For run-of-the-mill commuting, worrying about the frame on its own is probably too much. If I was just starting out bike-commuting, I would probably buy a $200-$300 used road bike (as long as I didn’t have to bike trails). Bonus points if it already has fenders and a pannier rack. Otherwise I would just drop $500 or so on any new hybrid that rides well. At that price-range there isn’t a lot of differentiation between various pre-built bikes. Find the reputable bike stores in your area and take out a few bikes for a ride.
Other than that, plan to spend at the very least an extra $100 on accessories, if not $200+. Some accessories are obvious, like a helmet, lights, a lock, pannier, etc. Some stuff you won’t realize you need until you’ve been out a few times, like gloves because the wind is cold in the morning.
Don’t bother with a hybrid. If you’re going to be riding on mostly smooth roads, get a road bike. If not, get a mountain bike. I rode hybrids for years before getting a road bike and realizing the people saying that were right.
You can get a low-end road bike for less than a grand, and it’s absolutely worth it.
Unless you have a very flat ride, I would not recommend a hybrid bike. I got one a few years ago to ride to work (~ 4 miles) and it just doesn’t feel quite right on hills. I guess it is just too much of a ‘cruiser’ feel and not enough of a ‘mountain’ or ‘road’ bike feel when taking on hills. YMMV but I thought I would throw in my $0.02.
Hybrids are just kind of the worst of both worlds with none of the advantages. Heavier and less maneuverable than a road bike, but without the suspension or versatility of a mountain bike. My old hybrid was a workhorse and it held strong for the five years that I rode it every day, but my first day on my new road bike was eye-opening in a “this is what I’ve been missing” sort of way.
I’m in the road bike camp as well, but I would recommend you look for something with rack mounts (at least a rear rack mount). Some people get by with carrying their work stuff on their back, but unless you have a very light load (or none at all), I would recommend investing in a rack and least one pannier bag.
My choice for commuting is a cyclocross bike with some slight modifications, the most notable being swapping out the knobby tires for slicks. It’s ideal for me because it has a road bike feel but is a bit beefier/more durable, particularly in the wheels. I tried commuting on my full-on road bike for a bit before realizing that the DC streets were going to destroy my nice wheels in no time flat (no pun intended).
If a pure road bike isn’t the right choice, then it’s simple: buy a proper mountain bike with hybrid tires. You don’t have to min/max this shit, just get something with plenty of gears that fits you and you’re 90% there. Hybrids compromise pretty much everything in service of . . . I don’t even know, but there’s a point to be made for non-knobby tires if you’re going to stay on asphalt, and there’s ten points to be made for a non-pure road bike if you’re not trying to min/max the commute time. Giant and Specialized are both affordable and offer quality components for a small amount of money, the trade-off is a couple of extra pounds of weight.
I strongly agree. Very few people approach the level of fitness where their choice of bike makes a noticeable difference. A crappy bike shop will entice you to spend thousands to take a couple pounds off your bike, but hardly anyone will see a corresponding bump in performance.
Find a good local bike shop, tell them your budget, and they should be able to set you up. Have them fit your bike & helmet properly, and buy as much of your kit from them as you can. If you want a used bike, offer to pay them to give it an inspection before you buy. Most of them will do it for free because they want loyal customers, but appreciate the gesture.