Have not read all the posts, but there are so many options. Crazy that it is so complicated now to find right bike. So many options, used, new at local shop, overseas makes from chain reaction or planet x….29 vs 27.5…etc…..
I started back years ago on hardtail and sort of worked way to full suspension 29…I love 29, I like bigger feel bike though. Probably more 27.5 options available, someone mentioned the Raleigh Tokul which I find intriguing. To keep costs down yes hard tail way to go, if it were me I would probably go with this Nukeproof 275 sport for 664 dollars at chain reaction and maybe put a dropper post on it for 100 more. Trail geometry, great price, send it to your door. Have to have a buddy who is experienced with asssembly make sure everything is correct in assembly. http://www.chainreactioncycles.com/us/en/nukeproof-scout-275-sport-bike-2017/rp-prod146001