Hitting the (Air) Brakes?

A form of “enterprise risk management”  – the automotive insurance industry – seems to be exacting a growing toll on the popular and innovative practice of buying an old school bus and turning it into a motor home, or just a home. It is growing more difficult to insure a “skoolie.”

More and more often, people are sharing stories of buying a school bus and not being able to insure it to drive it home to begin the conversion, or of “building out” a bus and not being able to find anyone to write a reliable, affordable policy of the kind that would be easily found for a standard, industry-built RV or motor home. One online column goes so far as to suggest there may be just one agency willing – or able – to locate policies for bus conversions. “Tell them So-and-so sent you,” is the advice in that column; one has to wonder whether it is effective networking or a secret handshake club, floating on desperation, that drives this advice.

Among the reasons offered for the difficulty is the interplay of design and physics. School buses, some say, tend to be narrower than RVs of similar sizes, making them top-heavy to begin with – a condition that only gets worse when the conversion is complete and all the walls and water tanks and more sophisticated seating and the bedding have been added above the “moment” of designed balance. Lateral torque only gets stronger as solar panels and refrigeration and tongue-and-groove ceilings are set into place, and some writers post apocryphal warnings about skoolies toppling – even on gentle exit ramps.

Disputing the design and introductory physics approach, some discussions on “skoolie” forums suggest that something more nefarious may be at work: an effort to suppress a culture (or counter-culture) that thrives on independence and freedom – not anything valued or even tolerated by state Motor Vehicle bureaucrats or insurance industry executives, who demand precision and uniformity in forms and rules alike.

They want everyone to behave.

A schoolie.net poster disputes all the arguments, assigning to the average driver such a misunderstanding of physics that makes it impossible for them to adequately comprehend the issue. This poster also acknowledges another risk, which he calls the “bailing-wire-hippie problem” – namely, that anyone with a bit of cash but lacking adequate skills or awareness, can buy and build out a bus and put it on the same roads we travel in our sophisticated sedans or pickup trucks. There can be no regard for what a mess it may be in terms of design and function. Water tanks installed all on one side, haphazardly installed and poorly vented wood stoves, propane lines installed by people without the requisite skills or experience – and so on – can generate catastrophes on six bald tires. Without proper oversight of the process, there are none of the rules the bureaucrats cling to – rules that insurers are beginning to write into the fewer policies they are willing to offer.

The days of buying a $3,500 bus, gutting it, and rebuilding it according to one’s own whims and preferences may be winding down – as DMVs and insurers alike are beginning to demand the conversions offer the same dedicated amenities that industry-built RVs do: formal eating areas, separate bathrooms, well-equipped kitchen areas, clear sleeping areas, as well as extensive state DMV mechanical inspections – many of the traditional elements that one might or might not include if one were designing a non-traditional space.


There are still plenty of posters in places such as skoolie.net who outright deny that finding insurance is actually difficult, while at the same time offering precise advice on how to get around the increasing complexity of the insurance industry rules. (Back to the secret-handshake club.)

Perhaps this debate will one day find its own “moment” and balance. But for now, the Internet is full of dire warnings and a growing fear that have already driven some would-be converters out of the game.



2 thoughts on “Hitting the (Air) Brakes?

  1. Oh, it is sad to know! While the safety concerns do seem to be significant, there are very few “new and compliant” affordable alternatives. I’ve been thinking about getting a smaller vintage camper trailer, but updating is work beyond my skills, so maybe a “tiny house” or gypsy caravan…

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