realize things are slow right now what with the exchanges, but we’re patient
Slow? That is an understatement. The revenue from mining is now for nearly all miners below the cost of their electricity. That means it is cheaper to purchase bitcoins at market than it is to mine them – assuming you are paying for electricity.
Put more clearly – mining at the current price levels is currently a money-losing proposition for nearly all participants. Adding hardware at this time for economic reasons is purely a speculative play.
if you were to build a basic rig right now for 500-1000 dollars, what would you use
There are those with access to capital and technical skill who will add capacity when profits return. They then enjoy economies of scale that aren’t obtained by individual owner/operators. A “small mining operation” is no longer single low-end PC and instead now refers to a rack of rigs perhaps.
What you are describing is a hobby box. And with most hobbies, all you are likely to get out of it is some entertainment or an opportunity to learn. if you don’t mind contributing your time and money to achieve those ends for this hobby, then by all means proceed.
As far as specific hardware, why not look for a rig being sold by a miner that is liquidating at a discount. There are plenty to be found.