Michael Talley was unhappy with the high cost of living in his home city, Austin, Texas. So he set out on a journey to turn a school bus into a tiny home! Keep reading to see the incredible transformation.
A Disenchanted Young Man
After years of renting an expensive apartment in Austin, young Michael Talley began to reconsider his life in the Texan metropolis. The cost of living was beginning to take its toll on him.
Every month Talley poured approximately $1200 of his paycheck into the studio apartment where he lived in the northern part of Austin. As a popular major city, the cost of living in Austin was particularly high. Michael knew he couldn’t live like this forever and badly needed to find a way to cut those costs.
A New Way Of Life?
But soon he had an idea. At that time the tiny house movement was gaining steam around the world, and Michael was paying attention. As a young creative working in graphic design and illustration, a more alternative lifestyle appealed greatly to him.
"I always wanted to build a tiny house and I always wanted to travel," he later admitted. "So I spent years playing around with tiny house designs in my spare time." It was then that he realized all the “playing around” was about to come in handy. Perhaps tiny house living was the solution to his current financial worries?
Just One Tiny Setback
It was true that he had spent a lot of time and effort learning the ins and outs of tiny house design and mocking up his own floor plans and ideas. But how did that translate to the real world? Could he build a real, physical tiny house structure on his own?
The truth was that Talley had zero prior experience building houses or anything else for that matter. “I've helped paint a few houses on mission trips and I helped install some plastic lattice once, but that's about it," he confessed. "I have never built anything." It would require a steep learning curve to make this dream work.
Weighing Up His Options
Looking for a way around these setbacks, Michael landed on the idea of a mobile home. He loved to travel and it would be easier than building a tiny house from scratch. But the typical RV was far beyond his budget - he needed something more affordable, a more bare-bones vehicle that he could renovate and build on to.
With those things in mind, Michael found an obvious solution. "Ultimately I decided upon a school bus because I thought, 'Hey, there's already four walls and a roof," he said. "Throw some wood and some light bulbs in there and call it a day." It was time to get the wheels in motion.
The Beginning Of The Dream
After a relatively short search, he found a decommissioned school bus that fit the bill. "I purchased the bus from the Austin Independent School District for a cool $2,200 off PublicSurplus.com," Talley said. The auction site had 10 identical buses for sale.
Michael was convinced he had snagged one because he got in early, and it was likely that very few people knew that the buses had been listed. Not only was he lucky enough to get the vehicle he was looking for, but the whole thing cost less than two months' rent!
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, as he had to get through an "exciting bidding war" first. But he came out on top, and things were looking more than promising for his future home. He felt giddy at the thought of starting his conversion project and was ready to jump straight in.
There was no denying that things were moving quickly. "I picked up the bus... and parked it temporarily at a used car dealer's back lot for $100 a month," Talley shared online. "It was only two weeks before this that I decided I wanted to do a bus conversion instead of a tiny house or RV." It seemed like nothing could go wrong…
But Michael was about to meet his first bump in the road. It was April and the excited dreamer finally got to look inside his new bus for the first time. It was then that he realized he’d potentially made a mistake. "As soon as I stepped onto the bus for the first time I knew me being 6'6" was going to be a huge problem."
That’s right - standing at a whopping 6’6, Michael was exactly 5 inches taller than the ceiling of his future home. Unless he wanted some serious back problems, there was no way he could live in the bus in its current condition. It was another considerable renovation that he’d have to take into account.
The amateur DIYer already had a huge amount of choices to make and design components to consider - extending the entire ceiling wasn’t ideal. But he added it to the list while he considered the many different designs he had come up with (including one that was even inspired by The Lost World: Jurassic Park!).
"I went through about a dozen floor plans for the bus," Michael recalled. They all had different priorities that changed the functionality of the bus - for example, a floor plan with a twin-sized bed that gave him more space for storage. After days of deliberating, he finally came up with the ideal design.
The Journey Begins
Michael made the sensible decision to settle on a floor plan that worked best for his personality and lifestyle. "I like to entertain, so I put all the public areas towards the front and all the private areas in the back," he explained. Even though he lived alone, he wanted a space that could cater to more than just himself.
"If having people over outside to grill or chill, the two most common areas they would need... would be the kitchen and the bathroom," he continued. After that, he also had to build a suitable workspace and find creative ways to build enough storage into his new home.
But First, The Seats!
And now it was time to dig into the actual renovation. The first step of converting the bus was to remove row after row of the seating that currently took up the length of the vehicle. Unfortunately, this process wasn’t quite as simple as Michael had anticipated.
He assumed it would be as easy as unscrewing the thousands of screws that connected the seats to the walls and floor. What he hadn’t realized was that safety precautions around building school buses meant they were also partially welded to the bus frame. To remove the seats he was going to have to cut them out…
“Terrified Of Power Tools”
It was a big task that Michael knew he couldn’t carry out on his own. He called his family and told them about the “grueling process” ahead of him. Thankfully his stepfather drove to meet him, and helped to systematically remove every seat from the bus, even going so far as to climb under the bus to remove the bolts by hand!
It was early days, but Michael was already experiencing setbacks due to his inexperience. "If I did this again I would have used an angle grinder, but... I was terrified of power tools," Talley recalled later. Once it was all complete, he had the remaining seat fixtures taken to a nearby scrap metal yard. Waste not, want not!
Onto The Ceiling
Now it was time to tackle the too-short ceiling. First, Michael had to remove the old insulation and reinsulate the bus well enough to keep his home warm. And once again the young man realized that his lack of building experience was going to be a significant setback.
"Removing these panels was the absolute worst," he later said. "But mostly because... I had never heard of an impact drill." As if that wasn’t enough, he discovered that the original insulation was actually in "remarkably good shape" and all that work was unnecessary. All he could do was mark it down as a learning experience.
Windows And Floors
Despite the setbacks, he was making progress! Next up came the floors and windows. Technically the floors didn’t need to be removed either, as they were still in good condition. But Michael had more personal reasons for replacing them - the rubber tiles reminded him too much of his school days.
The same had to be done to the windows as well, but for different (and more practical) reasons. "Part of me wanted to keep them," Talley said. "But I knew they would rattle, provide little privacy or insulation, and look weird with my roof raise and design."
Adjusting To His Height
Remember the huge discrepancy between Michael’s height and the height of the ceiling? Well, he certainly hadn’t forgotten. It was all too clear to him that he could never live comfortably in a house with such a low ceiling, but the prospect of raising the roof had “terrified” him. It was time to face the music.
Using the 3D modeling computer program SketchUp, he even designed his own rig for the roof! "I decided to use scaffolding instead of farm jacks because of cost, safety, and precision," he said of his decision. After a month of rigorous planning, he was ready to start one of the most daunting steps in the DIY process.
Slicing and Dicing
He set up his rig and prepared everything exactly. "Scaffolding ready, screw jacks in place, all that's left to do now is cut my bus in half!" he shared on his blog. Considering he had to slice right through his new home, it’s no wonder he later described this step as completely "nerve-racking."
With an immensely strong saw in hand, Talley began to slice straight through the ceiling, removing one of the “steel rib” dividers between two of the windows in the process. The steel rib would later be cut into pieces by a metal fabricator, to be used to reconnect the ceiling once it had been raised up.
The Lifted Ceiling
Now that he had sliced through the ceiling itself, it was time to complete the most important (and most stressful part) of the job. Michael had purchased steel extenders from a metal manufacturer and set up his scaffolding rig, and now he had to lift the ceiling to accommodate his height.
Just like with the seats, Talley knew he shouldn’t attempt the job on his own. So he called in a few friends to assist him. "Each one of us turned our respective jack in unison and raised the roof perfectly level in one try," he recalled. It had gone so much more smoothly than he expected that he had to breathe a sigh of relief.
Now that the roof was tall enough for him, the house bus was finally starting to come together. But unfortunately, it wasn’t even close to liveable yet. Since Michael couldn’t juggle both a $1200 monthly bill and the ongoing costs of the bus renovation, he had to find more affordable accommodation.
He knew just what he had to do. "I moved into a tent in order to save money while working on the bus, commuting 40 minutes to work every day just to afford more steel and wood,” Michael said. He was all-in on the project, and he knew he had to sacrifice to make it work. In his eyes, it would all be worth it in the end.
Risk And Hot Weather
But the ceiling procedure wasn’t finished yet. Michael now had to deal with the gaping spaces left behind between the new ceiling and its original place. He set to work using steel panels to build a new wall space to complete the frame of the house. The typical Texas weather and the new steel walls made the bus feel like an oven.
And the heat wasn’t the only side effect of this newest task… Michael also got his first work-related injury! "Got a sweet permanent scar on my forearm from when one of these steel sheets fell and sliced my arm open," he shared on his blog. But of course, the ambitious man didn’t let a scar faze him.
Small But Important Details
By now, Michael was getting very close to the fun stuff - setting up his home and installing all of the things that would make it liveable. But there were still some small but important details to complete before the bus would feel like more than a steel oven.
He needed to finish the floor, which meant pulling out all of the rubber matting and coating the remaining floor beneath with Rustoleum. He also took out his saw once again to cut holes in the bathroom and living rooms for new windows. The original windows in the bedroom and at the back of the bus would remain.
Once the windows were complete, providing a bit of much-needed circulation, he could finish off the insulation for the walls. Now the interior of the bus was a little cooler, making it feel less like an oven and much more like a breathable and liveable space.
As we know, the bus was still far from being a complete home. But it was very much a useable space, and Michael celebrated his progress by moving a coffee table and sofa cushions into the main living area. At least for a now, he had a space he could enjoy inside the half-finished house bus.
Work With A View
As we mentioned, one of the reasons Talley began building this house-bus was for the perk of being able to travel and see new places. And before the build was even finished he had the opportunity to do this: A farmer outside of the city had allowed Michael to transport his bus to the farm for free.
This meant that Michael had a beautiful view while he pottered away on the bus renovation, giving him a small taste of what tiny house living could bring him in the future. "I would regularly go sit on the roof of the bus... and watch the sunset over the Texas farmlands," he reminisced.
Finally, The Interior
It was official - the foundations of his new home had been set, and now he could develop the interior. First was the lounge-cum-“entertainment center.” As mentioned earlier, Michael was a social butterfly, and having a space for entertainment was important to him. He needed to find furniture for both the lounge and the kitchen.
He built a few wooden frames for kitchen appliances, then opted to buy some bargain IKEA cabinets and drawers. "Ikea phased out their old kitchen line and I got a hell of a deal," he exclaimed proudly. For a meager $30 he managed to kit out the kitchen of his new home!
Reuse And Recycle
And the bargain-hunting didn’t end there. Michael also found a low-cost solid butcher block that he used for much of the framing, particularly in the kitchen and entertainment center. All up he spent slightly more than $100 on all of the wood used for the interior.
When it came to the furniture he avoided buying anything new, reusing his old couch that had sat in his studio apartment for years. It didn’t quite fit into the smaller space so he dismantled it by taking off the arms, feet, and back. The base and cushions were repurposed into a smaller wooden frame that fit his new home perfectly.
Some Aesthetic Considerations
Though he kept everything low cost and rather basic to fit his budget, he knew he’d have to pay a little more time, attention, and money to get the aesthetic that he wanted for his new home. This was particularly clear when it came to the floors of the house-bus, and the kitchen backsplash.
Without any help Michael did some research on appropriate kitchen tiling and potential floor designs and finished both himself. "The only cosmetic design that I knew I wanted in the bus was dark hardwood floors, butcher block, and white subway tile with black grout," he said.
Working From Home
In order to live his tiny house dream, Talley had to give up a lot of creature comforts. But there was one absolute necessity that he couldn’t sacrifice - his workspace. As a freelance graphic designer, he needed a solid and comfortable working space where he could spend half of his time.
His solution was a large desk built out of reclaimed floorboard, set upon wooden cubes that could also be used to store his vinyl collection. He further took space into account by purchasing a foldable desk that could be stowed away whenever he wasn’t working. At 5 feet wide, it was the biggest workspace he’d ever had!
But it wasn’t all furniture and floor plans. Michael also had to set up systems to supply his new house with electricity and water. It was going to take up a little more space than he had expected, as he needed to fit a 40-gallon tank into the living room as well as a water pump, water heater, and a separate tank for greywater.
Next up was the electricity, which he set up via solar panels. “This was the most frustrating day of the build," Talley recalled of the long DIY process. "I was doing it myself, it was very windy, and things kept falling off of the roof." But there was more frustration yet to come…
Things Get Serious
At one point, the power steering on the bus was badly damaged when Michael accidentally got the house bus stuck in mud. After cutting his arm, struggling to install the solar, and causing serious damage to the engine of his new home, one would think that was the end of his troubles. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
He also took several blows to his personal life during the renovation process. "While I was building the bus I was cheated on, my dog died, I lost my job, my grandfather died, and Central Texas saw its wettest year in ages," he shared. And when Texas was hit by floods and hail storms, it’s a miracle he didn’t give up.
Keep Moving Forward
But giving up never occurred to him. He had faith that everything would be ok, and he would come through the experience with a new home, a healthier bank account, and a new lease on life. And the truth was that his new tiny home was shaping up to be even better than his studio apartment, and not just in a financial sense.
"All in all this will be a bigger kitchen than the apartment I currently lived in, the largest entertainment center I have ever owned, the largest desk I've ever had, and the same couch I'd had the past couple of years," Michael exclaimed to his followers. But with the upsides came some considerable downsides too.
A Few Setbacks
Looking back, one of the primary reasons Michael wanted to build his own portable tiny house was because of the travel potential, being able to explore the country while still enjoying his creature comforts. But unfortunately, the former school bus was not as road-worthy as he had hoped.
"The school bus is also a terrible vehicle to travel around the country in," Talley admitted. "It's bulky, expensive to operate, and expensive to service." After months of hard work and dreaming, this was a little disappointing. But he knew it was a small issue compared to the freedom he had gained.
Despite the setbacks, his dream had come true - even if it looked a little different than he had imagined. He had a lovely, liveable house that was, fully equipped and in some respects was better than all of Michael’s previous homes. The process may have been long and grueling, but it was undeniably worth it.
"I wouldn't change anything about [the bus]," he said proudly. Not only did he have a far more affordable home with more space, but he had picked up invaluable skills after spending months as an amateur builder. Those skills had even translated to his next dream - to build tiny houses for a living! We love to see it.