vans that appear on almost everyone’s van life list. These conversion van options range in price, performance, and details.

The most popular vans for living the van life, seem to be:

  • Mercedes Sprinter
  • Mercedes Metris
  • Classic VW Bus
  • VW Vanagon (with or without Westfalia pop-ups)
  • Ford Transit Connect
  • Dodge ProMaster
  • Nissan NV 200
  • Converted Cargo Vans (like Chevy)

What it really comes down to is whether you plan to go with used/pre-owned and do the buildout yourself (unless you find a conversion van that’s already outfitted), or you buy a newer camper van. Obviously, much of this question comes down to a matter of your budget and your preference for DIY van conversions and customization (which is one of the aspects of van life many find appealing).

Most van-lifers recommend going with a used van and converting it into a camper. This is especially true for many of the classic vans like the VW Bus, which is no longer manufactured (although rumor has it, they’re releasing an electric version in the near future). If you buy used, you’re limited by your budget and the availability of a conversion van that suits your needs.

vintage vw bus

Like any car purchase, you’ll want to shop around carefully, unless you find a great deal you can’t refuse. Think about what you’re looking for in a van. Read reviews, consider gas mileage, cargo room, headspace (if any), and options.

Explore these resources to help you figure out which van is best for you:

Once you get an idea of what you’re looking for, I recommend you start shopping around. There are many vans for sale out there, but you want to purchase one suited to your lifestyle and plans.

ask the experts

What van did you choose?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“2007 Dodge Sprinter (used)”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“2014 Mercedes Sprinter 170 wheel base passenger van. We bought it used.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“Mercedes Sprinter – used”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“2006 Dodge Sprinter Van – used”

How Much Does It Cost to Convert A Van into A Camper Van?

how much does it cost to convert a van

Much like any used vehicle purchase, cost varies depending on a lot of factors; mileage and condition of the van, where you buy it, and how picky you want to be.

As you’re shopping for conversion vans (or vans to convert into camper vans) you’ll want to check your local listings as well. I’ve seen great vans on Craigslist, third-party seller sites, and even eBay. You can find affordable vans priced between $2,000 and $8,000. Factor in the history, age of the vehicle, and the number of miles. You can always do an engine rebuild, but it’s not cheap. So, if you’re new to the van life, search for a van that runs (or plan a repair in your budget).

Building out the camper van interior is an additional expense too. The cost completely depends on the materials and equipment you plan to use and the overall look and functionality you’re seeking. Converting a van for full-time living will look different than weekend warriors seeking short term travel with a camping option.

van life conversion cost

Here are a few very different van conversion cost breakdowns from people who completed the van life conversion (Some include the cost of living on the road month-to-month as well!):

As you see, it definitely depends on many different factors. There’s also the possibility of finding a VW Vanagon Westie or another conversion van that’s already got a portion of the build-out included. The VW featured a popup tent top with plenty of standing room, a small kitchenette, fridge, swivel seats, and fold-down bed in the back (roomy enough to sleep four). These are out of commission but finding a classic may mean you simply need to make updates and cosmetic customization.

ask the experts

How much did your van conversion cost?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“$22,000 (Van and Build)”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“Our materials were under $25K. We self-converted our van so this cost does not include the labor.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“£12,000 gbp”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“5k”

How Do You Convert A Van for Living?

how to convert a van for living

The short answer is it completely depends on how particular you are and how much time you plan on living in your van. If you plan to live on the road full-time, then there are the basics to cover: sleeping, cooking, hygiene, electricity, heat, and water.

Many older vans are very roomy in the back, so it’s pretty simple to put down a mattress or a sleeping bag and sleep in your van. While it isn’t the glamorous “influencer version” of van life that you’re imagining, it’s certainly an option in a pinch.

Most van lifers want their van to feel comfortable, clean, and homey, so they start doing a little updating and customization. This is where the conversion van idea factors in—you’re converting the van for sleeping/living. Some vans come with built-in conversion accommodations, like the aforementioned VW Westies (with seats that fold down into a bed), others require a little more attention.

traveling in a van

If you’re looking to really deck out the van for living, you’ll want to consider your options, just like you would when building a tiny house. You can install solar panels on the top of the van (it’s fairly similar to the way I installed solar panels on my tiny house). You can put in a fridge, an additional battery source for power, water for washing and cooking, and even build in storage.

One of the drawbacks of most vans is they don’t have a built-in bathroom. With a space that tiny, it’s not so pleasant or practical to live (and drive) close to your toilet. The obvious answer is you need to stop at rest stops and truck stops on the road whenever you need to use the restroom. (Note: Many van lifers also keep empty bottles on hand as nighttime/emergency urinals.) For washing, consider a solar shower, gym showers, or taking advantage of campground showers wherever you go. For some people, this is a drawback, but others don’t mind.

As for other issues like heating and insulation, there are advantages to van life. Being in an inconspicuous traveling home means you can park and sleep almost anywhere, including indoor parking garages (but you may need to pay, of course). There are heating options, like small indoor-friendly propane heaters with oxygen detectors, crucial for sleeping in a small space.

If you’re wondering about the other logistics of living the van life, there are many great guides online with step-by-step van conversion information. These resources feature in-depth product reviews and other information you’ll need. Some are also specific to the make and model of your van.

If you’d like to live the van life but you’re not quite ready to take on a full van conversion/buildout yourself, simply look for a used conversion van. You can also get a custom van built for you (although they’re quite expensive).

Here are a few van customizers:

ask the experts

What was the hardest part of converting the van?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“Getting started. It always seems pretty overwhelming, like you are never gonna finish and see the fruits of your labor. But, the more you chip away at it, project by project, the more you see it start coming to life. You see places in your framing that you don’t want to go to waste and you get creative and come up with ideas that can really blow you away. It really is a fun process.”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“Shower / bathroom was the hardest part of the build and it took the longest but it was definitely worth it, we love having it in the van. When building a bathroom, it is important to waterproof everything and know where your grey and black water going to go.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“I think the hardest part was the design. We spent months planning our layout as we wanted something bespoke to us and our requirements. Drawings or sketches on paper or computer can be really beneficial but a simple trick that helped us the most was getting a roll of masking tape and a tape measure and lay an outline of the plan inside the empty van. This really helped us visualize the overall layout.”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“The electrical and battery. I recommend hiring someone to do it for you!”

How Do You Earn Money on The Road?

how do you earn money on the road

The biggest question most van lifers (and anyone who lives a nomadic lifestyle) face is how to earn a living. Granted, van living offers more freedom and less expense than many more conventional lifestyles. Still, there’s always gas, car repairs, parking expenses, maintenance, food, and general living expenses that will arise.

Living a minimalist lifestyle is no question if you’re living the van life. In such a small space, you’re really faced with paring down to the most basic items you need. Most van lifers report it’s a little isolating and claustrophobic at times, so they put in the effort to get out often, find personal space (if they’re living with a partner), and keep their van very clean inside. When you’re living and also working in your van it becomes extra important to stay aware of your mental health needs.

As for making money on the road, earning money in creative ways seems to be a millennial talent, which is probably why millennials adapt to the van life so well. There are many ways to earn money on the road, but most involve working online (so Wi-Fi is important)!

van life roadtrip

Many van lifers document their journeys in the form of monetized blogs, YouTube channels, or social media accounts. Others create and sell products like DIY van conversion how-to-guides, using affiliate links and sales to earn money off their books.

Van life is also favored by outdoor enthusiasts, so many van lifers are sponsored by lifestyle brands and outdoor products they promote on their social media accounts. They may also be professionally involved in sports like surfing, mountain climbing, running, or snowboarding, and secure sponsorships from equipment brands.

One thing is for sure—creativity is the key to earning money on the road…along with the ability to live and survive on a shoestring budget. While a 9-5 might not work with a nomadic lifestyle, there are always temp jobs, seasonal work, and other options for those who want to live the tiny life in a van but need to take a break from the expenses of life on the road.

road by ocean

Here are great resources from van lifers who’ve learned how to earn money on the go:

Living the van life is the ultimate freedom lifestyle. Pick up and travel anywhere at any time. Everything you own is with you. It’s just you and the open road (and maybe a sidekick or two). If this sounds like the lifestyle for you, you may want to consider your van life options. Share your adventures on YouTube and you just might end up inspiring others to join the van life!

ask the experts

How do you earn money while traveling?

thevankooks
Vanning Ain’t No Joke website
Lee, Neil and Andrew

“While we dabble in design (graphic and web design) projects, photography, and videography, as side hustles, we also have been dabbling in flipping vans. There seems to be a lot of people trying to get into the lifestyle, but are overwhelmed with the entire process of learning and researching, and then doing. Plus, people don’t have the time. We do. And, we enjoy the process, as well as, sharing our tips, knowledge, and our mess-ups via our Vankookz YouTube Channel.”

gone with the van
Gone With The Van website
Brett & Yulia

“Currently, we don’t live in a van full time but go on extended trips. We custom build vans for new van lifers and travel in our self converted Mercedes Sprinter between projects. We are working on expanding our YouTube channel to potentially allow us the financial freedom to travel more.”

the road is our home
The Road Is Our Home website
Rob & Emily

“Any way in which we can. We’ve done all kinds of work from labouring to web design, pertinent to temporary, there’s always work available. Use it as an opportunity to learn new skills along the way.”

one chick travels
One Chick Travels website
Kaya Lindsay

“I’m a freelance writer.”

winding road

Your Turn!

  • What would you like about living van life?
  • Where would you want to travel if you lived in a van?

Skoolies: Surprisingly Beautiful Mobile Tiny Houses (Not Just for Hippies)

Skoolies: Surprisingly Beautiful Mobile Tiny Houses (Not Just for Hippies)

skoolies mobile tiny homesDo you have wanderlust? Do you want a tiny home to take with you as you explore the world? A converted school bus (aka a skoolie) might be the right answer for you!

Here’s the deal with skoolies. I started out as a skeptic. I had this vision that skoolies were old dilapidated buses with cramped, dark interiors. I thought they were strictly for Deadheads on their way to their next concert. Then I met my friend, Hank.

hanks skoolie interior

I was interviewing Hank for my book, Tiny House Living. His bus was beautiful, like jaw-dropping beautiful. It showed me that you can have a big, open, very good-looking space filled with natural light. It was Hank’s bus that won me over to the whole idea of skoolies and I was sold. Now, I’m seeing a whole new era of skoolies that embrace open spaces filled with light and great, aesthetic details.

So, before you dismiss skoolies as a tiny house option, check out how you can live a great tiny life in a school bus tiny house.

What Is a Skoolie?

what is a skoolie

In the simplest of terms, a skoolie is a used school bus modified for living. Skoolies are converted into RV homes for living the tiny life on the road.

Now, skoolies have been around for a long time. In fact, I remember going to college in Asheville, North Carolina and seeing old hippies living in converted school buses. The buses would line the roads all over downtown and you’d see these old guys out there playing music—busking for gas money to carry them to their next destination.

school bus turned skoolie

While bus conversion life has come a long way in terms of design and possibilities, the principles still remain the same. Skoolies are perfect for those who love the freedom of a tiny house on wheels! Converted school buses are wonderful for adventure, travel, and exploration. Plus, living in a school bus is quite comfortable. With smart planning, a skoolie will easily accommodate a family, a couple, or a single person on the road.

My friends Chris and Kelly from The Just Right Bus came to our annual conference twice, and I got to see their awesome skoolie. Their bus has a whole bathtub in it! They have AC! It’s roomie and beautiful! Kelly is a potter (I have a skoolie magnet she made for me on my fridge in my tiny house) and Chris is a medical student. They both live in the skoolie to save money as a way to keep costs down during Chris’s med school training. Skoolies can literally be the perfect tiny home for anyone.

skoolie kitchen

There’s also a big DIY element to converting a used school bus. You see, the bus itself has great bones to start with. Typically, all a skoolie owner needs to do is rip out the seats and customize the inside to their desired specifications. As soon as it’s set up, you’re ready to hit the open road.

Used school buses are perfect for conversion because they have diesel engines built to last a very long time. School systems “retire” buses early, usually when they hit about 100k miles, but often there are (hundreds of) thousands of miles left in the engine. Plus, diesel engines are easy to rebuild, making skoolies an investment that keeps on running for years and years.

Many school systems sell their used buses to countries like Mexico, where they’re used for years. There are several places to purchase used school buses for private use (as I’ve outlined below). From there, building your school bus tiny house is similar to any tiny house build.

If you’re experienced with building or customizing your tiny home already, skoolie conversion is fairly simple. Besides the obvious limitations of the shape and shell of a school bus, you can really turn these into almost any type of home you’d like. Skoolie living is great for those seeking the simplicity and customizability of a tiny home, but the mobility of an RV.

ask the experts

Why should someone consider a skoolie or bus conversion over a camper or RV?

rolling vistas
Rolling Vistas website
Zac Anderson & Tiffany Everett

“Our main reasons for choosing a skoolie over an RV were cost and the endless possibilities for customization.”

skoolie homes
Skoolie Homes website
Jeff & Missy Miller

“Skoolies are designed to carry our most precious cargo: our children. Thus, they are built strong and sturdy. Skoolies are customizable to each owner allowing more space right where you need it instead of predesigned RV’s. In addition, a converted bus cost less for more space and design appeal than on RV.”

vicaribus
Vicaribus website
Heather, Nick & Miles

“The customization aspect. You get to build it exactly as you want it instead of how a RV manufacturer wanted it. They also handle being in a crash much much better and can generally hold more weight.”

How Much Does A Used School Bus Cost?

how much does a school bus cost

So, of course, a big question when it comes to converting a school bus into a tiny house is how much does a used school bus cost in the first place?

Keep in mind, there are a lot of cost factors to consider when you look at buying a used school bus. It first depends on the type of school bus, the mileage, and the condition of the bus. If you plan to gut it and rebuild the inside, then you’ll often find a good deal on the shell.

Another piece to consider is the engine. Because diesel engines are easily rebuilt or refurbished for a few thousand dollars it may be smarter to opt for more miles and a lower price. All other factors being the same, you can still do a lot with a great shell and frame.

There several styles of school buses as well. The standard school bus is 34 feet (a 72-seater). Flat-front buses are referred to as pullers (front engine) or pushers (rear engine). School buses with a more traditional “nose” in the front are referred to as dog-nose buses. Dog-nose buses are said to be more accessible for engine work. You’ll also want to assess what size bus you’re looking for. There are many people who prefer short buses or mini-buses. With the right interior work, small buses are quite beautiful and livable.

skoolies - school bus conversion

The basic answer to the school bus price question is buses range from under $1,000 (for a real fixer-upper) to $20,000+. It seems the mid-range of $5,000-$10,000 is a good starting point to aim for (but realize it may require additional funds and sweat-equity to become livable).

There are great resources to help you decide what type of bus to buy such as:

ask the experts

How much should people budget for buying a used bus?

rolling vistas
Rolling Vistas website
Zac Anderson & Tiffany Everett

“Our total costs, with the purchase of the bus was around 20k. I have seen people spend a range from 10k all the way to 40k on these things. I think a lot of it depends on the size bus you’re building out, your previous knowledge level/skill set, and how much of a perfectionist you are.”

skoolie homes
Skoolie Homes website
Jeff & Missy Miller

“The costs of used buses is on the rise. When we bought our first bus it cost $750, the second was $1800 and the third was $4500. We tell people to budget between $4500-$7000.”

vicaribus
Vicaribus website
Heather, Nick & Miles

“Probably about 3-5 times as much as you think it’s going to cost – then if you actually guessed correctly you will be excited about all the money you have left over for your travels.”

How to Find A Used School Bus

Once you decide a skoolie conversion is within your price range and fits your lifestyle goals, it’s time to start looking. I would research the type of used school bus you’re looking for first (size, make, model, year) and then you can search for a bus almost like a car. There are used school bus dealers online that are easy to work with.

Online retailers of pre-owned and used school buses are:

Of course, eBay and Craigslist are also great places to start searching for used school buses as well. If you are open to any type of bus that comes your way, then you may find a great deal—even local! I’ve seen quite a few buses for sale, now that I’ve become aware of the whole skoolie phenomenon.

skoolie interior

Finding a bus to buy in town or nearby is helpful especially if you’re planning to rebuild or refurbish the engine. (Keep in mind, transporting a school bus by towing isn’t always cheap, so look for something you can drive, at least a short distance or plan accordingly.)

Depending on your comfort level with DIY work, check the body for issues like rust and other concerns, but I would recommend you don’t get too hung up on aesthetics because there are a lot of possibilities once you’ve purchased the basic used school bus to work with.

You’ll also want to keep the length of the used school bus in mind. There are short, mid-sized, and full-sized options. How comfortable are you with driving a full-sized bus? Since it’s not for commercial use, a CDL isn’t typically needed, but some states may require you to complete additional driving tests for “heavyweight” vehicles. Check with your local DMV so you’re prepared to drive your skoolie when it’s ready to hit the road.

How to Convert a Used School Bus into a Skoolie

how to convert a bus into a skoolie

So, you bought a used school bus, now what? The process of converting your new school bus into your new tiny home follows similar principles to any other tiny home build. You’ll want to look for inspiration, find and/or design a layout, and plan carefully. As I’ve said many times, great tiny home building starts with great planning.

There are many guides out there to help you through a school bus conversion. Most school bus conversions cost between $5,000-$30,000 (similar to a tiny house with an existing outer structure) depending on how much DIY effort you’re willing to put in and your familiarity with the tiny home building process. You’ll also need to figure costs associated with upkeep for a road vehicle (tires, vehicle maintenance, etc.).

When you think of how you’d like your converted school bus layout to look, it’s important to consider not only the aesthetics of your skoolie, but the functionality. You’ll need to consider insulation, plumbing, electric (and if you plan to use solar, how to power up on the road). Will you connect to shore power or do you plan to boondock (when you camp/park without a nearby power source)? These factors will also need consideration when you plan for water and plumbing.

skoolie bathtub

There are so many great resources to help guide you through your school bus conversion. A few helpful skoolie conversion resources I’ve found are:

If you aren’t the DIY-type (or if you would like help designing your skoolie floor plan), there are companies who specialize in building and customizing skoolies.

Like any tiny home build, you’ll want to consider all the needs of your family as you design the skoolie layout (or work with a converted school bus floor plan designer). If there are multiple people living on the converted school bus, how will you plan for privacy? Consider bathroom, kitchen, and washing needs. How will you set up for relaxation and make the bus feel like home? A unique challenge of buses is that there are lots of windows—this is great for light, but not always great for privacy, so consider how you will plan around the windows.

ask the experts

What was the hardest part about building your skoolie?

rolling vistas
Rolling Vistas website
Zac Anderson & Tiffany Everett

“Can we say everything?! We had no experience in anything related to construction, metal work, plumbing, electrical or mechanics, so every step was a big one for us. I would say the hardest part was the plumbing, though. We struggled with planning the plumbing, deciding where to run pipes and hang the tanks. We put this part off until way too late in the build which complicated things even further because we had already built most of the furniture and walls.”

elizabeth spenccer
Making Me Brave website
Elizabeth J.W. Spenccer

“Our skoolie was converted by Wind River Tiny Homes. They did an amazing job and took lots of the frustration out of the building process for us. The big learning curve came for us once we had the bus converted and were on the road, in the winter, trying to maintain the engine and keep the systems from freezing!”

vicaribus
Vicaribus website
Heather, Nick & Miles

“Everything had to be custom made from cabinets to couches to bed frames to curtains. Everything is an abnormal shape or size and therefore had to be created accordingly … allow that’s also half the fun. Making our wet bath waterproof was also a huge pain in the ass.”

Skoolie Regulations

skoolie regulations

Regulations are often sticky territory. As I’ve discussed in my post Tiny House Building Codes: 5 Myths Busted, there are often grey areas when it comes to tiny house coding, rules, and regulations. The same applies to skoolies.

For example, the issue of a CDL varies state-to-state and depending on how many “passengers” you’re driving. BUT if your skoolie functions as a home and not a bus, then technically you aren’t a commercial driver. So, again, check with your DMV to understand the guidelines on school bus RV conversions. There are also rules on modifications required to ensure the bus can’t accidentally get mistaken for a school bus.

skoolie with a view

There’s also the question of where to park. RV parking rules are the best guidelines to follow since skoolies are essentially the same as an RV. So, any place you can park your RV should also accommodate your skoolie. You may need the same permits for campgrounds, RV parks, and temporary parking facilities.

Other spots with skoolie regulation information and resources:

Skoolie life is a great option for people who want the ability to explore the world on wheels. Of course, the option to move your home around is convenient for many reasons as well. It may seem like a quirky choice, but if you’re looking for a DIY tiny home option within an existing structure, a school bus is a great way to go.

ask the experts

If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently?

rolling vistas
Rolling Vistas website
Zac Anderson & Tiffany Everett

“We have talked about this a lot and we are actually really happy with our bus and don’t truly wish to change anything. If we are being very picky, I would say we would have made our bed larger, made our kitchen counter a little less deep, and left our base-boards a natural wood color so they don’t show so much dirt. That one is an easy fix though.”

elizabeth spenccer
Making Me Brave website
Elizabeth J.W. Spenccer

“We would insulate the floors. We did spray foam insulation on the walls and ceiling as well as replaced the windows, but a fair amount of cold still comes through the floor. We would also install a propane heater. Before you convert a bus be sure you are aware of the problems of carrying insurance. We were shocked that we could only get liability insurance to cover our converted bus. I have done extensive research and talked with a lot of other skoolie owners who have had the same problem. It is my only complaint with skoolies.”

vicaribus
Vicaribus website
Heather, Nick & Miles

“We wouldn’t put in a shower. It was a lot of time, hassle and money and we never ever use it. We’re either trying to save water or somewhere that has showers that you can stand up in.”

skoolie travel

Your Turn!

  • Would you consider living in a converted school bus?
  • What are your biggest concerns with school bus conversion?

How Much Does A Tiny House Cost: From Someone Who’s Done It

How Much Does A Tiny House Cost: From Someone Who's Done It

how much does a tiny house cost

If you were like me when I first started I have one big question: how much does a tiny house cost to build?  Now that I’ve actually built my own tiny house and come out the other side, I wanted to do the full tiny house cost breakdown for others that want to live in a tiny house on wheels.

How Much Does A Tiny House Cost?

the average price of tiny house

The average tiny house costs between $10,000 and $30,000 to build yourself, double those numbers if you hire a builder to build it for you.  But that is only part of the picture and depending on options, the price can vary a lot.  Many people are hoping to build their tiny house at a certain price point because of budget constraints or other factor, so the real question becomes, what’s the difference between a $10,000 tiny house and a $50,000 tiny house?

Tiny House Cost Breakdown

tiny house cost breakdown

What’s great about tiny houses is they’re really an approachable size, so it’s pretty easy to think through a cost breakdown for each part of a tiny house.

  • Trailer: $3,500 to $5,500
  • Windows: $500-$$6,000
  • Metal roofing: $500 to $2,000
  • Insulation: $500 to $3000
  • Siding: $1,000 to $2,500
  • Lumber: $1,000 to $5,000
  • Interior finishes: $500-$4,000
  • Electrical: $750 to $3,000
  • Shower: $400 to $1,000
  • Water heater: $500 to $1000
  • HVAC: $500 to $1,500
  • Toilet: $20-$800
  • Fixtures: $1,000-$5,000
  • Appliances: $400 to $4,000
  • Interior wall: $500 to $1000
  • Flooring: $300 to $1,000
  • Fasteners/Adhesives: $1,500
  • Paint: $50 to $200

Tiny House Building Materials List:

tiny house materials list

When it comes to getting a true sense of a tiny house cost, you need to understand the different materials that go into your tiny house.  When I first started my build, I had never done anything like it before, but what I realized is if I break down the house into different parts, I could make it even more manageable, that’s how we’ll figure out costs.

The big thing to know is most of your budget will be dedicated to your trailer, doors/windows, roof, and mechanical.  These are things that I wouldn’t skimp on at all, I’d buy the best I could afford.  This will account for 80% of your costs.  For an example my trailer cost me $3,600, my doors and windows were $6,000, roof was $2,600, and HVAC was $1,800.

Trailer

tiny house trailer

The trailer for your tiny house is one of those places you don’t want to skip and you don’t want to mess around.  I’ve see it now a hundred time, someone trying to save money by getting a used trailer.  Unless you are already handy with metal working and have some experience, you won’t save any money going the used route because fixes, repairs, reinforcements, a new paint job and new tires and wheels will leave you broke.

I have personally watch over 100 people try it and fail to save a dime.  What’s worse, they worry about their trailer not being good enough, which is a nightmare when you home is relying on it.

The next thing I see is people overspending for “tiny house trailers” that are purpose built.  The differences are minor and all you’re really paying for their markup.  None of the tiny house trailer sellers actually make them, so go to the source: Big Tex Trailers, Kaufman Trailers, etc.

Estimated Costs:  20 foot trailer: $2,800, 24 foot trailer: $3,000, 30 foot trailer $4,500

Windows For A Tiny House

tiny house windows

I spent a lot on my windows because they were all custom, but if you buy standard window sides and don’t mind white vinyl windows you can save a ton.  My windows cost me around $6,500 for double pane, argon filled, low-e glass that was tempered glass.  You definitely want tempered glass that are high quality and good efficiency.

Windows are one of those things that it can be tempting to try to save money on by going low quality, but you’ll pay for it in your electric bill month after month for the rest of your life.

Estimated Costs: $120 per window for stock sizes, $250 per window for custom options

Doors For A Tiny House

tiny house doors

I wanted to try my hand at building my own door and this was one thing that I struggled with immensely.  Even with the help of my Grandfather who is quite a skilled woodworker, we had a tough time building the door.  If I had to do it all over again I’d go with a metal or composite door bought from a manufacturer.

The problem you face with doors is they have to be exceedingly accurate and that is compounded by how wood moves, warps, and twists.  We employed a lot of techniques to stabilized the wood within the door, but in the end my door is still far from perfect.  Do yourself a favor, have a door manufacturer build your door for you.

Estimated Costs: $500 for self built door, $800 for basic manufactured door $1,500 good to high-end manufactured door

Roofing Options For A THOW

tiny house roofing options

The roof is a critical part of a tiny house, it keeps your investment safe from water.  It’s not something to do casually, you need to really nail it or it can spell disaster for you.  For a tiny house on wheels that you might want to move, metal roofing is the only practical option.  I opted for standing seam metal, which is amazing, but a ribbed metal or corrugated metal roof can work too.

The tricky parts of doing a metal roof is in bending all the custom bits to fit your edges, valleys, drip edges, and skylights.  That last one, skylights, are notorious for leaks on any roof, so make sure you follow the manufacture directions, most of them sell kits that cost an arm and a leg, but I’d just bite the bullet on that, it’s that important.

If you’re thinking of asphalt shingles, don’t bother.  They are too heavy and they get torn off while driving down the road.

Estimated Costs: $1,000 for ribbed metal, $2,000 for standing seam

Insulating Your Tiny House

tiny house insulation

Much like windows, insulation is one of those things that you spend a little more and you save each month for years.  The return on your investment is huge, so don’t skimp here.

In the early days I’d suggest a few options like standard fiberglass bats, foam board, and even sheep’s wool.  Now that I’ve been working with tiny houses for over a decade, I see how those options have their failings.  I now unilaterally recommend closed cell spray foam.

The benefits of spray foam are many, but ability to seal your thermal envelope, it’s water resistance, and its ability to prevent condensation issues are leaps ahead of any other option.  Not only that, but it has the highest R value per inch out of any other practical option.

So this is an easy one, go with closed cell spray foam.  If you have a contractor that recommends open cell, send them packing.

Estimated Costs: $3 per square foot for 3 inches thick (R 21)

Lumber To Build Your House

tiny house lumber

This can have a wide range of prices depending on what finish quality you go after, but for your standard framing pieces it’s all about the same.  There are two real buckets of lumber that you’ll need: framing and finish.

Framing for a tiny house will be very affordable, a few hundred dollar, up to about $1000 for the whole house depending on it’s size and any specialized beams like Glue-Lams.  There isn’t much price difference here, with the exception of treated vs untreated lumber.

Finish woods are where you can spend some real money, from a few hundred to a few thousand.  At it’s simplest you could build out your interior cabinets and built ins with MDF which runs about $35 a sheet.  My preference is Birch Ply which runs about $50 a sheet because I can stain it or paint it, it’s a much nicer project.  The only non sheet good products you’ll use is timber beams for your accents and loft framing.  For that I spent about $80 per beam and had 5 of them.

Estimated Cost: $500-$4,000

Flooring Options For Your Tiny House

tiny house flooring

Flooring is one area that you can look for savings on. You can find reclaimed flooring, you can buy short lots of flooring, and you can even go with a cheap option now and upgrade later.  I’ve even seen people do a finished floor with plywood.

So when it comes to flooring you can really run the gamut depending on the price you want to spend.  For me I went with a solid hardwood maple floor that was about $4 a square foot.

Estimated Cost: $0.50-$8 per square foot

Electrical/Plumbing In A Tiny House

tiny house electric and plumbing

Wiring and plumbing your tiny house can be done pretty affordably if you want to do it yourself, if you need to hire a trades person, then it’s going to cost you.  it’s important to note that by law in many places you need a permit and the work needs to be done by a licensed electrician or plumber.

In my area an electrician costs between $75 and $150 an hour, plumbers are about the same.  For me, what I did was have the electrician do the main breaker panel connection and setup, then I did the rest of the work.  For the plumber, I had everything done and just had him come in and do all my crimps for me and check over my work.

The thing with electrical and plumbing most of the money and the variability in the price is in the labor, the parts are what they are, you’re not going to be able to shop for better prices because they are such a commoditization type of goods.  The copper, brass, etc that makes up the raw materials are what they are.  Figure about $300-$500 in electrical stuff and $300-$500 in plumbing items.  This doesn’t include finished stuff like faucet, shower, etc, just the actual connections.

Estimated Cost: $750-$3,000

Fixtures

tiny house fixtures

I’m lumping in things like your lights, bathtubs, shower stalls, sinks, mounted fans, etc.  You can do this very cheaply outside of the shower, I’ve found that you can only get so low with a simple 32″x32″ shower stall for around $400.  You could technically do it cheaper, but I’ve found they often fail and lead to massive water damage.

Sinks can cost $50 or cost $500, my sink cost me about $225 for a nice stainless steel under mounted sink.  My light fixtures were pretty cheap, a bunch of $10 puck lights and a $80 ceiling fan.

Estimated Cost: $1,000-$5,000

Fasteners And Adhesives

tiny house fasteners and adhesives

This is one category that people always forget to budget for and it’s something you can’t reuse or find second hand.  You need quality fasteners and glues that are new because you need to know exactly what you’re getting for safety sake.  Code also has very specific rules around this.

For me I spend around $1500 for all my nails, screws, metal strapping, glues, and various metal ties.

Estimated Cost: $1,500

 

Tiny House Costs: Build Vs. Buying From A Builder

Here’s the truth, if you want someone to build you a tiny house, it’s going to cost you big time.  Tiny houses came into being because you could save yourself so much money because of two things:  They’re smaller in sized and you could build it yourself.  There is no way around it, having a tiny house builder build you a tiny house will cost more money.

The rule of thumb I tell people is take the cost of the materials and then double it.  About 50%-60% of the cost of a home (tiny or traditional) is in the labor.  So a tiny house that costs $10,000 in materials, will cost about $20,000-$25,000 from a builder.  A tiny house that is $30k in materials, will cost around $60,000-$75,000 for a builder to build it for you.  If you use a builder, make sure to get a contract!

This leads me to the big take away, tiny houses only really make sense if you can build it yourself and the really good news is that I believe literally anyone can build their own tiny house, even if you’ve never build something before.  It’s totally doable and if you want to live in a tiny house, you shouldn’t pay a builder in my opinion, you should build it yourself.

You’ll save a ton of money, learn valuable skills and you know your house will be built right because you did it, not some builder who’s trying to turn out a house each month to earn a profit.

The good news is anyone, yes even you, can build a tiny house.  If you’ve never used a tool in your life, never built anything, if you aren’t that strong or don’t know how… You can build a tiny house.  I put all the info together for you in my book:  How To Build A Tiny House.

Tiny Houses Cost Money, But It’s Worth It

are tiny houses worth the effort

When I made the leap to living in a tiny house I was concerned due to how much it was costing me.  But I knew if I could live in my tiny house for 2 years, it would be the same amount as me having paid rent in an apartment in my city.  Now looking back, it’s been over 5 years of living in my tiny house full time and I couldn’t be happier.  With more money in the bank than ever while working less hours, it’s a winning combination.

Since going tiny, I’ve left my corporate job for a better self employment path, I work way less hours, make more money and spend more time with friends, family and traveling.  It’s an amazing lifestyle and it all starts by taking charge of your life and going tiny.

Your Turn!

  • What costs are you considering when it comes to your tiny house?
  • What budget are you working with for a tiny house?