Bernina 3-series if you can swing it these are a great place to start
Shopping for a sewing machine is a bit like shopping for a car, you are there to compare Sewing machines for what they can do for you. You are looking for the right number of features at the right price with the right support/reputation you can feel good about. Also much like buying a car there are price points all over the map and it can be very hard but when you can only afford a Hyundai don't test driving a Jag since anything after that is going to be disappointing to say the least.
I am a VERY firm believer is paying cash for your sewing machine ( your dealer will not feel the same way- nor will they love me for telling you this). If you have to charge it you can't afford it- simple. Same for goes with buying your machine on any one of the zillion extended payment plans that are out there... just don't do it. You are going to feel so much better about your purchase if it is yours free an clear. If that means buying less machine right now.. so be it. - End of lecture..eerrrr almost. Once more thing, be very clear with yourself and your sales person about how much you can afford to spend and stick to it, don't look at machines out of your range, don't ask to see them or sew on them. Get what you can afford now, save up some more cash and then upgrade.
Next- make a chart so you can compare machines/ specials and features so you can make your best choice after you have had time to think about what it is you want to do with a machine. Come with your desires in mind. You want to quilt, you want to make baby clothes, you want to make purses, you want to sew horse blankets- whatever. Spend some time to think about his, and create you comparison chart based on these factors.
Bring your own fabric(s) cut into 4 inch wide strips of about 20-30ish inches in length... yes I know they have those little sample squares to sew on... here is the deal, shhhhh they don't want you to know this. Those handy sample squares would make ANY machine look good. They are starched paper stiff which makes them sew perfectly.. when was the last time you wore anything made of to stiffened muslin?- bring a white woven cotton, a knit, fleece if you sew it.. cord, silky stuff.. whatever.. zip lock bags filled with sample strips for each machine.. put the strips back in that bag and label it as to which machine it was. Please note- they are NOT going to like this but it's your right to try out the machine to see how it really sews and this is VERY worth doing.
Ok, time to shop! Pick a time when the shop you want to visit is most likely not to be busy. Avoid Saturday mornings, they are awful for any type of dedicated service. Go in (WITHOUT KIDS IN TOW) and introduce yourself and tell them that you are looking for a sewing machine in the $XXX.00 or lower price range and you are wanting to sew baby clothes with it ( or whatever).. remember stay in your price range or a bit below ( you are going to want some extras)
Sit down at the machine and let them tell you about it, just listen, look at the features and ask for a sales guide for it. If the features match those you want, take it for a spin using your own fabric. Ask about the features I mentioned in the previous post . Cost?.. any special? what sorts of accessories are available?
Do this with at least 3 machines but not more than 5 in a day, weeding as you go based on need, comfort, design, and your understanding of the machine ( some machines are just odd).. there is only so much you can take in at once. If you need come back for a second visit giving yourself time and permission not to be in a hurry about this. You need to feel good about this machine and that will not happen with a rushed choice.
Please note- if you are just learning to sew or have never sewn before this whole thing is much more difficult and you can sort of be at the mercy of sales people. I highly suggest taking a sewing -friendly person with you on your adventure so that they can help you sort out fact from BS ( just sayin!)
Tomorrow, my highly opinionated view of which machines I would buy and why