This is part of a series on using a bus or coach as a bug out vehicle. If you arrived here from a search engine or link, you might like to consider starting your reading at the first article in the series, and then working through the complete series in sequence. But you’re of course free to roam through the series in any order you wish. Links to all the parts are at the end of this article.
We hate buying used cars, indeed, one of the major reasons we sometimes buy new cars is to avoid the unpleasantness of buying a used car, and to spare ourselves the subsequent weeks of anxiety, fearing that we’ll discover all sorts of problems with the car shortly after having bought it.
Fortunately, if you’re buying a cheap second-hand car, there’s a limit to the amount of money at risk. Worst case scenario, you sell it for not much less than what you paid for it, and so you’re only out-of-pocket maybe a few thousand dollars. However, if you buy a used bus for, say, $20,000, and with the much more illiquid market for used buses, your total exposure is much greater – you can’t easily and quickly ‘flip’ a bus if you realize you made a mistake. Not only can most parts on a bus cost a great deal more than on a passenger car to start with, there are many more parts and systems to maintain on a bus than on a car.
This article is not intended to be a step by step complete list of everything to look out for, to check, and to inspect, when buying a used bus. We will link to some articles with some of that material, but the ultimate bottom line has to be ‘hire experts to check out a bus before you buy it’.
How Much Does a Used Bus Cost?
This is probably one of your first questions, and understandably so. Used buses vary in price the same as do used cars – it depends on the make/model, its age and condition, and all the other sorts of things, very much the same way that used car prices vary, too.
However, some things are not exactly the same as with cars. You don’t need to be quite so sensitive to the miles a bus has been driven or even its calendar age – some buses (eg MCI brand) claim to have been designed for 30 year and 3 million mile lives, and could of course continue to be maintained beyond that point, too. So whereas passenger cars are starting to get past their prime at, say, 150,000 miles and ten years, for a commercial coach, it might be just getting into its prime at that point.
It is common for coaches, as the years and miles pass, to have either new engines and transmissions installed to replace worn engines, or major overhauls which are almost as good as new engines, greatly extending the lives of their power plants. Interiors may have been completely redone, too, making an old coach a bit like an old axe – it is an old axe, but the handle has been replaced a couple of times, as has the head too!
How long does a diesel motor last? Some manufacturers actually quote statistical time periods – for example, the B50 life, which means that is the point where there is a 50% chance the engine will need major work done on it. That’s not the same as a certainty, though, and major work isn’t the same as saying it needs to be replaced.
The actual life varies depending on whether it is worked hard and stressed, or if it has an easy duty cycle, is not stressed, and spends most of its time on long runs cruising at steady speed and moderate throttle settings. So you can’t really guess whether an engine with, say, 10,000 hours on it is near the end or the beginning of its life (but we mention some techniques, below, that will give you a reasonable idea).
You’ll find buses for sale from under $10,000 up to over $100,000, and you’ll probably find one that is ideal for your requirements in the $20,000 – $50,000 price range.
That is either a lot of money or very little money, depending on your perspective. Spread it over 20 or 30 people, and it is perhaps $1000 per person, and maybe $100 a year (again per person) for insurance, maintenance, storage, occasional test drives, etc.
Used buses are an extraordinary bargain. You might find yourself getting a good condition used bus for only 1% or 2% of its new replacement cost; how often can you say the same thing about a car? That would be like buying a car for $500, in good condition and with half its life still remaining, with its new price at $50,000.
The reason for this is that after a certain point, used buses are no longer of interest to commercial bus operators, and the only other market for them are the ‘bottom feeders’ – social groups looking for bargain priced transportation for their members, and private individuals wanting to convert a bus chassis into a custom motor home. So you really can get a great deal and a great value on a used bus, but please see our section further below for advice on how to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.
The most important thing to remember is that bus owner/operators tend to sell them for a different reason than car owners sell their cars. Car owners might sell a perfectly good car, just because they want a newer/better car. Bus owners tend to keep their buses longer, and are more likely to wait until some costly repair item comes due and then decide that rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars extending the life of their old bus, they’ll buy a new bus instead.
That’s not the only reason buses are sold – sometimes companies go out of business, or lose a contract and so downsize their fleet, and sometimes they decide to standardize on a particular model of coach, or maybe they feel a need for largely cosmetic upgrades, and find it easier to finance new buses than to pay to gut and rebuild an older coach’s interior to modern state of the art standards.
Our point here is important. Used buses are more likely to have incipient or actual problems than used cars. If you’re buying a used bus directly from its owner, ask him to his face ‘Why are you selling this bus’ and see if you get an honest answer or not. Some used buses will be perfectly good and exactly as they are described, but others will have obscured problems and it will be up to you to find them.
Negotiating the Price Down
One more thing about price. As we mentioned above, the market for used buses is somewhat ‘illiquid’. By that we mean that it might take a while for a bus to sell – much longer than it might take for a car to sell. What that means is that the price of a used bus is probably more negotiable than the price of a used car. See what you can do to drive the price down.
The seller will of course have a realistic idea of what the bus is worth to ‘the right buyer’, but he also will understand that the coach will be worth much less to someone who isn’t the ‘right’ buyer – someone who wants a coach, but who wants a coach bigger or smaller than his coach, with more features or with fewer features, a newer coach or an older coach, and so on. Not only will the seller understand how much the coach is worth to the right buyer, he’ll also understand how it is not a perfect match to people looking for other types of coaches, and if you present yourself as someone looking for a different sort of coach, he then will understand that he either has to discount the price of his coach to adjust its value to match the different parameters you are looking for, or lose you as a potential buyer and keep waiting for the right buyer to stumble across him and his coach.
His worst case scenario is probably selling it to someone who wants to convert the coach to a motorhome. All they want is the chassis and engine. The next to worst case is selling it to a school or church for short excursions – they’re mainly looking for low price (and possibly lots of seats) rather than any upgrades.
Due to the illiquid nature of the used coach marketplace, and depending on the degree of eagerness to sell on the part of the seller, they may be willing to discount more than you’d expect to get their bus sold, but only if they perceive that it isn’t the bus you’re looking for. This is quite different to cars. A five – ten year old used four door four-cylinder car is more or less generic, isn’t it, and, apart from variations to do with mileage and condition, they all tend to sell for much the same price to much the same people. And a dealer knows if he doesn’t sell the car to someone today, there’ll be someone along tomorrow he can hope to sell it to instead.
But with coaches, the potential buyers may be far and few between, and the features of each coach varies widely from that of other coaches for sale. While a broker/dealer will be able to respond by offering you different coach configurations that are also for sale on his lot, if you are dealing directly with someone who has one coach for sale, he might be willing to adjust the price to compensate for the features you tell him his coach is lacking.
Keep in mind also that coach dealers/brokers usually charge a 15% or so commission when they sell a coach on behalf of a client. If you cut out the middle man, you should benefit from at least some of that saving.
So, do we need to tell you this? Whenever you’re looking at a coach, you need to wear your best poker face. It isn’t just ‘OPSEC’ that imposes a ‘do not disclose’ restriction on your ability to fully explain what you’re looking for. It is not wanting to let on what is important and valuable to you.
You need to show an open-minded intelligent interest, but never let on if there is anything that you like and which is important to you. Treat those things as ‘so who cares’. If you discover it has extra long-range tanks fitted, your response would be ‘but who wants to weigh the coach down with all that extra diesel when there are gas stations every 10 or 20 miles’ – even though that’s a tremendously positive feature for your requirement.
And if you uncover something the coach doesn’t have, then play that up.
Of course, you don’t want to show yourself as a lost cause, or else the seller won’t try as hard as he could. Make it clear that all problems can be solved by an adjustment in the selling price, and then see exactly how much of an adjustment you can secure.
Things to Look For
There are some things you can understand and evaluate yourself, and other things you’ll need expert advice on, when it comes to appraising a bus.
The first thing you want to see is a complete maintenance history for the bus. Keep in mind that any maintenance records and receipts that don’t show the bus’s serial number need to be considered skeptically – how do you know that the work relates to the bus you are considering, rather than to another bus? You can sort of get an idea if the time of the repair and the mileage shown on the repair paperwork is consistent with other paperwork for other repairs at other times, but it is less persuasive than ‘proper’ records that show serial numbers.
You’ll get a feeling from the maintenance history as to what has gone wrong, what goes wrong regularly, and what the repair costs are. Don’t forget to adjust up costs for repairs dating back five or ten years to reflect today’s higher costs. That will help you form a realistic expectation of what your ongoing costs may be.
It is also interesting to see if the vehicle has had any major parts replaced or reconditioned. If the engine was replaced, is the new engine the same make/model as the original? Or is it less powerful? Or maybe more powerful?
You should also follow through the ownership history on the bus, and don’t be afraid to call past owners and ask them why they sold the vehicle. Was it a good or bad vehicle while in their service? Was it in any crashes? And so on.
You should ascertain who in your area could work on your bus for you, and check with them about their experience with that model of bus. Is it a known good or bad model? Are spare parts readily available? Are they more or less expensive to work on and repair than other buses? In our opinion, lack of local service/support, and difficulties getting spare parts are deal breaking issues. They will greatly increase the cost of the coach’s maintenance, and the length of time that even a simple issue takes it out of service. Even worse, if you have the bus fail to function, if you are then up either for towing charges to a further away service location, or having to pay to have a mechanic travel some distance to go work on your coach, you can guess at the negative implications of either of those situations.
Ask for copies of oil analyses that have been done on the bus. An oil analysis tells you as much about the condition of a bus’s engine as does a blood test tell a doctor about the state of your general health. While they are seldom/never done on passenger cars, they are a regular part of maintaining a diesel engine, and you should have an expert interpret the recent oil analyses on the bus you’re interested in buying. Get a new analysis done, too, for the most up-to-date information.
If the seller can’t show you past oil analyses, that tells you either they are hiding something or else they didn’t care enough about the bus’s preventative maintenance as to have them done.
At about this stage, you should also speak to an insurance broker and find out what the likely costs of insurance will be. Is it a more expensive than normal model to insure? A less expensive than normal? If it is either, find out why (if possible). Or is there a reason why it can’t be insured at all?
What is the remaining life on the tires, and how much will it cost for new tires?
Is it a ‘Project’ Bus
Is this a bus you can drive off the lot and use, exactly as it is (apart from any specific enhancements you’ll need to do to any bus you might choose), or is this a bus that will need some work done to it before it can be relied upon to work as needed and required?
Some people will happily buy ‘project’ houses and cars, either because they enjoy working on such projects, or perhaps because, due to their skills and expertise, they believe they can make a decent profit by fixing them up and selling them on.
We admire such people, and wish them good fortune doing such things, and some people have a very nice sideline and income-boost from doing exactly this.
But unless you have skills working on diesel engines and power trains and associated equipment, and working on bus bodywork and all the other fixtures and services on a modern coach, you should not consider taking on a project to upgrade and repair a ‘project’ bus. You’ll find it could become a massive time drain, you’ll find you need additional specialty tools and equipment, and of course each week that the bus is in pieces while you work on it is also a week that you don’t have your bus available for instant deployment if you should suddenly need to bug out.
We strongly recommend you choose a bus that needs the minimum of work to bring it to a high standard of reliability and availability. You will surely find it better to pay a bit more money up front for a reasonably known quantity and quality of bus, rather than save a bit of money to start, then spend countless hours over countless weeks, and countless thousands of dollars, for however long into the future.
One of the things about a ‘project’ bus is that it has probably been neglected in all its different systems for some time. Remember that a coach is a bit like a boat – they are both traveling towns. They have their own electrical and electronic systems, water systems, sewer systems, and of course, all the mechanical and other engineering issues too. There’s a great deal more that can (and does) go wrong on a bus than on a passenger car, and fixing things can be much more complicated and awkward (and, of course, expensive).
A Formal Inspection
At about this point, you are starting to get a feeling for the bus and its condition and its value. If all looks good, now you’ll need to get a formal bus inspection, where you hire an expert mechanic/appraiser to work through the bus, checking and testing all its systems. You of course want the engine and transmission checked, plus the electrical system and air conditioning. But that’s not all, you also want the frame and suspension and coach work all inspected too – sometimes a bus’s life is limited not by its engine, but by its frame and rust problems.
We’ve sometimes had such inspections where the inspector has ended his inspection early, listed a dismaying list of problems he’s found, and ending with the recommendation that we not waste any more time on his inspection or on the bus at all. Other times, we’ve had inspectors come with a moderate list of issues and a recommendation to proceed to use the list of issues to negotiate the purchase price, and to buy with confidence because the coach is basically clean and in good condition. Or perhaps they can notice areas where there have been poor quality repairs, neglected problems and deferred maintenance items, and can warn that it is likely to be expensive to maintain in the future.
We’ve always learned something from these inspections, and we’ve always been able to use the results to help us negotiate the price down – the inspections pay for themselves directly that way, and more besides, plus they give you peace of mind.
When you have the inspection done, don’t just accept a written report; spend time talking about the coach with the bus inspector. He’ll have seen lots of buses, of course, and can put the overall condition and quality of this particular bus into perspective – is it about the same as all the others of a similar age and price, is it better, or is it worse?
He can also give you a feeling for if it has been a well-cared for bus or not. In particular, he can tell you if there are obvious examples of deferred maintenance items piling up, or if the bus has been regularly maintained with everything that needs doing being done when required.
Here’s a useful checklist of issues to consider when buying a bus; indeed the site has a lot of good content on it.
The most important things for you are a reliable frame and power train. You don’t need the fancy interior upgrades so much; and you want a nondescript bus rather than one which shouts ‘luxury’. From this point of view, an older (but not unusually old) bus is probably better and more discreet than a nearly brand new bus with glossy white paint gleaming in the sun.
Where to Buy a Used Bus
Where does anyone buy anything these days? The internet, of course. While Amazon doesn’t sell used buses, eBay certainly does (at the time of writing, they had 246 used buses listed). We really like the ability to see historical details on past auctions on eBay – both to see what prices buses actually sell for, and also to see what buses don’t get sold. That helps us get a better feeling for values and market demand.
There are other specialty bus-selling sites on the internet such as this one, and then there are regional bus broker sites as well (here’s one that covers the Pacific Northwest, and it has a link to a related site in Las Vegas too). We occasionally even find buses on Craigslist.
Please Continue Reading Our Bus Series of Articles
This is part of a broader series of articles on the concept of using a bus as a bug-out vehicle. You can see our other articles, conveniently linked below, and of course, we have plenty of other articles on the broader subject of bugging out as well.
Part 0 – Introduction
Part 3 – Things to Consider When Buying a Bus/Coach