I wanted to post on here as a luthier...I build the things and I'll tell you that you just got some great advice from Ev!!! I went to Berea College in Kentucky where Appalachian Dulcimer is almost part of the curriculum. For the past 30 years I've built them, but 7 years ago I left my job to become a full time luthier and househusband. It's true that there are a lot of bad dulcimers out there and a lot of great ones too. Ask any maker and I think they will honestly tell you they've built both!!! I also build Hammered Dulcimers and Autoharps along with some musical folk toys like stick dulcimers. The Hammered Dulcimer is a truly beautiful instrument and although not hard to play, takes a lot more musical "time" than the Appalachian Dulcimer. I'm never sure why a certain instrument plays so much better than the one before or after it, especially when they are all virtually identical. Call up Martin guitars and they'll tell you they have no idea either...and it happens to them too. What you can avoid are the true dogs. No reputable luthier will let a dog out of their shop even though they make damn expensive kindling! Looks can be deceiving. Try the sound...Sound good to you? Got a friend who plays?
What I really want to say here is, don't get wrapped up in the Zen type stuff that is so prevalent around all instruments, but especially dulcimers. Even guitars have less. The true appeal of an Appalachian dulcimer is it's simplicity. Get some recordings and books by and about John Jacob Niles and Jean Ritchie. The instrument can be played in some very complex ways, but it never sounds better than when it accompanies Jean. Her songs all reflect her mountain roots and the people she's known. Her style is simple and traditional and reflects the true character of the instrument.
Finally, say you find several instruments that all sound pretty good to you. Dulcimers come in lots of shapes and sizes...FIND ONE THAT LAYS ON YOUR LAP COMFORTABLY!!! Any instrument that is uncomfortable or awkward will be less enjoyable, especially to a beginner. Since 99% of all players still set them on their laps, be sure it fits yours. Also, tuning pegs can be beautiful, but machine heads stay in tune better and are easier to tune if you're just starting out. Honestly, there is so much "Zen" surrounding woods, shapes, soundholes, fretboards, pegheads, etc., you'd think some of these people attended "Our Lady of the Holy Dulcimer" church! Much truth and much myth encompasses the instrument. Keep it simple and you'll find it easy...and an easily taken along companion. catspaw49