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Life on a bus

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Nate and Jessica Totten in front of their converted bus.  Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez
Nate and Jessica Totten in front of their converted bus. Photos by Jonathan D. Lopez

By Lydia Zilinsky – Collegiate Staff

Driving across the country in an old faded yellow school bus might seem like an odd plan to make, but what if everything you own and love is in the bus with you? All the perks of a house within 38 feet, plus the mobility and convenience of a vehicle gives a twist to this modern home.

Professional photographers Nate, 28, and Jessica, 26, Totten began an adventure this summer that few have experienced. Many people tire of paying rent, dislike the idea of settling down and buying a house, and wish for more time to travel and the freedom that comes with it, but never change anything about their current lifestyle. After considering these options and more, the Tottens finally discovered another way. By converting a Bluebird bus into a permanent home on wheels.

They started researching the idea over the summer and, after looking at Tiny Houses and mobile homes, they discovered school buses are heavier and much cheaper, and durable as they are built out of steel. They bought their beloved bus, Ruby, on July 14 after finding it through Craigslist, right outside of Grand Rapids. The bus was in good mechanical condition, and only had 120,000 miles, and already had a few renovations from being used as a camper. With the seats already out, new counters, seating, basic waterlines already in place, and at only $4,300 it was a deal too good to resist.

The Tottens quickly got to work converting the bus into a home. They repurposed the counters, added a new sink, upgraded the water pump, isolated the floors and walls, took out the four bunk beds that were in the back and replaced the space with a closet, a laundry area, and a bathroom and shower area.

“This was going to be our full time living space, so we wanted it to be cozy,” Nate said of the renovation process.

The Tottens have only been living in their bus full time since October, but looking around nothing is lacking. From walking in through the sealed door like you would see on any house, there is all the decor of a welcoming home. A table and chairs sit past the entry, across from extra couch seating which converts into a spare bed.

Inside the compact lavatory is a composting toilet.  Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez
Inside the compact lavatory is a composting toilet.

The next area has a full kitchen with a sink, refrigerator, stove, oven, and plenty of cabinet space. Heading back, there is a toilet area on the right, run completely by compost to avoid using extra running water.

Next to it is a shower, and past that is a washer and dryer. On the left is a closet that runs along the wall to the back bedroom. The bed is lofted to create extra storage space underneath, and surrounded by curtains to ensure the privacy of a traditional homey bedroom.

The bus' DC to AC power converter.  Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez
The bus’ DC to AC power converter.

The electric system is able to reach 30 amps at full capacity when plugged in to an outside source. There is also a converter system which runs off of battery power for shorter periods. This allows them to park overnight if they decide to camp out in the woods, but also to be able to plug in and stay for longer periods. Their hope is to eventually add solar panels and have it run off the same system.

The Tottens also installed a water pump and water heater. A fresh water tank is filled up and goes through the heater to the kitchen, bathroom sink and shower.

There is plenty of storage space in each intentional piece of furniture. The process of moving in took time, but once they were in, everything seemed to have a place.

“Up until we moved in, we had no idea if all our stuff was going to fit,” Jessica said, “We just started putting stuff in, and for about three months put everything we didn’t need online, had a garage sale, or gave and threw stuff away until it came down to everything we needed and wanted. It all seemed to fit.”

The total spent on the bus and all the renovations is just over $10,000. With selling old furniture and excess items no longer needed, they were able to pay for each project in progress. It was important to the Tottens to pay for it all in cash and up front, leaving a debt free start to their next season.

Although the idea sounded crazy at first to the couple’s family and friends, everyone grew to be excited for their journey and worked to help in every way possible. From the curtains hand made by Jessica’s mother, and the benches made by their neighbors, to the water and electric systems built by Nate’s father, there are pieces to remind them of friends and family wherever their travels lead.

The Tottens current plans are to venture across the country to Portland, Oregon, where Jessica’s siblings live. They fell in love with the city on a previous trip and realized it was where they want to be. They already have a permanent parking place in the city where they can plug in their generator and stay year round. They plan to keep the bus stationary, besides using it on road trips, in order to keep it in good shape for as long as possible. Nate also has a job set up there with his photography and videography work. They want to stay in Portland, but like the idea of being able to travel over the summer and take small trips all around whenever they can.

As they prepare for the trip to Portland with their two cats, Puppy and Effie, the couple reflects on their progress so far and their favorite aspects of bus life.

“It’s just an adventure. I don’t know if that will wear off,” Jessica said, “I think I just like the fact that this is our home and we own it. We put a lot into it, in just labor and hours and sweat and blood.”

It is evident they have worked hard to get every detail finished and now finally get to enjoy it.

“I can’t believe we’re at this point honestly,” Nate said. “The last three months have been crazy, just deciding to do it, then actually buying the bus, and then renovating it. We didn’t know what we were getting into really.”

Nate and Jessica Totten nestled in their main room aboard Ruby.
Nate and Jessica Totten nestled in their main room aboard Ruby.

The Tottens are full of enthusiasm for their future journey and plan to keep updating their home and continue the adventure transitioning from their travels to living in it permanently.

“It’s hard work, “ Jessica said to anyone else thinking of creating a bus home of their own. “Make sure you have people around you who are supporting you, at least one other person. Find the motivation and stay positive and if you want to do it, do it. It’s worth it in the end, when you finish your goal.”

The concept of bus converting is becoming more popular, as more people learn new ways to improve this lifestyle. Many post updates online and are able to share their ideas and tips for renovations with each other. The Tottens have documented their bus conversion progress on their blog alltherottenthings.com, and plan to continue sharing their story as they make the move west, and continue on their adventures.

“It’s so cliché, but I feel like if we can do it, anyone can do it,” Nate said. “I did not ever think that this would be part of the plan, but I’m glad it has happened.”