Hi wildguy! I'd first suggest you do a search of this forum on sewing machines. This subject comes up at least twice a year.
I sew quite a bit and would recommend: 1) make friends with your local sew n' vac store owner and/or repair guy. Ask about used OLD machines. (with steel gears) 2) you only need straight stitch, with reverse, and zig-zag. 3) Stick with mechanicals. Electronic drive machines are awesome when they work but when broken, you're done. 3) Craigslist is a good place to find good machines. Also, ask folks in your family, church, etc. Many machines are gathering dust in closets and you'll likely get a free one. 4) practice practice practice. You'll learn what you really want and like.
I sew lots of quilts, theatrical costumes, and my own gear. I want a machine that's fast, easy to fix, and will hold up. All my machines are 30+ years old, and none cost more than $150 including my sergers. I stick with brands that have parts available....no particular favorite. Some old machines are considered classics and your sew 'n vac guy will know which ones.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
I bought an old Singer 99 off eBay for under $100 shipped.
It only does a straight stitch, but it will punch through 3 layers of leather or nylon webbing without straining.
It's a great entry level machine for doing heavy duty work and learning how to use a sewing machine. You can hardly go wrong starting off with one because it will always keep it's value and when you're ready for something with more features you can sell it for what you paid for it (if you can part with it )
Look for an older all metal geared machine with multiple stitching options. Forward and reverse stitching along with straight, zig-zag and the ability to do a bar tack are all beneficial options. A free arm machine helps a lot with smaller circular pieces of work.
Some brand names I have heard about are Necchi, Pfaff and Singer.
FWIW I have made quite a lot of my own gear with a Singer home style sewing machine. It is a model number 538 Stylist.
If you purchase and older machine get it checked out thoroughly and ask the owner if you can run it through a test by sewing something simple and quick. A lot of times machines that do not appear to function only need a good cleaning and lubrication to sew like new.
Having a good local repair shop close by is an added plus.
By all means try to locate a manual for your machine. It will help you sort out small problems like adjusting thread and bobbin tension for example.
I hope this helps.
One day on the trail is 100 times better than one year on the couch!