Recently my 2009 Trek Allant was stolen and I'm now in need of a new bike. When I first got it, I was not a cyclist and I fully admit I just picked the first bike that looked nice without really knowing anything about it. It was just a brand I recognized at a low-ish price. However, about two years ago I got rid of my car and have been biking exclusively on that bike ever since.
Since my bike is now my primary mode of transportation, I'd like to make a more informed decision this time around. I still don't have a very high budget. Maybe $800, although I could possibly push it to $1000 if there was a really good reason to do so. Here's what my lifestyle looks like:
I bike to work and back five days a week, about two miles each way. I have a five-year-old son who is with me half time and I transport in a Burley Solo to daycare, karate, birthday parties, etc. He's getting old enough that I'm considering a trail-a-bike instead of a trailer. Once or twice a week I'll make a trip to get groceries or other small-item shopping trips using a set of panniers and a bike trunk. Since my bike is my everything, I occasionally have need to transport larger items using a flat-bed trailer. I have, in the past, transported items such as 2x4's, plants and other gardening supplies, a large window air conditioner, and a home theater system. In the summer months I make frequent trips to refill a propane tank. I live in an area where it rains almost constantly 10 months out of the year, so I need fenders (although I realize these can be added to just about any bike, but if the bike doesn't come with them, that's an extra cost consideration). In any given month, I can expect to ride predominantly on paved roads, with some bumpy sidewalks and gravel roads for a short distance.
Also, this is probably pretty important. I only have three bike shops in my town and they each only carry one brand of bike, so unless I can order the bike online, my options are basically limited to Trek, Giant, and Raleigh. If there are bikes from other brands that are a must see, let me know anyway! I might be able to find another way to get them.
Any and all input is greatly appreciated! I'd really like to actually take the time to learn why a particular bike is right for me, so the more information, the better! Thanks!
A lot of this is dependent on what you want. Maybe try test-riding a few bikes at these stores and see what you want: drop bars or flat bars? aggressive or relaxed geometry? skinny tires or wider tires? aluminum or steel (carbon is probably not what you want)?
Many people on BF (myself included) have had good experiences with cyclocross-style bikes for an all-rounder. For the three brands you have access to, examples are the Trek CrossRip, the Specialized TriCross, and the Raleigh Roper. If you're doing a lot of hauling, which you are, it might be good to get something with a more relaxed geometry - which will probably be branded as a touring bike.
You may take a look at the Trek cargo bike. For short commutes like yours, I would think you would want more of a mountain bike, especially for handling while hauling a load. I think it has an aluminum frame though, which is not an advantage in my opinion, but it looks like it would fit your needs.