I suggest that you download the PCT maps for northern CA from Halfmile's site. http://www.pctmap.net/
Look at the last page or two for each section's pdf file --- at the elevation profiles. That will give you a good read on one of the elements of what makes a trail easier or harder. Then among those that look easier, consider also your logistics of getting to and from the trail, and also think of water sources and possibly bail-out points (places that significant roads cross the trail or where a side trail can get to a reasonably well-trafficked road).
If you were looking to hike several hundred miles in one go, I would indeed suggest Oregon as a great option. For doing a first section, I agree with you that "closer to home" makes a lot of sense.
Limited budget for lighter gear --- I think that PMags has a good summary of a lot of discussion by various folks over the years: http://www.pmags.com/300-gear-challenge
Lightening up is approached in different ways; go lighter on the big stuff ("big three": tent, sleeping bag, backpack), go lighter on the other stuff, and --- importantly --- carry less of the stuff you don't really need in the first place. Going lighter means not just lighter weight gear, but sometimes a shift in hiking "style". It's a potentially lengthy topic, and one about which almost everyone has an opinion (and typically is happy to share it). The one thing I feel strongly about is that there isn't a single "correct" way.
Boots vs. shoes is a whole other discussion, and another one that many people are passionate about. I'm a shoe guy, but again, I'm also a "find your own way and your own personal wisdom" guy.
Best of luck!