A lot of sewing machine choices are made by personal preference and I know that doesn't answer much to those looking for their first machines, so I'll list what I look for.
i don't use decorative stitches - ever, so I have a machine that sews zig-zag and straight. Most newer machines at stores like walmart, k-mart and target are cast aluminum frame (not a detractor) with a plastic drive train (BAD JUJU). If I were to look for a home use machine today, the three main points it would be judged in would be, metal construction, locally serviceable (the pfaff dealer here mails them to IL for service), and noise level.
In my area I have a great bernina service guy and I have been able to find 7 bernina machines from '89-'93 vintage that I have had great luck with. I guess I should add that these machines are all still used, I have them for classes that I teach.
All that being said, if you have the room and plan on sewing a good amount, buy an industrial machine. They sew nicer faster longer and are cheap to maintain/fix. I bought a used industrial zig zag for cheap, painted the table it was on, used it for 6 years hard and sold it for more than I paid for it. It didn't have fancy stitches but I bought a binder for it for $8, bernina sells them for $80.
for a free machine, pick the heaviest one that does zig zag that sews still (not broken)
--If a cow laughs hard, does milk come out its nose?
Last edited by Pag; 02-27-2012 at 18:27..
Reason: I spell horrid on my phone