Start with a reputable dealer...You can buy machines, on line, on tv, from box stores, craigslist, but the best way to go, is through a reputable dealer. Most brands come with a warranty that is only good through the store you purchased it at. Almost all brands require dealers attend training and be certified on machines before they can sell them. This means that you are getting a knowledgeable sales and service department. Who wants to have to travel long distances to find a service center or mail a machine back for service.
Once you have a good dealer, now you need to know the right questions. A dealer can help qualify the right machine for your needs, but having an idea of what is important to you is a great way to get started.
What features will enhance your sewing experience?
1) Start with what type of sewing you like to do and let that help dictate the types of stitches you need. Garment sewing calls for blind hem, overcast, seam/overcast, basting, straight stitch, stretch stitches to name a few. Quilters are looking for multi-needle position straight stitches as well as good presser foot pressure controls to handle the larger bulk of quilting as well as the thinner needs of piecing, applique stitches and a simple lettering for making labels
2) Does weight matter? if you like to go to classes, or have to put your machine out each time you use it, then put it away when done. Then weight is a consideration. 11-13lb is light. Also make sure that the center of gravity when held by the handle makes it comfortable to carry.
3) What about size? Home Decorating and quilting (not the piecing, but the quilting part) require longer necks (distance between needle and the inside of the throat) to handle the bigger bulk. Most garment work requires a free-arm for working on armholes and pant legs more than they need a long neck.
4) What accessories does it come with? Many machines will come with the basics, some will throw in a lot of extras. But beware, sometimes all those extra feet are to hide the fact that the machine itself is a lower quality product. Check out how much the accessories you really need are so you can determine the true cost of the machine (just like buying a car, it is the cost of the car and the options you want).
5) Who to listen to? There are lots of consumer groups who rate sewing machines, but the question is, how are they rated? Some go to a store, ask for a machine with certain features and they take what they are sold. A price per feature (but only the features on the list) comparison is done and a winner awarded. This doesn't tell you if the machine is any good, just if the sales person did a good job on selling them a higher end machine then they needed. Check out some of the reviews that compare a $90 box store model with a $2,000 dealer model and the $90 model wins because it was cheaper. Without understanding the features and what makes a good machine these reviews do not always shed light. This is probably why in 2016 Consumer Reports announced that they were no longer reviewing sewing machines.
6) What about on-line groups? the first question here is, do you write on-line reviews, why and when? Most people read on-line reviews but few of us write them. There has been a lot of crackdown on reviewers disclosing when they are paid, but this is still a problem. Everyday groups tend to find like minded people so you will find a group that adore everything about a make or model, and then another group who hate it. Read everything with a grain of salt and look for common threads so you know what to ask about and what to try when testing out a possible purchase.
7) What are floor models and are the savings worth the risk? Floor models are not heavily used machines and most dealerships swap them out after only a few weeks or months. They are not frequently used and come with a full warranty. If you trust the dealership you can usually trust the savings you would get with a floor model. When you buy a car you check the mileage on it, and it is almost never the 1 or 2 miles required to get it from the factory to the dealership because it has been out for a test drive before. That 50-100 miles on the car in the sewing world would qualify it as a floor model. Just make sure that you get all of the accessories and that a technician has checked it out and certified it as in "good working order."
8) What about fancy features? Needle up/down (awesome for just about any stitcher, presser foot pressure control (needed if you want to sew a wide range of thicknesses), knee lift (lifts presser foot to pivot, only useful if you can hit the bar with your knee, not always useful for short legged people), electronic presser foot (love it or hate, try it to see if it is for you, good alternative to knee lift), scissors (the better the machine the longer they work, low end machines love to add this but they are not always durable), touch screen (test an interface, you either get it or you don't, just like you are an android or an ios person, find your preference), speed control (if you are a speed demon or a snail this feature is priceless), needle stop position (needle always stops up or down based on your selection, means no more having to jiggle the handwheel to end a stitch, worth its weight in gold). There are lots more, like laser guides and built-in scanners, but these are some of the most requested features.
As with everything in life there is always an amount you can afford and a price you are willing to pay. Decide how much ease of use and fancy features are important and how much pleasure you get from it. Sewing machines last 3 times (we found an average of 20 years) the length of time you keep your car (6 years). So even if you indulge and spend $12,000, If you keep your machine 20 years, that is $600 a year, less than $50 a month or $1.67 a day. That is not a lot to pay for the enjoyment and excitement a true enthusiast would get from a top of the line machine. So, pick what you can afford and make sure it has all the features you want!
Sergers and embroidery machines are another beast, we'll discuss them later. Hope this helped get your journey to a new machine off on the right foot.