First and foremost I would tell you to take an MSF class. Second I would purchase and read this book: http://tinyurl.com/8rryo. It is a great reference for new and experienced riders alike. I own a copy, and I recommend it to anyone who will listen.
As far as make and model, here is the rundown as I see it. Buy what you like. People have all kinds of opinions, and if you look enough you will find logical reasons (rationalizations?) for a beginner to buy any kind of bike. Having said that, here are my opinions.
- What to buy?
Buy a used bike first. You can find them cheap, and people often only ride them for a summer then try to sell them. I walked out of a dealership (http://www.whitesidemotors.com/) with a nice used bike for $4000 TT&L (A 2001 Honda Nighthawk 750 with only 7000 miles on it). Make sure you check the bike out though, either by following this guide http://www.clarity.net/~adam/buying-bike.html or paying for a mechanic to go over it. I took the pay-the-mechanic route. It was worth it for me. Also here is a good source for used bike prices: http://www.mcnews.com/mcn/usedbike.asp. Craig's list is a great place to look for used bikes.
When you ride it for a while you will have a better idea of what you are really looking for. You can then sell or trade in the used bike, and buy a new one (or another used one if you like).
Anything 500cc and up is plenty of bike for normal everyday riding. Anything below 500cc gets to be a little scary on the highway. I have ridden a 250cc, 500cc, 600cc, 750cc, and 1400cc. When you are in motion, they pretty much feel the same in terms of how comfortable and stable you feel. Keep in mind this was on modern motorcycles. I have no idea how older bikes ride, so if you buy an antique be prepared for anything. J The smaller (250cc) bikes will get pushed around more in the wind, and the heavy bikes are harder to handle at starts and stops. Bigger bikes always cost more to insure. The only thing I would tell you to definitely avoid is a 250cc bike if you plan to do highway riding. I actually think the 250cc bikes are great fun for just scooting around town. As far as how the bikes handle, it is less about size and more about rake, height, and center of gravity. The book I linked to above does an excellent job of explaining how those all relate.
Almost all the Japanese (Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda (in no order)) bikes are good. The only one I have heard to definitely stay away from are the Viragos by Yamaha, they have bad starters. Kawasaki's (around here at least) are cheaper than the other brands. I do not know why. Harley's are actually pretty good if you buy one newer than about 2002 or 2003. Look for the ones with the rubber mounted engines. It eliminates the rattle. My Harley actually doesn't rattle, but yeah, it was expensive. I would not recommend it as a first bike just on price alone. It is great fun to ride though. I have friends who swear by BMW and Triumph, and Honda, and Kawasaki, and Harley.... I think you get the idea. :)
- Type (Cruiser, Dual, Sport, Standard):
Cruiser and Sport bikes are exactly what they sound like, dual is a bike which you can ride on street or dirt, and standard is a cross between a cruiser and a sports bike. If you can narrow down the type of bike you want, then you can save yourself some time. I knew I wanted a standard, and Nighthawks were the last of the breed, so my first bike was easy. Most people now days fall into the Sport or Cruiser, then both of those have more and less aggressive models.
The most important thing is the helmet of course. Buy yourself a nice one. Shoei or Arai are good well known brands. Never buy a used helmet. Modern helmets conform to the head, and a used one will have pre-conformed to someone else's head. Jackets, gloves, etc are good to have and I ride with them consistently, but they are really pretty straightforward. Look for quality. Expect to pay about $500-$1500 for gear, depending on how all out you go. Also for long rides those cheap little foam ear plugs are great, keeps the wind noise from driving you crazy. For a nice article on helmets read this: http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/gearbox/motorcycle_helmet_review/
Unless you do something horrible the maintenance on a bike is pretty cheap. The tires are typically the most expensive things to maintain. Bikes are simple enough that a lot of people do their own maintenance. I am a total incompetent mechanic, so I take mine to a shop (Zabor's). The work is generally cheap.
Take the class, read the book, drive defensively. :)
- Movies you have to see!
- Torque - A total dumb-ass movie that is hilariously fun to watch if you know anything about motorcycles.
- On Any Sunday - A Great Documentary from the 1970's. It is still an excellent film, but avoid the sequel it was weak.
- Faster - A documentary narrated by Ewan McGregor, of all people, about the MotoGP. A great film. Sometimes hard to watch during the crash scenes.
If you have any more questions, please ask. I will be happy to answer anything I can.