Game Day Getaway

Hotel headaches and travel trouble led one Mobile family to the ultimate DIY project: a complete school bus makeover.

Finn Swann enjoys his home away from home as much as his family does. // Photos by Summer Ennis Ansley

SEC Football is a much-talked-about topic in South Alabama, both off-season and on. Its importance is evident as nearly every hotel, Airbnb and VRBO near the University of Alabama or Auburn University is booked on game day, often filling up well before then. When it comes time to find somewhere to stay in Tuscaloosa while visiting their two daughters on campus, Jennifer Ervin and George Swann don’t have to look beyond the converted school bus parked on their property nearby.

It wasn’t always that way. Taking on a bus redo was a matter of necessity. “We were visiting our college daughters frequently and it was hard to find decent rental units unless booking months in advance,” says Jennifer. “We were spending a fortune. The girls also wanted us to bring our dog, Finn, which limited our options even further.” At first, the couple thought they might build a tiny home or an Airstream on their property in Tuscaloosa. But a scroll through Pinterest planted another idea. “My daughters and husband started seeing a lot of cute Pinterest boards on refurbished school buses called ‘skoolies,’ so we went with that,” she says. Last November, they found a 36-foot middle school bus in Massachusetts that was the perfect fit. George flew up to Boston, took an Uber to the bus and drove the school bus back over a few days. “That was a lot more effort than expected,” says Jennifer. “The roads were bad, and the bus doesn’t go very fast. It was also super cold inside.” Eventually, the bus — and George — made it safely to their backyard on Fearnway Street. 

The redo was the definition of a DIY project, but with George’s experience in home renovations and Jennifer’s engineering expertise, they weren’t fazed. “George was very dedicated and did nearly all the work!” says Jennifer. “I mainly helped with design layout, and the details and softscapes that make a house a home.” From the beginning, the husband-and-wife team knew that they wanted the bus to not just be a place to stay, but also be a place they enjoyed, hosting their daughters and their friends as well. The balance of inviting and functional, with all the creature comforts of home, might be hard to strike on a middle school bus. So, the couple got to work. 

The bus remained parked in their backyard for several months while renovations were being made, which included removing the rows of seats inside, drilling in some places, sanding in others, all aimed at bringing their overall vision to life. The finished bus sports an astonishing amount of progress, especially stunning given the fact that all the work was accomplished in only three months. At the front of the bus, the couple installed a fully functional kitchen, complete with a dishwasher, oven, and full-sized refrigerator and freezer, the latter of which is Jennifer’s favorite feature. Sofas that double as beds when needed create a cozy gathering area at the front. “We envisioned the girls taking friends for a night away from campus, so we put in two extra-long banquet sofas with storage under that convert to beds for even the tallest friends,” says Jennifer. In the bathroom, George installed a full-size tiled shower, and a marble-topped vanity and toilet. In the back of the bus sits a comfortable queen-size bed; though it might have a limited space in which to fit, the placement feels like a purposeful use of space, coming off as anything but cramped. The couple also added an air conditioner as well as heated floors, making for comfortable temperatures all year long. The bus’s function as a stationary dwelling space worked in the couple’s favor. “We knew we’d leave the bus hooked up to regular power, water and septic, more like a little house than a motor home, so we did not retrofit it with a battery and water or refuse tanks to be able to travel around in it, which saved us some extra space,” says Jennifer. The outside of the bus was transformed from the classic yellow school bus color and painted a light sage green, with the top half painted white. “The green paint color I picked blends into the lovely woods on the property,” says Jennifer. The bus also includes internet, cameras, Wi-Fi speakers and a fold-down TV. All in all, the result is less cramped van life and more luxury-vehicle living.

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Clockwise from top left The kitchen and living area is a warm welcome. Removing rows of seats was the first renovation step. A real bathroom vanity fosters a homelike feel. School-bus yellow was swapped for a calming green.

In February, the couple drove the bus up to Tuscaloosa, where it remains parked on their property, fully stocked and ready to welcome them to their home away from home. “We stay there most of the time when we come to Tuscaloosa,” says Jennifer, “and girls can take friends ‘bus-camping’ in the woods, as it sleeps four.” They added patio string lights and a firepit outside, making it even more inviting and perfect for entertaining. “We keep thinking of little upgrades,” says Jennifer. “We added two hammocks and a picnic table, and are planning to put a big livestock watering trough in to use as a little plunge pool in the future.”

Now, when the pair travels up to Tuscaloosa to visit their kids, the finished DIY project sits proudly in the middle of their land, ready to welcome them onboard for a stay. “It is so fun to drive through the woods and see the bus and its twinkly lights at the top of the road,” says Jennifer.

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