Hi. I have been in your position -- wanting to diversify but being on a budget and not being in an area where there were lots of options. I would encourage you to find ways to "test drive" as many different makers as possible. There may be a conference or workshop that you can get to -- or check out the dulcimer club page and see if you can get to a club event (even if just once). What you will find is that there are many, many talented makers but some set ups will "fit" and others will be "lovely, but not for me".
Here's my path: I bought my first dulcimer from a neighbor who made it in his wood shop. No 6.5 fret and big strings (he's a tough ole banjo player). I learned on it but it was not a delight to play. My next purchase was a Ron Gibson that I ordered based on a sound file that he posted. I was a nervous wreck spending that much money on something I hadn't handled. It was very, very stressful. The Angels were smiling on me and Ron's instrument is a splendid beauty that fits me well. Whew! (It arrived Christmas Eve! A grand holiday!). I can definitely recommend Ron Gibson.
I had opportunities to handle Blue Lion and think they are marvelous -- what a lovely make -- but then I saw an affordable McSpadden on the area Craigslist and grabbed it -- only to find it had ancient, slipping tuners. That is fixable but for more $$. And that's where poking around has led to a real blessing: Ron Kunkle lives in Shelton, WA and makes dulcimers, Native flutes and other things. Although I don't own a "Kunkle" I think the workmanship is superb and Ron K helped me revive the slipping McSpadden. Through Ron Kunkle I've learned to "see" much more of what dulcimer construction is about. I think Ron Kunkle's instruments are just as fine as any I've handled -- but he's not well known outside our area.
Then there was the near disaster: I saw a dulcimer in the commission space of the local guitar store. Oh, what a beauty! I almost paid bucks on the spot. I asked to play the instrument. Ugh. A mess. The guitar store employees said they would throw in some new strings. Fortunately I chickened out and spoke to "our Ron " (Ron Kunkle) who speculated that perhaps a fret had risen (which can happen in our damp climate). I went back to the guitar store and sighted down the fret board. It was like the Himalayas with some things low, some high and some very high. I suspect that beautiful, beautiful instrument was stored in an unheated storage unit for a long time.
In short, be cautious. When we can't spend money, let's spend time so that the few bucks we have aren't wasted on a pseudo bargain. If you are not part of a club, please consider finding a public space and starting one (ours is in the community room at the fire station). I say "public space" so that you don't have to clean house! (also there should be parking and accessible bathrooms). Libraries, churches, schools are all possibilities. Our local club has been an enormous blessing to me because it brings me into contact with more experienced players, new songs and gives us all a chance to oogle and handle various styles of dulcimers.
There may be much more in your area that you know. An unknown (like our Ron Kunkle) who produces magic may be around the corner -- with the added blessing that you can handle to your heart's content. Who would have guessed there were such dulcimer riches in . . . western Washington? I've been so happily surprised by how many instruments and nice people pop up when one has an eye out -- I wish you your own happy ending!