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For most of us, our homes are the largest investment we’ll make in our lives, but all too often it’s the investment we know the least about.

Closing the fourth quarter of 2008, the median home price for single-family residence in Pinal County was $119,000, and in Maricopa County, it was $130,000, according to Arizona State University’s realty studies. Name one other investment of that scale that happens so easily that you just see a “for sale by owner” sign staked out front, call the number, agree to a price, sign some papers, and by the end of the month have your name on the title. I sure can’t think of one, and if there is such an investment, I can tell you we’d all do a lot more research into it than we do for our homes.

Plus, we’d probably tend to it a little more carefully than we do our homes, which seem to get our attention only when something breaks.

Most of us don’t seem to care how the thermostat, air-conditioning unit, water heater, light fixtures or insulation work. All we care about is that they do work. But left on their own–with no regular maintenance or tune-ups, they won’t work forever. And when they break down, it can be way more expensive to fix them than it would have cost to simply maintain them.

There’s never really a good time for something to break down, and right now definitely isn’t a good time.

Unfortunately, our homes don’t know what hard times are, so they can’t save up their problems for better days. Broken water lines, busted garage door springs, locked-up AC compressors, fried heating elements, zapped electrical circuits, overflowing toilets … when something needs to be fixed, it needs to be fixed!

All of those problems rob us of a little of our quality of life–and can cause permanent damage to our homes (our big investment) if we don’t fix them right away. And repairs can be expensive.

Any horse owner will tell you, “If you think buying a horse is expensive, just wait until you have take care of it!” The same is true of our homes.

I know saving money is important. We’re all trying to cut costs a little here and there and save a little more than we did before. Yet a poor decision at home can cost a lot more in the long run.

So if you’re thinking about hiring a guy on the cheap to fix what ails the biggest investment you’ll ever make in your life, please reconsider.

The Arizona Registrar of Contractors reports almost a 50 percent increase in complaints against unlicensed contractors over the last year. You see reports in the news about the latest victim, who was taken for $60K by an unlicensed contractor. You breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t you. But you might be struggling to pay for repairs yourself, and so it might seem tempting to hire an unlicensed guy who’s just trying to make a few bucks on the side and promises he’ll fix everything correctly.

If you act on that, you’re making yourself part of a huge problem. The honest truth is that the problem is not the economy or the unlicensed contractors; it’s the demand for them. Every complaint about the shoddy work and dishonest business practices of unlicensed contractors would stop tomorrow if we simply stopped hiring them on a wing and prayer, hoping to save a few bucks.

Would you hire a doctor to do surgery who wasn’t a licensed, bonded, insured, certified M.D. with a long list of references? Would you hire a podiatrist to remove a brain tumor? Of course not. So why would you trust your largest investment to a contractor who isn’t legitimate or qualified to do quality work?

So far, this is a song with no ending. I don’t even want to count the number of phone calls and e-mails we’ve taken at Rosie on the House over the years from homeowners who spent their hard-earned money on a too-good-to-be-true deal from a guy who “seemed nice enough”–and are left in a deep hole with only a spade to dig themselves out.

For a lot of folks, times are hard enough as it is. Don’t make it harder on yourself by cutting corners when it comes to your most cherished, most expensive possession. Take your time and do it right. Hire licensed, bonded, insured contractors who have the experience and qualifications to get the job done right the first time.

Of course, most contractors are legit, and they’ll do good work for a fair price. Here’s what Joyce, a Rosie on the House listener, had to say about her experiences with six different contractors. Audio

This won’t solve all of your homeowner problems. But when you hire a qualifed, licensed contractor, at least you’re not setting yourself up for failure.

Rosie on the House

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