Hi there! Some tips:
1. Read the contract, including the small print! We have a local gym that advertises 60% off a membership - great deal, but you have to pay $30 every two weeks to "maintain" your membership AND a $100 "fitness assessment fee" AND a $60 processing fee to boot. You have to pay for a full year, with no refunds available. Check it out completely.
2. Visit the facility, and if you have to, buy a set of daily passes before you commit to a membership. We all have good fitness intentions, but when the daily grind hits, reality will set in. And, it sounds like your friend's attendance with you might become an issue. A set of daily passes will truly test your own resolve.
3. Using your daily passes (vice a membership) will let you check out exactly how busy the gym is at your preferred time. Often, clubs will ramp up their memberships expecting the majority of people won't use them. Result -- long waits for equipment and overly full classes during peak hours. You won't be happy if you signed a contract for services that are less than what you expect!
4. Check the cleanliness of the locker room, bathroom, and waiting area. Attention to these details means that the rest of the equipment is most likely properly maintained.
5. Check to see if they have assistants available to help you on the equipment. If you have to hire a personal trainer to get you started, you MUST count this in towards your overall cost.
There are great gyms around (I know, I belong to one!), but it does take a bit of work to find one
Best of luck!