Well, this was a bit of a disappointment. Quick summary: bus I looked at has a good engine, transmission, tires, and is in good condition. However, it's a bit shorter than I was looking for, and the owner's asking price is three times what it's worth.
I drove up to the place in Idaho today to look at the buses. It turns out that these are retired fire crew buses. I don't know if that's good or bad in general, but it would save me having to remove the school bus signs and painting it can wait a while.
The guy showing me the bus is the one who maintained them when they were in use for ferrying firemen around, so he knows well the entire maintenance history of the buses. He says that they were very well maintained, and while that is what you'd expect a seller to say, I tend to believe him.
It was about mid 20s in temperature there today, which wouldn't be too bad, except that there was also wind blowing somewhere between 20 and 30mph. It was very cold, and I didn't want to stay out in that long, so I didn't do much in the way of inspecting the buses. I just looked at one bus instead of several, and didn't go through my whole checklist.
The bus I looked at was one from a set of 3 similar buses. They are flat nosed front engine buses, model years 1988 or 1989. The guy showing the bus to me said a couple times that they are 40', but I don't think that's correct. There are 12 windows, which would imply to me that there is 29 or 30 feet behind the driver's seat, for a total length of 35' or less.
These have Cummins 5.9 engines and MT643 transmissions. The rear axle gear ratio is 4.33, which I think is a fairly good ratio for driving on the highway, right? The particular bus I looked at had 157,000 miles on the odometer. The tires look to be in really good shape. There's even a spare tire and wheel on board the bus (though the spare looks a lot more worn). There's almost no rust on the bus; just a tiny bit of surface rust on the underside.
These buses have been sitting for a couple of years. The battery in the one I looked at was dead, so a fresh battery was fetched. The bus took a few tries to start (maybe about 6?), and I was told that this was because of the cold. Does this seem reasonable for a bus that's been sitting awhile and is in mid-20s weather?
The bus started with a brief cloud of black smoke, which dissipated rapidly. After that the exhaust looked pretty clean. Reasonable if the bus has been sitting a while, right?
Unfortunately, it only ran for a couple of minutes before the engine died -- out of fuel! They must have emptied the tank at some point, so only the dregs were left. I was disappointed that I was not able to try driving the bus, or even see it move. A favorable test drive will of course be required before I offer to buy a bus.
Up to this point, everything seemed pretty favorable. The only issue is that the buses are a few feet shorter than I really wanted, but everything else looked so good that I was willing to overlook that. The biggest surprise came when I inquired as to the asking price: $7500! That's about 3 times what I would estimate the bus is worth, based on the auctions I've been watching recently.
I'm thinking of making an offer: $2250 for the bus as is (contingent upon favorable test drive and more through inspection), or $2750 if they can do a couple of additional things for me, including installing a trailer hitch so I can tow my car home, and giving me some bus driving lessons. I kind of doubt that they will accept an offer which is 1/3 of the current price, though. Does it sound reasonable to everyone here, though?
Here are pictures of the bus: