On the outside, Mike and Tawny had everything they wanted, yet they weren't truly happy. So, the adventurous couple sold everything they had, bought a school bus, and converted it into a small home-on-wheels. Here is the transformation.
An Unhappy Couple
Tawny and Mike McVay became friends while working at the same gym. A few months later, they realized their connection went beyond friendship, and they married not long after. By many accounts, they had a perfect life.
After the wedding, the couple opened up their own gym together. Mike and Tawny ran a successful business, owned a gorgeous home, and drove fabulous cars. "On the outside, we had everything that we were told when we were young would make us happy," Tawny said. "What we thought we wanted was obviously not making us happy."
Despite having everything they needed, the lovebirds didn't feel content with their lives. "We suddenly looked around, and it was like, 'What are we doing?'" Tawny shared in an interview. And so they decided to get out of town and planned their first trip to Europe.
Once abroad, the duo realized that the freedom to travel was what their lives were missing. "We don't want to be stuck in one place," Tawny explained. "We don't want to be doing the same thing and living the same day over and over again." The duo strived to travel full-time.
Buying a Bus
But how could they afford to make their travel dreams a reality? The wanderlusters found an answer in the skoolie community - the couple bought a school bus to convert into a little home on wheels. "The biggest thing we had to do was throw off that shame and guilt that came with wanting something different," Tawny said.
She added, "Letting go of the conventional 'normal' life in lieu of the one we actually wanted was the biggest adjustment." But soon, there was no going back. Mike and Tawny bought their new home for a mere $5,000 - a yellow 2004 International school bus.
There were a couple of reasons why Mike and Tawny chose to convert a school bus into their small home instead of buying an RV or a tiny house on wheels. First of all, buying a bus allowed the duo to customize their future residence entirely. They also thought a skoolie would be easier to drive.
But before they could begin building their dream home, Tawny and Mike had to demolish the existing interior. The duo had to rip out the original seats, walls, and even the floor. They planned on doing it all themselves - a total DIY for the inexperienced builders.
A Fresh Start
It took the DIYers about two days to rip out the 20-something passenger seats on the vehicle. They then cleared out the original metal flooring and subfloor, only to find plenty of rust underneath. But before getting started on fixing up the skoolie, Tawny and Mike taped out their floor plan.
The bus was only 250 square feet, but the pair's design allowed them to fit practically all of their typical household amenities. By the time they were done, the skoolie would have a living room area, a kitchen, a fully-equipped bathroom, and a spacious bedroom.
Fixing the Rust & Insulating
Before getting started on the subfloor, Tawny and Mike took care of the rust problem. It was an expected step considering the school bus had been in use since 2004. The DIYers filled holes in the flooring and used Rust-Oleum floor paint to take care of the rust.
Once that was fixed, it was time to get started on the new flooring. The couple would be traveling in all sorts of weather, so insulation was a must. Mike and Tawny framed the floor and installed rigid polystyrene foam boards, also called styrofoam insulation.
After the insulation, Tawny and Mike measured and cut the new subfloor panels to fit perfectly into the skoolie. "We have a floor, and suddenly, this feels more real," Tawny shared at the time. The DIYers chose not to bolt the subfloor into the insulation, going for a "floating" one instead.
"After researching and first-hand accounts of the outcomes, it seemed prudent to bolt fixtures and walls to the actual walls and ceiling and leave the floor floating underneath where it can... flex slightly," Tawny said. The floating subfloor would work better long-term as movement and changing temperatures affected the skoolie.
Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Tawny and Mike considered three options when it came to the bus's windows: leave them all uncovered, cover them from the inside only, or remove them entirely and replace the space with metal to match the rest of the vehicle. The DIYers decided to go with option two.
The couple added a thermal barrier tint to keep the motorhome's inside cool and provide some more privacy through the windows that didn't end up covered by an interior wall. "Not having to lose the aesthetic of the school bus windows from the outside in favor of metal was a huge plus for us," Tawny explained.
The Framing Begins
Once Tawny and Mike tinted the windows, they started framing the bus's metal walls. This would provide the skeleton for the skoolie's new walls. "We will frame in the exterior walls first, lay laminate next, and then begin the interior wall framing," the DIYers shared.
"Neither of us had any construction experience, so we learned as we went," Tawny explained. "There were multiple times where we would do a project and then pull it out and redo it. There were so many times that something we planned just wouldn't work."
"Things are getting real up in here," Tawny shared at this stage of the conversion. "Appliances have arrived." The skoolie-owners found an affordable stove/oven and Dometic fridge/freezer combo that would "run off of solar while parked and propane while moving."
At this point, the homeowners had also finished framing the walls and installing the new flooring. They chose greyish laminate boards that provided durability and beauty all in one. With the final floor layer in, they began framing interior walls. Let's take a closer look at what's happening in the back.
Framing the Bathroom & Hallway
Pictured below are the beginnings of the bathroom, hallway, and bedroom walls. The engine can also be found at the back of the bus. While some skoolie owners whose bus has a rear engine choose to wall it off from the rest of the bedroom, Tawny and Mike had a different idea.
The duo wanted to maintain access to the big window in the back, so they decided to turn the space above the engine into a seat. "We will reupholster over [the engine] to create a reading nook, an extension of the bed that I'm pretty sure will get more use than the bed itself," Tawny shared.
Plenty of Storage
Like most bus conversions, these skoolie owners made sure their bed was tall enough to provide lots of storage space underneath. The DIYers built four flaps into the bed's top so that they could later access the storage without having to lift everything all at once.
"Each section has its own hinged lid that lifts up," they explained. But that wasn't the bed's only storage space. Mike and Tawny also built three huge drawers to put under the bed, each measuring three feet by three feet. They intended to store clothes there.
Progress in the Front
The bedroom was coming along nicely, and so was the living room area. The couple would sometimes be traveling with Tawny's two teenage kids, whom she co-parents with her former partner, so they made sure to have room on the skoolie for the kiddos, too.
The family later changed their minds about the bunk beds and redid the living room, which we'll see later on. Across from the bunk beds, the DIYers built a custom bench couch. Right between the sofa and bus's main door, they designed a shelf for keys, wallets, and some shoes.
Getting Started on the Kitchen
Past the living room, standing before the new bathroom wall, Tawny and Mike set up their new kitchen. You might be able to tell that there is actually some space between the back cabinets and the wall - the skoolie-owners managed to fit a breakfast nook!
Despite working with only 250 square feet, Mike and Tawny constructed an L-shaped kitchen that included a built-in eating nook that would double as a desk for them or the home-schooled teens. The open layout allowed for the living room and kitchen spaces to flow together.
Installing Counters & Appliances
Mike and Tawny went with an affordable butcher-block style wood for the countertops that they siliconed and waterproofed. The DIYers later finished off the countertops with Ardex Feather Finish, a self-drying cement-based finishing that gave the kitchen an industrial - and stunning - look.
The product is a good alternative to pouring concrete, which would look great but add a lot of unnecessary weight to the motorhome. The appliance seen on the left is an Atwood 3-Burner Range, while on the right is the Dometic fridge. The duo later gave these fixtures a major upgrade.
An Exterior Makeover
While most of the renovation was undoubtedly spent preparing the skoolie's interior, the hands-on fam also worked on beautifying the exterior. They used "special metal paint from Rust-Oleum that had primer" in it before adding the final layers of white paint.
The motorhome's outside also had access to four large under-storage bins, two on each side of the vehicle. There, Tawny and Mike store off-grid necessities like two 40-gallon water tanks, the bank of batteries for the future solar system, and camping supplies.
Repurposing Old Treasures
By the time the school bus conversion was complete, the original cheese bus was unrecognizable. The fresh coats of paint gave the skoolie, which Tawny and Mike named "Oliver," a whole new look. They also replaced the original windowed door with something more unique.
"My dad actually made [the door]," Tawny said. "A lot of the metalwork in this bus was fabricated by my dad who kind of does metalworking on the side as a hobby, and he custom made our front door out of this like rusty piece of metal that I fell in love with and two of the original bus windows."
It's All About the Views
The skoolie's roof also got some major improvements, including an 8-foot long rooftop deck perfect for observing surrounding scenery. "I do yoga up there, we watch the stars... the kids come up and play board games with us," shared Tawny. "It's like our outdoor space that travels with us."
Aside from the dreamy deck, the motorhome's roof contains much of its off-grid powering system. Towards the front of the bus are six large solar panels. At the very front is a cargo rack where they secure their bikes while traveling, as Tawny and Mike like to have alternative transportation modes.
"The Kids Hated Them."
Six months and $20,000 later, the skoolie was finished. But after one trip on the motorhome, Mike and Tawny knew they had to change the layout a bit. The biggest issue was the bunk beds, which felt very bulky in the small space. Plus, "The kids hated them," Tawny said.
The two teenagers didn't like that they couldn't sit up in their beds and had to be cramped on the sofa bench during long drives. So shortly after the family thought they'd completed their skoolie, they got back to work. The results were even better the second time around.
A Little Remodel
Scratching the bunk beds wasn't the only change in the living room remodel. The DIYers also lowered the couch on the left and changed the under-couch storage from a big, sliding box to wooden crates holding about a dozen baskets, as the initial compartment was uncomfortable to reach.
The arm on the couch's far side also serves as storage and holds a lengthy fold-out table that the couple can use both outside and inside. The legs are expandable so that the piece can function as a coffee table or a dining table. When the kids travel with Mike and Tawny, one sleeps on the couch and the other...
A Hidden Murphy Couch
On the other sofa! That's right - behind the rustic chest and the cute basket is a hidden murphy couch. They can unfold it, and bam - another bed appears. A discreet hook on the ceiling provides more seating, as the skoolie-dwellers have a hammock chair that they hook onto it.
With the bulky beds gone, the couple has space for a 40-inch TV to watch plenty of movies and play video games. "This TV is perfect because it pulls out and can swivel to match the room, so when we pull down that couch and hang the hammock chair, everyone in the audience can see the TV," Mike said.
The Mud Room
At the skoolie's front, leading into the living room is the "mudroom." "It's kind of just a catch-all space for like when we come in, the same way that your entry in your house would be," Tawny said. They also decorate this area with knick-knacks from their many travels.
"We actually have faux walls that we throw up in these front windows," Tawny added. The couple puts up the fake walls when they are parked longer-term and have simple blinds for short-term privacy while on the road. Behind the curtain and next to the driver's seat are a few hooks for coats.
The kitchen now looks slightly different from how it did initially, with a textured white wall replacing the map design. Little hacks like magnetic spice tins above the fridge allow for easy cooking while keeping things in place on the road. The sink is built into the concrete-finish countertops for a seamless look.
The DIYers got creative with the appliances and painted the fridge and oven with metallic rose gold paint. "We wanted to give them a slightly different finish because when it comes to... RV or skoolie appliances, your basic three finishes are silver, black, and white, and we didn't really want any of those," Tawny shared.
The Heater & Breakfast Bar
As planned, the other side of the kitchen's back counter has room for a couple of stools - the perfect little breakfast bar or study/workspace. But that's not the only treasure found over here, as the picture below shows. Mike and Tawny also have a little Jotul stove to heat the skoolie.
"It's been amazing. It's kept us warm through an entire Montana winter, which is hard to do," Tawny shared. The couple built a cement board around the stove for fire safety and covered it with a steel shield. But wait - there's even more to this motorhome's kitchen.
More Pantry Space
Aside from the many cabinets underneath the kitchen counter, Mike and Tawny also built this shelving unit where they mostly store dry goods like lentils and beans. The shelf's back is a repurposed old map from their former house, which the couple couldn't bear to part with.
There's elastic cording across the front of the shelves that make for easy access but keeps things organized while driving. As for other shelves around the house, Mike explained that they "have cargo nets that fit over the face of the shelves." Now let's take a look into the bedroom.
The Magical Bedroom
It's safe to say the travel buddies' bedroom turned out to be a totally magical and cozy haven. Just as they'd planned, Mike and Tawny turned the compartment around the rear engine into a window seat. They added a couch cushion and some throw pillows for a nook with stunning views.
According to Tawny, the back window is "the most awesome [one] in the house," so it's a good thing the DIYers didn't cover it up! Underneath the platform bed, you'll find the large drawers containing most of the couple's clothes, plus extra storage for camping gear and winter supplies.
More Bedroom Space
Many skoolie conversions have a bedroom just big enough for the bed, but not this one. Aside from a regular queen-size mattress, Tawny and Mike have some walking space in the room and an open closet. The exposed storage space has a copper bar with hooks/clips rather than hangers, which would take up more space.
"[The bedroom's] pretty big by schooly standards because we spend quite a lot of time back here," Tawny explained. Since the couple shares custody of Tawny's two kids, the teens take over the front half of the bus, and Mike and Tawny work in the bedroom when the whole crew is together.
Hard to believe this gorgeous bathroom is on a school bus? Yeah, we feel ya. To save space, Tawny and Mike chose a sliding door for the entryway and added a full-length mirror to it. Once you step inside, the composting toilet and a small sink are on the left.
"It's a wetroom-style bathroom, so everything in here can get wet," Mike shared. The DIYers installed Acacia wood-flooring and cement-finished walls that match the motorhome's vibe and are totally waterproof. A water heater and water pump are located under the sink.
The Shower & Bathtub
The bathroom is probably the room that has changed the most since Mike and Tawny first moved in. The toilet was originally where the bathtub is now, but the couple moved it to make room for their much-needed tub. They managed to make everything fit by cutting the sink counter in half and moving the toilet there.
Next to the tub is the copper showerhead, which has built-in shelving on the side for their wash products. It seems that these DIYers have proven you can truly have it all even when living tiny. Their bathtub might be small, but there's something extraordinary about it.
Outdoor Bath, Anyone?
The bathtub is portable! "It used to be a wine barrel," Mike explained. "Now it's just half of one barrel from California that we can use inside or outside." Repurposing rustic pieces for a Pinterest-perfect outdoor adventure? Yes, please! So how do Tawny and Mike live so fabulously while traveling?
Now that the couple lives in the skoolie, they sold their gym and work from home as content creators. "People say, 'How do you afford your lifestyle?'" Tawny said. "Well, we have remote jobs that we both do, but you would be surprised when you don't have a mortgage and car payments how little you can actually get by on."