In California, getting your first wetsuit is more important than getting your first board. Your first surfboard will likely be big (or it SHOULD be) and difficult to tote around; Might as well rent or borrow. But it’s nice to have your own wetsuit.
The key is to choose a wetsuit with glued seams, not the bargain flat-stitched or blind-stitched seams. Most wetsuit makers offer a good glued-seam wetsuit for under $200. You can check this by flipping over the cuffs to see if there is stitching on both sides.
If you surf much during winter or early mornings you can get the warmer 4/3mm thickness for just a bit more than the 3/2. Wetsuits are typically made with thicker (3 or 4mm) panels at the legs and trunk, and thinner panels around the arms where more flexibility is needed. 3/2mm is still the Huntington Beach standard, but the new generation rubber is so soft and pliable that most winter surfers are wearing 4/3’s now.
I would NOT get the bargain wetsuits with flat stitches on both the inside and outside seam. The problem being, any place there’s a stitch going through the suit, it’s accompanied by a tiny pinhole. That’s a lot of pinholes, and they get bigger as the suit stretches and ages. If you hold it up to backlighting and pull gently, you’ll see what I mean.
The next step up is the glued seam. This is probably a ‘wetsuit best buy’: They’re not as strong as the taped or ‘welded’ seams. You can find a good glued-seam suit now for under $200, and on sale for under $130. Many are reinforced with tape, usually around the sleeves and ankles. This is what I’ve been wearing for many years now.
The next step is taped, though most are actually glued & taped. Above that, if you’ve got the budget, is the welded seam suits. You can pay up to $500 for a good welded seam suit. These have a shiny bead of rubber either inside or outside, on all of the seams. This is the strongest seam, though it may not last the longest: Sometimes the rubber dries and cracks.
Full or Spring suit?
I’d go with a fullsuit. At Banzai Surf School we stock almost entirely full length suits for our surf lessons, being as the water temps have been known to drop into the fifties (Fahrenheit; Low teens in Celsius) even during August. In fact, I’ll bet we’re the only surf school in Orange County that has 4/3 wetsuits. I’m a bit of a Hawaii wuss: I own a spring suit, but wear it only a handful of times a year.
I send all of our customers to the good folks at The Frog House in Newport Beach. They are a long established local-owned shop with real surfers who really help you. (And if you mention Banzai, even more so :).