Sick of paying for a mortgage and utility bills, Francesca and Nicholas chose to sell their house and pursue their dream of converting an old school bus into a mobile home. Here's a look at their DIY journey.
Meet The Couple
From the moment they first met, Francesca and Nicholas were drawn to each other. So it was no surprise to friends and family when the couple announced their engagement. In June 2016, they were married.
Mr. and Mrs. Drez held their wedding in Cancun, Mexico, in a picturesque spot by the ocean. After the ceremony, they flew back to Illinois, Chicago, and moved into their 1,400 square-foot townhouse. But as time went on, the couple became disenchanted with their lifestyle.
Too Much Space
Two years had passed, and Nick and Francesca realized that they still hadn’t unpacked many of their belongings. In truth, the couple had too many belongings to unpack! And if that wasn’t enough, 1400 square feet was far more space than the pair needed.
According to Francesca, "the kitchen and one bedroom were all we used." Just as they began to reconsider their lifestyle choices, they found a documentary about skoolie living - where people convert old school buses into mobile homes. It seemed like the perfect option... there was just one problem.
Or, more accurately, three problems. The two 27-year olds also had three dependents - their dogs, Sullivan, Magoo, and Murphy. The only way they could justify the move was if the house had enough extra space for their pets, too. After a lot of thinking, they came to a conclusion.
"It started with a documentary we watched about a couple that was traveling around the United States," Nicholas explained. "Late one night, on the couch, we kind of looked at each other and said, 'Hey, could we do that?' and after sitting on it for a day or two, we were all in."
Old School Bus
The couple soon began looking for a potential vehicle, and within a month, they found one - a school bus with 168,000 miles on it. It was 20 years old and located in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though it was a 12-hour drive away, the distant location proved to be a blessing.
North Carolina wasn’t coastal, so even after 20 years, the bus had rusted far less than it would have otherwise due to the effect of salt air on metal. Thankfully they only needed to replace the tires, alternation, and oil filter, as well as make sure the oil and fluids were checked.
Going The Extra Mile
After making sure it was all in good condition, Nick and Francesca purchased it for $5000. The bus was a Blue Bird model that came in at 38 feet and 7.5 feet wide. They also budgeted a further $55,000 for the DIY conversion, which was "much cheaper than a house, an RV, or an RV mortgage," according to Nick.
The couple went to work renovating the 22-square-foot interior - removing the window panes and raising the roof by a further 20 inches, making sure it was accessible and comfortable for any taller inhabitants or visitors. For them, it was important to make sure the bus was as liveable as possible.
After raising the roof, they decided to take on a few more tasks that would truly bring the bus to life. That included painting the exterior of the vehicle white and installing tinted windows, improving the aesthetic and giving the pair some much-needed privacy.
But that wasn't all: They also added storage space to the exterior, maximizing the interior space as much as possible. "Instead of storing all the solar and the batteries and everything else on the interior of the bus, it's all out here, which left us a lot more room on the inside," Nick said.
Some Helping Hands
The interior was going to take a lot of work, even before they could start building. They had to strip the interior of its seats, walls, ceilings, and floors. Nick and Francesca knew they were going to need some extra hands to get the work done - thankfully, help was on the way.
During their weeks of researching, they came across Luke and Rachel Davis. This couple was fully immersed in the ‘skoolie’ community, so much so that they had even started a business called Skoolie.com. They specialized in full bus conversion services, perfect for a couple like Nicholas and Francesca.
Planning The Layout
Next up was the floor plan for their future home. As is common with school bus conversions, Nick and Francesca used duct tape to map out how their floor plan would look, based on "our necessities," as they said." We did a million different designs," Francesca recalled.
After a few false starts, they finally landed on a layout that worked. The bus interior would include an open kitchen, bathroom, living area, and a single private bedroom at the back of the bus, where most skoolie DIYers put the master bedroom. It was time to move on to framing and furniture.
By this point, the school bus was truly coming together. It may not be finished, but it was liveable. The next step was a big one: Francesca and Nick chose to sell their Chicago townhouse and begin living in their ongoing DIY project. The move would reduce their living expenses by a whopping $800/month!
And it wasn't the only big life change. The couple also decided to make the move to Colorado with their new home. "That first year, we were just learning about the bus," Nicholas said. "Mainly traveling around the Denver, Colorado area because I still had a full-time job in an office downtown."
A Big Kitchen
For Francesca and Nick, the kitchen was one of the most important areas of the bus. They both loved to cook, therefore this space would become "the centerpiece of the bus," according to Nick. Amazingly enough, they had enough space for a generously-sized kitchen with a fridge/freezer, oven, four burners, cabinets, and drawers.
"Going with the fridge underneath gave a lot more cabinet space," Nick explained. "The original design was going to be... a traditional fridge. But, as you can see, we have a massive countertop, a big stove, basically a regular, apartment-sized one."
Spending Where It Counts
When it came to the kitchen appliances, the couple was open to splashing out on something a little more expensive. After all, they were saving plenty of money by living on the bus. This included a butler sink with all the space they could need for dishes.
"That's another cool thing about downsizing and going tiny," Francesca shared. "We've never really settled into our homes, we've never really been able to show ourselves in our homes... and get everything we wanted. And by going smaller, we were able to actually make our dream home."
Some people would give more thought to the bedroom or bathroom, but for Nick and Francesca, the kitchen was a top priority. "When we were doing our layout, we knew we needed a very long kitchen," she said. "Lots of counter space... And we wanted a spacious one, and so this is kind of just our dream kitchen."
They had plenty of kitchen counter space, but just in case they needed more, they had a simple but super helpful hack to make the kitchen more useable. When they weren’t using the sink or stove, they could place chopping boards across to add extra bench space!
A Place To Relax
Near the bus's entrance was the spot for their future living room. On the right, across from the door, they installed a 10-foot couch they had built just for the space, with a neat little bench on the opposite side. With just two pieces of furniture, they now had a comfortable spot to hang out.
They also added some neat and intricate details to bring the space to life and add some character. This included white shiplap to cover up the stark metal walls of the bus, LED lighting, and ceiling panels made from wood from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their home was truly coming together.
As a professional content creator, Francesca had a natural flair for creativity and an eye for detail, so much of the decor was chosen by her. For example, the neutral-toned patterned pillows were chosen as a gentle contrast to the dark grey custom-built couch.
They also installed dark vinyl flooring that was both waterproof and complimented the light-colored walls and ceilings. Speaking of walls, Francesca chose to decorate them with hand-woven art pieces and a ladder, though they were later replaced with new decor.
A Multi-Functional Space
But it wasn’t enough to just make things pretty. With such minimal living space, things had to be functional above everything else. Just take a look at the 10-foot couch they built for their bus, which also happens to double as a spare bed for any guests that want to stay the night.
And the bed conversion wasn’t the only way they managed to maximize space using the couch. They also used it as a spare storage space, where an 80-gallon freshwater tank and plenty of other belongings could be stowed easily away beneath the sofa bench.
Fit For A Family
Remember the couple’s three dogs? Well, as it turns out, their skoolie conversion had enough room for the whole family! When the curtains were closed, and the tv was on, Francesca, Nicholas, and their three furbabies were in their own little world.
Their TV sat on the custom-built shelf installed over the driver's seat, and the pair could watch in comfort from their 10-foot sofa. They also placed bean bags and floor pillows for extra seating if needed. Sullivan, Magoo, and Murphy had more than enough space to relax on the couch, floor, and the bus dashboard!
Believe it or not, their skoolie home wasn’t just for living and relaxing. Francesca also used it as her remote office space. Prior to building the skoolie, she worked as a Communications Manager before giving up that career to launch a content creation company.
"During that time, Nick worked full time in an office downtown in Denver, Colorado," Francesca confided. "We lived at an RV park, and he commuted to the city every day." It worked perfectly as an office for Francesca, but things became complicated when Nick also began working from home...
Working From a Bus
Within a year of Francesca and Nick leaving Chicago to live in their new DIY home full-time, their living situation took a dramatic and unforeseen turn. Nick began working as a Sales Manager for a software company, and the position was remote. They had to make some immediate changes.
"We always have to make sure we are parked in a good cell service Monday-Friday for his job," Francesca recalled. Nick also needed his own workspace, which came in the form of a wall-mounted foldout table that they had been using for meals. It was an economic use of the space and allowed him to work without disrupting Francesca.
Family Of Five
But back to the dogs - the couple has emphasized how central their beloved pets were to their DIY decisions. "If you were wondering if we designed the layout around the dogs, the answer is yes," they said on one Facebook post. "The more open floor space, the better!"
Unfortunately, some people who followed Nick and Francesca’s skoolie journey had doubts about the comfort and health of their pups, as some didn't believe that there was enough space for them. But the couple had emphatically denied this, insisting that the dogs loved their new home.
On To The Bathroom
Looking at the bus in its near-finished state, it seems impossible that this gorgeous mobile home was actually 2 decades old. Everything looked top-notch, from the fully-equipped kitchen to the split bathroom. Despite the space constraints, they managed to build both a large shower and a sink!
According to several of the couple's social media followers, the completed bathroom was even better-looking than the typical city apartment, and the couple was quick to agree. "The shower is probably my second favorite part [of the house], right behind the wood-burning stove," Nicholas said.
The First Half
Part of the spacious feeling of the bathroom also had to do with the large sink and vanity in the first section of the space. Above the sink and toilet were two mirrors that "make the room even bigger," according to Francesca. They also added shelves and hanging baskets for extra storage.
And on the other side of the vanity was the composting toilet. "It's kind of tiny, but it works for us," Francesca continued. "We've never done the black water, and we didn't really want to do a black water tank, so we just thought, 'Everyone's doing the composting toilet. Let's try this out.'"
The Second Half
On the other side of the bathroom, directly opposite the composting toilet, was the generously-sized shower. They lined the floors and walls with tiling and installed a showerhead from Nebia, which was a little expensive but also eco-friendly and high-quality.
Unfortunately, they had to lay the tiles in winter, which was usually done in warmer months as the heat helped them stick. "We had a struggle with it, but we're so happy with how it turned out," Francesca said. "We love the stonework; it goes with the front of the bus, and it kind of just flows with our entire theme in this house."
The Master Bedroom
Now on to one of the most important spaces in the home: the bedroom. The last seven feet at the back of the bus were put aside for the room, where it would get the most privacy. The couple separated the room from the rest of their home by installing a large barn food, giving them an ideal space for downtime.
Despite the comfy and secluded nature of the room, Francesca and Nick mostly reserved it for sleeping, preferring to spend much of their time cooking in the kitchen or working and relaxing in the living room space. "When we do need free time, it is nice to have your own room or room to put the dogs in," Nick explained.
Looking For Freedom
So why were Nicholas and Francesca so set on building their converted mobile home? Well, one of the main reasons was mobility. Yes, the couple felt tied down by their large townhouse and its equally hefty mortgage, not to mention the utility bills. But they also wanted freedom of movement.
The Drez's dreamed of travel and adventure, as well as a fresh and exciting beginning with their three pets. "We liked the freedom to explore and go adventuring, and I think we were kind of just feeling like we were in a rut… with the job and life, and this was kind of a way out to go and try a couple of new things," Nick said.
And the couple took advantage of their mobility as soon as they could. Once Nick had left his office and began working remotely, the two embarked on several weekend road trips with their dogs in tow. They moved all around the US, at one point even making a single trip from Florida to Oregon using RV resorts and available parking.
"When we first met, it was all career-oriented. I mean, 60 plus hours a week, saving money for what?" Nick said. "I think we had the adventure in us the whole time. We would love to go for hikes, walking the dogs... But if we could make that the social point in the center of the lifestyle, I think we were both in for that."
But since they couldn't always stop in places with electrical grids or even affordable hotels, they needed some extra amenities. One of the major purchases they made was a wood stove that could provide heat throughout the house bus, no matter how far “off-grid” they traveled.
Though providing heat for four may seem like a big feat, the woodstove had a lot of power behind it. The couple couldn’t be happier with the decision. "Not only does it bring cozy vibes and allow us to cuddle by the fire, but it also really warms the place up, probably better than a heater could," they shared.
Just Enough Power
And though the house can technically be connected to the grid for electricity and gas, Francesca and Nicholas took the traditional tiny house route of installing a set of five solar collectors on the roof. They each run at 100-watts, which is “more than enough” to power the entire bus for four days at a time.
When solar power didn't do the trick, they also deployed a portable generator, particularly during summer when they needed to operate their air-conditioner. Otherwise, solar power got the job done. "The only energy sucker is the refrigerator, and it's not even that much," Nick mentioned.
And, of course, there was the driver's seat at the front. The bus usually remained stationary on weekdays, so when it was not being used, they tried to keep the dashboard looking nice. "We try to hide it when it's just the homey feel so that it doesn't actually look like the bus again," Nick elaborated.
But there was another wholesome reason for the cover. "We were just driving, and our dogs kept going up there," Francesca explained. "They would sit up there, look out the window, and I was like, 'Well, they need something comfy to sit on, and so I just did a DIY cushion, threw it up there, and draped the blanket on top."
A Thanksgiving Gathering
Since completing their mobile home, the Drezs have made excellent use of their space - especially when it comes to celebrating! Take Thanksgiving, for example - they may not have as much room as others, and they weren’t able to see their families, but they still made the most of the public holiday.
They strung up some fairy lights from the bus windows to make the interior more festive. "We made the best of our little Thanksgiving this year," they posted on Instagram. "We cooked up some of our favorite sides, put on our matching Christmas pajamas, and had a cozy night in."
No Looking Back
Now that they've settled into their new school bus-turned-tiny house, how are Nick and Francesca feeling? Well, they're certainly not regretting their decision. "Most people work their whole lives saving up this big nest egg of money with hopes of… traveling when it's finally time for retirement," Nick said.
"We've seen our grandparents get to that point where they have the money and have the time but no longer have that energy," he explained. "We may not have the money right now, but we definitely have… the energy, and we have the time." We can't wait to see where their adventures take them!