- Will Sutherland owns a “skoolie” Airbnb — a bus he bought for $1,000 and turned into a bedroom.
- Sutherland also hosts guests at a treehouse Airbnb he built himself.
- Combined, he makes as much money on Airbnb as he did at his old job. Now, he’s a host full-time.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Will Sutherland, who owns a “skoolie” Airbnb. It has been edited for length and clarity.
At the age of 27, I was a couple of years into being a first-time homeowner. I’d finished a ton of upgrades and repairs on my house, and I started to get the itch to find a new fun project.
I worked full time as an audio visual technician at Charlestown Races and Slots for 11 years. One day, during a work break, I was browsing through Craigslist and thinking about maybe getting a cool vehicle or something for a neat project. Then a school bus popped up on the screen.
I looked at it and thought, “Huh, maybe I could make some type of tiny house or camper out of it.” I googled the concept, and that’s the first time I learned the term “skoolie” — a school bus converted to a tiny house on wheels.
I was very early to the ‘skoolie’ trend 8 years ago
At the time, there were only a couple of buses for sale online. I’m pretty mechanically inclined, so I decided to take a chance on the listing. It ended up being an estate sale in Maryland, about two hours away from where I live in West Virginia.
I bought the bus for $1,000 and drove it home with the help of a friend who tagged along behind me in my car. It was my first time driving a school bus, and its top speed was 55 miles an hour.
In summer 2014, I launched into renovations on the bus
There wasn’t a lot to inspire my design because skoolies weren’t big yet, but I thought I could figure something out from what I saw.
I started by taking the seats out, which is one of the hardest parts. I eventually wrote a book about school bus conversions called “Skoolie!: How to Convert a School Bus or Van into a Tiny Home or Recreational Vehicle.” I wrote in it, “Once you finish removing the seats from your bus, pat yourself on the back. That’s a rite of passage right there.”
Once the seats were out, I put in some framing for a bed, a small wooden stove, and a table.
By October, I’d finished the conversion all by myself
I took the bus a few miles down the road to a Halloween party, and it was all the rage, so I realized I’d done something neat. A friend suggested I list the bus on Airbnb, which I’d never heard of before.
That Halloween party was the only thing I ever drove the bus to before I parked it and put it up on Airbnb. It was immediately booked at $40 a night.
While some school bus converters put in toilets and showers, I didn’t
So, for the next six and a half years, I shared my personal bathroom inside my 900-square-foot home with my guests.
At first, it wasn’t a big deal. I lived by myself, and I wasn’t in a relationship at the time. It was easy because I was at work most of the day, and people would just come and go. It led me to make some lifelong friends from all over the world.
When I first met my now wife, Sabrina, I said, “I know it’s awkward, but I need the income.” She was understanding and dealt with the traffic inside the house, including the bathroom being shared at all hours of the night next to our bedroom. It was a unique experience to have so much faith in other people.
I’ve really made an effort to nicely upgrade the bus over the years
It now has 40 amps of electricity and a better heating system. It has a queen-sized bed — originally it was a double — mini fridge, better flooring, privacy curtains, and a porch on the side.
It still has the wooden stove, and a lot of my guests like to go out and split wood and bring pieces in to start a fire. They get satisfaction from that, which makes me happy.
The ‘Skoolie’ is listed as being able to hold three guests
I usually get couples, but some bring kids. I added a sofa that a kid can sleep on. Most kids are so excited to stay in such a unique space.
Some guests will also set up a tent outside on the grass, which I’m fine with. It’s also dog friendly, so that definitely is appealing to a lot of people, too.
That first full year of listing it on Airbnb, I made a ballpark of $4,500 to $5,000
I’d spent a total of $2,500 to buy and build out the bus. The bus kept my head above water, and the income helped me chip away at my debt, including student loans.
My initial goal was to get 10 great reviews. Once I got that, I started bumping the price. By the spring of 2015, I increased the price to $59. It stayed there for years.
Eventually, I had to bump up the price more because there was so much demand
I was honestly trying to cut back on how much traffic the bus saw because I was coming home nearly every day on my lunch break to clean for the next guest. I knew that I was eventually going to get caught doing that.
Once I raised the price a little bit, the clientele changed from being a lot of young students who would sometimes have parties to people that were closer in age to myself and my wife. Now the bus is set for about $89 a night, which fluctuates based on the season.
I use Airbnb’s auto-pricing, so the prices change based on demand. Occasionally, I’ll see that someone is paying $120 a night for the bus. May and September have pretty routinely been solid months for income. October, November, January, and February are pretty slow.
I now have 2 Airbnbs — the skoolie and a treehouse
A treehouse had been one of the first things I’d thought of when I initially walked around my four-acre property, before even I bought the house. I built the treehouse myself.
My combined income from the school bus and my other Airbnb last year was $50,000. The bus made around $18,000 to $20,000. The treehouse was at least $30,000, and I’m on track to get almost the exact same income this year.
I started making enough money from Airbnb to quit my job
I now have a lot more time to help friends and family with projects, and to daydream about new things I want to make. I also get to see them come to fruition sooner than I used to with my full-time job.
It does take a lot of time to maintain my property to get good reviews. People complain about very insignificant things, like how “the grass was slightly long.” In some ways, it’s actually helped me identify what I can do to be a better host.
I want to provide the best possible experience for people. Half of it is what the host does, like how they communicate and the steps that they take to make guests feel really cared for.
Now, I want to start flipping school buses
I built another “Skoolie” for me and Sabrina to travel in, and we’re keeping our eye out for short buses that we can purchase at auction and flip, maybe two or three at a time.
My plan is to gut and insulate buses by adding new floors and decks for solar power, which would cost around $10,000, and then I would sell it for about $15,000. I think that would add about $30,000 or $40,000 a year to my income.
I’d really like to maintain a balance. I want to enjoy working on my projects while also being a host at the same time. I approach every day with the goal of helping someone, doing something for myself, doing something for my property, for my family, and doing something fun but productive.
Every day, I try to check each of these boxes off. That’s where the real wealth is in my life.