DIY Skoolie Home Renovation
Instagram via @sincewewokeup

This Couple Wanted To Travel, so They Built a Luxury Home on Wheels

real estate

| LAST UPDATE 04/24/2022

By Kimberly Knapp

Tawny and Mike had a seemingly perfect life, but it wasn't what they truly wanted. So the couple set off on a new adventure - turning a school bus into their new home. Here's a look at their skoolie journey.

Time To Reevaluate

When Tawny and Mike first met at their local gym, they felt an instant connection. After a few months of friendship, they began to fall for each other. And just a few years later, they were married.

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They even founded their own gym together, which quickly became a success. Everything was working out perfectly for the couple. "On the outside, we had everything that we were told when we were young would make us happy," Tawny recalled... But it wasn't what they really wanted.

A Great Realization

"What we thought we wanted was obviously not making us happy," she continued. "We suddenly looked around, and it was like, 'What are we doing?'" They knew they needed to make a change, so the first thing they did was book a European getaway. Maybe a new experience would make things clearer...

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And it did. While traveling, it occurred to Mike and Tawny that the freedom of traveling and living on the road was what they really wanted. "We don't want to be stuck in one place," Tawny said. "We don't want to be doing the same thing and living the same day over and over again."

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Starting On A New Path

What they wanted was full-time travel, but it wasn't that simple. "The biggest thing we had to do was throw off that shame and guilt that came with wanting something different," she explained. "Letting go of the conventional 'normal' life in lieu of the one we actually wanted was the biggest adjustment."

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Once they dropped that weight, they realized that the skoolie community had all the answers they needed. They decided to purchase an old school bus that they could turn into a comfortable (and portable) home. They soon found a 2004 International school bus that cost just $5,000!

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Starting On The Interior

People seeking this lifestyle change will often purchase an RV or even a tiny house on a trailer. But for Mike and Tawny, a school bus was the obvious choice because it was a fully-customizable build that would allow them to include everything they needed. They also believed it would be easier to take on the road.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

The first step of the build was gutting the interior of the bus so they could start anew. It meant the couple had to remove all of the fixed seating before ripping out the wall paneling and metal floors. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too difficult for these inexperienced DIYers.

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A Blank Slate

All in all, it took two full days of labor to remove more than 20 seats from the interior of the bus. Once that was done, they could dismantle the metal floors and subfloors and tend to the accumulated layer of rust beneath them. Now it was time to layout their floor plan.

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With some careful planning and attention to detail, Tawny and Mike were able to fit a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom into their floorplan - they were going to have a fully-equipped household in just 250-square feet, everything they could possibly need.

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Rusted Floors and Insulation

As mentioned, there was a lot of rust that had collected on and beneath the subfloor, which was understandable after more than 15 years of use. So the couple took to the flooring by filling in any holes the rust had caused and using Rustoleum to remove the rust itself.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

The subfloor was now in near-new condition, and it meant they could complete the rest of the flooring. Insulation was next, an incredibly important step as the bus would be moving through different climates and weather systems. They framed the floors and placed polystyrene foam boards down for insulation.

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The Subfloor

Once the insulation was in, they could cut and install their subfloor panels. And though it was a small step, it already made their progress palpable. "We have a floor, and suddenly, this feels more real," Tawny shared on social media. They also made the decision to use a "floating" subfloor rather than a bolted one.

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"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 explained to her followers. This meant it would be more adaptable to movement and changing temperatures over time.

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To Stay Or Go?

The windows were another component that required some serious research and decision-making. Tawny and Mike had to choose if they would remove the windows and replace them with metal panels, cover them up on the inside, or leave them completely uncovered.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

They chose to cover them from the inside, adding a 'thermal barrier tint' that would keep the interior of the bus cooler. It also let them retain the look of the bus while giving some privacy. "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 said.

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Fun With Framing

Now that the thermal barrier tint was up, it meant that the framing work could be done. Framing the skoolie's steel walls would allow them to build new ones, the baseline for their future home. "We will frame in the exterior walls first, lay laminate next, and then begin the interior wall framing," they shared with their followers.

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"Neither of us had any construction experience, so we learned as we went," Tawny later said. "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."

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Finally The Flooring

After the framing had been put up, Tawny and Mike began to lay their new flooring over the subfloor and insulation. The grey laminate flooring was part of the simple but stylish look they were going for, and it was sturdy to boot. Around this time, they also had some exciting new arrivals to the skoolie.

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"Things are getting real up in here," Tawny wrote in an Instagram post at the time. "Appliances have arrived." They had managed to find a budget-friendly oven and stovetop along with a Dometic fridge/freezer, which meant they already had the bulk of their kitchen appliances.

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Framing the Interior Walls

As we know, the DIY duo had already framed the pre-existing walls of the bus, but now it was time to frame the interior walls. These would include walls for the bathroom, bedroom, and hallway. In some skoolie conversions, DIYers also choose to build a wall to separate the bus's rear-engine from the back bedroom.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

But Mike and Tawny had another idea in mind. They loved the large back window, so they chose to turn the engine space 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 elaborated.

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Storage Galore

Speaking of the bed, the couple had to be very strategic about how they constructed their sleeping space. They took the lead from many other typical skoolie conversions and made the bed tall enough that they could fit plenty of extra storage beneath it.

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They even built flaps into the top of the bed frame so they could reach the storage from above. "Each section has its own hinged lid that lifts up," they said. They also built a set of three by three feet drawers beneath the bed where they could keep their shared clothing.

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Front Improvements

But the bedroom wasn’t the only room getting plenty of attention. The couple had already started in the living room, which was going to need to be spacious. That’s because Tawny had frequent visits and stays with her two teenage children, whom she co-parented with the help of their father.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

Originally they chose to build bunk beds for the two kids in the living room, as seen above, but that idea would later be scrapped. They also built a custom couch for the space opposite the beds and a shelf by the bus entrance where they could keep small things like their shoes and keys.

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Beginning Of The Kitchen

Just beyond the living room was the kitchen area, so it made perfect sense to start on that room next. They built the basic kitchen cabinets and countertop setups and found that beyond the cabinets, there was just enough space for a separate nook.

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This gave them enough extra room to add a little eating nook in the corner. During the day, it could also be used as a work and study space for the couple and for Tawny’s children. In just 250 square feet of space, they managed to fit a fully equipped kitchen and a breakfast bar!

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Countertops And Appliances

Before the breakfast bar was the kitchen countertops, which Mike and Tawny had finished with a butcher's block that they had to waterproof themselves. They also added the cement-based Ardex Feather Finish that completed the counters and added to the kitchen's aesthetic.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

Ardex Feather Finish allowed them to finish the countertops without using concrete, which was simply too heavy for the mobile home. Next, they installed the Dometic fridge/freezer and Atwood 3-Burner Range which they had bought while insulating the floors.

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What About The Exterior?

With so much time and effort poured into the interior of the bus, it's easy to think that no work was needed on its exterior. But that was far from the case. Tawny and Mike set to glamorizing the rather rough shell of the bus. First, they used "special metal paint from Rust-Oleum that had primer."

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

They then layered it over with white paint. Once done, they could add more practical features. For example, in the bus’ four under-storage bins, they stowed two 40-gallon water tanks and a battery bank for the solar system they would eventually rig, as well as some bulky camping supplies.

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Meet Oliver

When they stepped back and looked at the newly-completed exterior, it could have been an entirely new bus. Its clean white coat was unrecognizable from the former layer of cheese-yellow paint. It was given a new name: Oliver. And even the door got its own makeover.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

"My dad actually made [the door]," Tawny explained. "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."

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Rooftop Views

But there was another aspect of Oliver's exterior that had to be put to good use - the roof! Tawny and Mike built an 8-foot-long deck along the rooftop, which would be an ideal recreational space to enjoy some downtime. "I do yoga up there, we watch the stars… the kids come up and play board games with us," Tawny said.

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"It's like our outdoor space that travels with us," she continued. And they didn't use it solely for leisure time. It was also the home for the family's off-grid power, including six sizeable solar panels. Near the front of the rooftop, they had also secured a cargo rack to store their bikes.

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"Kids Hated Them"

After six months of hard work, Mike and Tawny had finally completed their little home on wheels. Unfortunately, despite all that time and $20,000 worth of building, they quickly realized that it wasn’t quite right. In particular, the bunk beds just didn’t work for the teenagers.

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"The kids hated them," Tawny admitted. The beds were so cramped that they couldn't even sit up straight, and during the day, they had to spend most of their time on the minimal sofa bench. If they were going to spend long periods living in Oliver, they would have to make some adjustments.

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Time For A Rework

So they began remodeling. And it wasn’t just the bunk beds that the couple chose to revamp. They also set to work on the small couch, lowering it further to the ground and removing the storage compartment beneath it, which was too uncomfortable to continuously pull out.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

Instead, they replaced it with wooden crates and baskets and added a fold-out table to the arm of the couch. They also made the legs detachable, which could convert the low sofa bench into a coffee table or dining table. But now that the bunk beds were gone, where did the kids sleep?

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Hidden Furniture

One teen could easily sleep on the sofa. But the other? Well, they slept on the other sofa! Just behind the chest and beneath their TV was a hidden murphy couch folded up into the wall. Whenever the kids were sleeping over, they could just fold out the couch - and they had a second bed!

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

As mentioned, the TV above the murphy couch was a necessity for when the family wanted more fun than just looking out of the bus windows. "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.

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The "Mudroom"

Next up was the "mudroom." Despite its unappealing name, this area at the front of the bus was a true necessity for their home. "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 explained.

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They decorated this room with knick-knacks from their travels and added "faux walls" to the surrounding windows." We actually have faux walls that we throw up in these front windows," Tawny elaborated. They also had a set of simple window blinds for privacy while driving.

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A Complete Kitchen

They did a bit of retouching to the kitchen, such as adding a textured wall to substitute the map they had originally put there. To maximize storage space, they also used a collection of magnetic spice tins that could stick to the fridge, giving them more cabinet space for other kitchen ingredients.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

They built a narrow but deep sink for cooking and dishes. The duo also painted the fridge and oven an attractive shade of rose gold. "We wanted to give them a slightly different finish because when it comes to... RV or skoolie... your basic three finishes are silver, black, and white, and we didn't really want any," said Tawny.

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The Breakfast Corner

Beyond the kitchen counters was the incredibly useful breakfast bar that also doubled as a tiny office and study space. There were two stools, and just behind them was another fantastic touch - a Jotul stove was tucked away in its own little corner.

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The stove heater could be used to keep the entire skoolie warm during the colder months. "It's been amazing. It's kept us warm through an entire Montana winter, which is hard to do," Tawny gushed. For safety purposes, the couple also installed a cement board and steel shield.

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Super Storage Space

But that’s not all there is to say about their kitchen. Mike and Tawny added to the generous cabinet storage by installing a set of shelves to store many of their dry ingredients. They also included a repurposed map on the back of the shelf, which they had salvaged from their former home.

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Since the bus was often on the road, it was essential to keep the shelving secure so the ingredients wouldn't fly off the shelves. The couple added elastic cording that stretched across the width of the shelves and kept their stock in place. According to Mike, they also "have cargo nets that fit over the face of the shelves."

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The Main Event

Now on to one of the most special areas of the house - Tawny and Mike’s master suite! The couple managed to turn this space into an absolute dream. They had a fantastically comfortable bed and the aforementioned reading nook, both of which were topped with cushions and pillows.

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They couldn't be happier with their decision to keep the back window accessible, and Tawny even described it as "the most awesome [one] in the house." Just beneath the bed was a set of large drawers where the duo stored their clothing, winter supplies, and extra camping gear.

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Some Extra Space

It is typical for many skoolie conversions to have limited space, often only enough for a double or queen-sized bed. But thanks to Tawny and Mike’s excellent planning, they were left with enough space to move about and install an open closet area. They used a copper bar with hooks and clips to act as hangers.

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The couple felt justified in making their bedroom space a little bigger than the standard skoolie bedroom. "[The bedroom's] pretty big by schooly standards because we spend quite a lot of time back here," Tawny said. The way they saw it, Tawny's two children had the front of the bus, and she and Mike had the back.

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On To The Bathroom

We haven’t talked about the bathroom yet, but it’s as wonderful as expected. It was fitted out with a sliding door to save space and had a convenient composting toilet, a small sink, and a full-length mirror. They also made another unique design choice that made living in a small space much easier.

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The bathroom was waterproof! "It's a wetroom-style bathroom, so everything in here can get wet," Mike explained. They added Acacia wood flooring and finished the bathroom walls with cement, waterproofing the room and perfectly matching the home's industrial aesthetic. The pump and water heater were also installed below the sink.

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Washroom

Opposite the sink and toilet are the much-needed shower and bathtub. Originally, the toilet had been in the same place as the bathtub, but Mike and Tawny chose to cut the sink/counter space in half and move the toilet to the other side of the room, so they could install the tub in its place.

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To the left and above the tub is a matching copper showerhead, as well as a set of shelves where the small family keeps all of their hygiene products. This superhero DIY duo has done the unthinkable - installing a shower and a bathtub in their tiny home!

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A Bath For All Seasons

As if that wasn't enough, the bathtub is detachable, so it can be taken outside too. "It used to be a wine barrel," Mike elaborated. "Now it's just half of one barrel from California that we can use inside or outside." With a lifestyle like this, it can seem almost too good to be true. How does the couple manage it?

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Well, they are no longer tied to any single location now, as they've sold their gym, and work remotely. "People say, 'How do you afford your lifestyle?'" Tawny exclaimed. "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."

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The Great Indoors And Outdoors

But the bathtub is just the beginning of what Mike and Tawny do outside. Because of their solar panels and portable batteries, they have a lot more freedom in choosing whether they take their work and hobbies into the great outdoors, which is great for people who live in a fairly small space.

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Tawny tends to work outside when the weather is good, but Mike takes it a step further by moving the TV and gaming consoles outside too! "He sat there grinning like a five-year-old while he played, with eyes shut, listening to the creek rush by during loading screens," Tawny laughed.

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A Portable Porch

Despite their plans to travel far and wide, the McVays also enjoy staying stationary, as spending time in one familiar spot allowed them to recharge. To make these stays feel even more homey, the couple built a rustic porch for the entrance, where they can stay in the shade during hot days or sit outside when it rains.

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They also added a string of fairy lights, a table, and a blanket to make it extra comfortable. Nothing fancy, but it was perfect for the family. "It's simple, but it's home," Tawny shared in an Instagram post. "And it's the best of both worlds - front porch sittin' with a house that pulls away when the mood strikes."

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Some Spare Seats

Despite how lovely (and in some ways luxurious) their skoolie conversion was, Mike and Tawny were always searching for ways to make their small home more spacious and welcoming. And though the bus was technically finished, they were always making minor adjustments.

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For example, they set up a hanging hammock from the ceiling of the bus, giving them more comfortable seating in the front entrance area. And when they want more space in their living room, or they don’t want the hammock swinging around? They can simply unhook it and put it away for the day.

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A Work In Progress

And that wasn’t the only change they made. After months spent living in their new home, they began to think of more innovative upgrades. For example, the previous bunk beds were removed because the couple knew they needed a better way for the kids to sleep.

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Originally the couch they installed was a custom-built model that Mike and Tawny had designed and constructed themselves, but they changed their minds about it soon after completing the build. "We removed the platform couch and replaced it with an actual pre-built one," the couple commented.

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Just A Little More

But the McVays didn’t stop there. Though, at first, they put most of their remodeling energies into the bathroom, they also kept keen eyes (and hands) on the living room. As we know, removing the original set of bunk beds and installing the hidden murphy bed was the first change they made.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

But they soon turned their attention to other things. "We removed the Murphy bed and shelving unit at the front and replaced it with a more awesome shelving system," Tawny shared in one post. "It was a little more of a pain to do than we anticipated, in that we had to move some electrical around to make the design work."

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The Finished Product?

Tawny and Mike knew from the beginning that their DIY journey was just that - a journey. And they hadn’t reached their final destination just yet, which meant that Oliver would continue to see more renovations. The couple wasn't afraid of change. In fact, they loved it!

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So they continued to add things and take things away as the months passed, particularly in the living room. "We replaced the foldaway bed with cupboards and cubbies, added more shelves, and moved the chest out," Tawny included in the caption of one Instagram post.

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A Sense Of Balance

While some DIYers might have found the never-ending renovations exhausting, for Mike and Tawny, it was a necessity. With every change, the bus was getting closer and closer to being the perfect fit for them - and they were having so much fun along the way.

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And now that they were able to maximize the floor space in the living room area, it meant they could bring more activities indoors. For example, Tawny was an avid yoga practitioner, and when the weather was bad, she could easily set up shop and do her daily session inside.

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The "Bussiversary"

Despite all the continued renovations, Mike and Tawny were living in their house bus 24/7. They were well and truly devoted to life on the road, and soon enough, the loved-up couple was celebrating the end of their second year living in their DIY home!

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They even took to YouTube to share a video celebrating those 730 days. "Two years living full-time in this bus," they exclaimed. "Two years of travels, freedom from the 9-5 grind, more time spent doing what we love, and a tiny haven from the outside world."

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Onward To Summmer

And the "Bussiversary" also coincided with the most exciting season of the year. It was June, and summer was just picking up. That gave Mike and Tawny the perfect opportunity to celebrate by hitting the open road and exploring the country for a few weeks.

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"We are actually about to hit the road and enjoy some time away," they shared with their followers. "As much as I love this little patio and our little home base, I'm super excited to get the road under our wheels again. We plan on disappearing off-grid to our favorite secret spot in the Montana woods."

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More Celebrations

There was no better way for the couple to celebrate than with "No service, no outside world, just us and a bus out in nature," as they said in their own words. Spending quality time together out in nature was all they needed… and it wasn't just the bussiversary they were celebrating.

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While they were out exploring the woods in Montana, Tawny and Mike also celebrated another important milestone - nine years of life, love, and adventure shared together. "It's the greatest adventure of my life to love and be loved by you," Tawny shared on Instagram. "You're the only home I'll ever need."

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A Taste Of Community

But it wasn’t just their time alone that made the skoolie lifestyle so worthwhile. They also met many people who shared their sense of adventure, desire for freedom, and affinity for alternative living. Both on the road and via social media, meeting similar people was one of the most joyous aspects of tiny living.

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YouTube via Since We Woke Up

"Bus life is full of amazing people, ones who spend their time inspiring and encouraging and building others up," Tawny shared. "They say you become like the people you surround yourself with, so choose your friends carefully." But the couple didn't have to worry, as a truly beautiful community had formed around them.

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Wisdom For All

And the online community that embraced Mike and Tawny was no exception. They shared every aspect of the skoolie process, step-by-step, giving people around the world the opportunity to learn from and engage with their experiences. The couple garnered over 90,000 followers who were eager to follow their DIY journey.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

And for them, helping people was part of the goal. They wanted their blog to act as a useful resource, so that other aspiring skoolies could gain enough confidence to start their own journey. They shared financial tips and construction ideas and let people ask as many questions as they wanted.

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A Story To Share

It’s safe to say that all of the advice that Tawny had been sharing online quickly gave her a brilliant idea. It was clear that she and Mike had a special story, so why not share it with even more people? And thus, the next adventure started. She began writing a book about their skoolie experience!

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

Once the book was underway, she took to Instagram to share the news. "This book is, at times, a far cry away from the pretty photos you'll scroll through on the 'Gram," she wrote."It's the... sometimes painful story of how we upended the life we were told we should want for the one we actually did."

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Things Go Downhill

Tawny wasn't joking - there were plenty of hurdles thrown their way, both during and after the renovation. One of the worst moments came when Oliver was hit by the worst of a windstorm that "yanked our patio out of the ground and sent it crashing into the side of the bus and up over the deck," according to the duo.

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Instagram via @sincewewokeup

But Mike and Tawny found a way through it. "Thankfully, it looked much worse than it was, and we have set it right again," They shared. "This time with some additional reinforcements in case Mother Nature decides to treat us to an encore performance."

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An Answer for Everything

The truth was that Mike and Tawny McVay always found a way over any obstacle, no matter how high it might be. The windstorm incident brilliantly summed up the couple's optimism and resilience. It seemed that even the strongest storm couldn’t keep them down forever.

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But of course, that isn’t the end of their story. Mike, Tawny, and their bus Oliver are still on the road, living the dream and adventuring through the US. We wish them the best of luck, and will definitely be following their journey on their Youtube and Instagram channels, @sincewewokeup. We can’t wait for the memoir!

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