Intermediate Information: February 2008 Archives
Somebody who's only looked at the specifications for the FHA purchase program will ask me if I'm on drugs. The answer is yes, I have taken my allergy medication today, but there really are ways to purchase a property through the FHA with no down payment, as I have recently discovered.
This is not the same thing as 100% financing. The FHA doesn't do that. The FHA really wants borrowers to have some of their own money invested into the property. In fact, they have supposedly made it very plain they don't like down payment assistance programs and using them can involve additional scrutiny - but the FHA will accept them if they're done right, meaning that some people are able to buy who would not otherwise be able to.
Here's what the legislation says: The FHA will allow the seller to assist the buyer with up to 6% for closing costs only. No seller carrybacks, and no cash back from seller to buyer (which is fraud, anyway). The owner cannot give the seller the down payment.
But the FHA allows up to a 6% gift for the down payment, and this can come from either immediate family members or from non-profit organizations. If your family members, usually parents, can come up with a gift - not loan - to enable the purchase of a property, that is acceptable to the FHA. Non-profit organizations may also do so. Indeed, there are non-profits that make it their primary activity to do so.
Here's the way it works. The owner (seller) of a piece of property agrees to furnish an amount of money equal to the necessary down payment assistance plus a certain small fee, but does not actually send any money until the transaction closes, at which point escrow is given instructions to . The down payment assistance non-profit then advances the money into escrow, with appropriate contingencies. When the transaction funds, escrow sends the money back to the non-profit for use with the next assistance client down the line.
This is just far enough from direct cash back that the FHA will sign off on it, and most lenders doing business with them will as well. Everything has to be disclosed to everyone - if you're ever involved in a transaction where somebody wants to keep some aspect a secret from some other participant, run away before it happens, or disclose it to them yourself. But there is a difference - a registered non-profit third party, and they are advancing actual cash even though they haven't received any yet. Furthermore, the buyer is not getting cash - what they are getting is money to make a down payment with. This changes the transaction enough that the principles that say cash back is fraud no longer apply, because it isn't cash back from the seller to the buyer.
These grants are in no way, shape or form free money. They come with extensive strings attached. They are an effective way to leverage the current market to make purchasing now, while the market is in the favor of buyers, possible, even for someone who may not have a down payment. Nor do they require repayment.
Why would an owner agree to do this? Two reasons: Price and saleability. First of all, owners who are willing and able to do this have the capability of selling to buyers that other owners do not. This makes the property unique in a way, and provides negotiating leverage because most owners are not willing and able to do this. Instead of eighty properties, a given prospective buyer may only have a choice of three properties. Now their property only has to compete against two others, and those others might not be suitable. The result is quite possibly that a given buyer does business with you or with nobody at all. Now they don't really have the opportunity of walking away from your property. You think maybe a competent listing agent could get significantly more money out of the buyer in such circumstances?
Furthermore, the price the owners might be willing to accept obviously gets raised. If they might accept $400,000 without one of these programs involved, but they have to furnish 3% for closing costs plus 3% for a down payment and $500 for a fee to the non-profit, they need $426,100 just to get the same gross revenue. When you consider that they're paying commissions based upon the higher number. At 6% total agency commissions, that adds over $1500 to what the owners are paying in commission, plus about $60 for owner's title insurance, $30 in lender's title insurance, and roughly $30 extra for each side for escrow, in this case. Your point of equivalence between this prospective buyer is about $427,700, as opposed to a generic buyer at $400,000, but it's very possible to get more than a breakeven amount - not to mention selling the property, where you wouldn't have otherwise.
I have to mention appraisal issues.. It doesn't help if the appraisal is below the purchase price, particularly for high value financing. However, this is one area where the factors working to push everybody towards the FHA loan also work in your favor, because due to the decline in prices that has the lenders in full on PANIC! mode, appraisals are generally fairly easy to justify above the purchase price. I've had to ask them if they could hold the value down a couple of times of late. I don't remember the last time an appraisal didn't come back with plenty of value on a purchase.
Another note is that it doesn't necessarily have to be an FHA loan to work with one of these programs, but the fact that the FHA is willing to work with these programs takes away a lot of lender anxiety, because the FHA guarantee is the only thing that has lenders willing to go 97% loan to value ratio at all in most of the country. Once the FHA signs off on the whole transaction, that guarantee eases lender fear, because otherwise the lenders are stopping at 95% or less. So it's going to be a rare lender that agrees to all of this without the FHA being involved.
Finally, it should be obvious that buyers would be better off to come up with a down payment themselves, rather than pay the higher price, especially as we're specifically considering a loan for 97% of value. The higher property taxes, the higher purchase price, and definitely the higher loan amount are all going to be something you have to deal with for basically the rest of your life. The seller gets their money, where it all comes out in the wash, and goes their merry way. The buyer is paying a higher price, more taxes, increased cost of money, has to deal with a higher loan to value ratio if they need to refinance, and will net less money if and when they go to sell. In the example given, I'd much rather come up with $12,000 cash for a down payment than have to deal with a purchase price $15,000 higher (remember it was 3% closing costs plus 3% to the down payment program, so half of $30,000), pay an extra $200 per year in property taxes, an extra $900 per year interest, and end up with $15,000 less money in my pocket if and when I sold. Wouldn't you? But none of this takes place in a vacuum, and if you wait until you can save that $12,000, the conditions at purchase are very likely to be even worse - because right now the market is in the tank, and buyers have more power and properties are likely to be more affordable than they ever will be again. If you can save $500 per month, by the time you are ready to buy it will be two years in the future, and I'm expecting the prices of properties selling for $400,000 now to be significantly higher than $415,000.
The same as in every other area of life: Get out in front and stop it from becoming a problem.
I do not understand why many people approach real estate transactions like a casual outing. Go window shopping, decide on an impulse purchase, expect to sign a few papers and you're done. That might be appropriate for a toaster oven or microwave, possibly even for a refrigerator. In all of these cases, you're dealing with huge companies and products that are basically commodities. All the important stuff like price, size, and functionality is right out in the open, and you're spending $50 for the toaster oven, $100 for a microwave, maybe $2500 or so for a top of the line refrigerator with lots of bells and whistles. Furthermore, the huge companies that make and sell these need to sell millions of these to other people. It's not only not worth it, but actively counterproductive to their bottom line if they don't deal with complaints both quickly and generously.
Contrast this with the situation in real estate. First off, you're not dealing with a major company whose deep pockets are going to bail you out. You're dealing, at most, with a franchise operation that's paying big bucks to license a name, and consumers have no claim against the franchising organization. Here is a list of California license actions in the most recent three months for which information is available. Not one heavily advertised household name among them, although every one of those household names was affiliated with someone on the list. The big names might have some neat bells and whistles in the way of agent tools and client interface, but that's a distraction, especially in these days of expanding MLS capabilities, where any agent can set up a client gateway and get a link to the public portions of MLS on their website.
More importantly, the amounts at stake are, instead of fractions of someone's monthly salary, multiples of their yearly gross income. What this means is that the amounts at stake are many times larger, and therefore the potential reward. I don't know anyone who will cheat over a penny, and not many over a few dollars. But when the amounts at stake inflate to hundreds of thousands of dollars, that's a different level of temptation, and the list of people that can be trusted shrinks drastically. A smart agent working for you will always be on the list, if for no other reason than you can sue for breach of fiduciary duty and expect to win more than they could ever make for that breach. Unfortunately, as has been made clear to everyone who's paying attention, not all agents are smart.
Most important of all, a large fraction of the important issues aren't out in the open. Indeed, the amounts at stake are sufficient for the other side to do their best to bury them. Spotting these issues, particularly before a client has wasted time and money on the property, is one of the prime characteristics of good real estate agents. Whether or not you spot them is not the determining factor as to whether these issues are present, nor does keeping quiet make them go away. Even when called upon the facts, however, many sellers and their agents will still try to brazen it out in the best tradition of the communist party, by denying the issue. Several years ago, when buyers outnumbered sellers 4 to 1, many of them got away with it. Getting away with it is a lot less likely in a buyer's market like today. Furthermore, deceits of this nature are fertile ground for lawsuits, but despite the fact that it is far better - for both buyer and seller - to deal with all of the issues in a straightforward manner, there will always be those who think they can vanish with the money if only they can get that money wired into their account. They can't, but it can be more trouble than it's worth to track them down. Better just to deal with the issue in the first place, even if it's by choosing not to pursue that property.
When a good agent takes a listing, they have all the issues from appropriate pricing on down the line dealt with before the property actually hits MLS. The seller has to have restrictive showings? Reflect it in the asking price and tell everybody when and why in the property profile. There's an issue with the property? Make it clear in the property profile - showings where the prospective buyer aren't willing to deal with the issue do nobody any good. Even if you can hide it temporarily, you can't hide it forever, and the effects when the deception are discovered are going to hurt more than if you were honest in the first place.
When a good agent considers a property for their client's purchase, they consider it complete with shortcomings. If there's an issue with traffic, noise, structure, schools, or anything else, I want my client to be aware of it, and I want to have a plan to deal with it in negotiations, before my client says they want to put an offer in. Yes, this makes it more difficult to persuade a client to put an offer in, but if your agent hasn't explained that there is no such thing as a perfect purchase situation long before you get to the stage of making offers, something is wrong. I haven't seen a property yet that was an exception to this. They've all got problems and issues. The question is whether these problems and issues are ones that the client is comfortable dealing with. Even if there are no other problems, the issue then becomes, "Is your client happy paying the extra money not to have them?"
Any time the problem gets in front of an agent, they are playing catch-up, much like a Cessna pilot trying to handle a high-performance military jet. It's controlling them more than they are controlling it, and the same applies to real estate. Pilots have a saying to the effect of "he (or his body) got to the crash site fifteen minutes after the airplane." Real estate is no different, except the time lag is usually measured in months instead of minutes, and only gets caught up when a lawsuit is filed. I've seen agents - usually "team leaders" trying to pack in more business than they can really handle - so far behind the power curve on actually solving real problems for their clients that the client would have been better off with a fresh licensee on their first transaction, who at least aren't so busy delegating that they can keep track of what they need to know and what they need to deal with before it bites their client. Those subsidiary functions that busy high producing agents "delegate" to lower paid "team members" (which is 95% industry code for "poorly trained low-paid employees who have no idea how that piece of paper relates to everything else about the transaction but enable the agent they work for to rake in more commission checks")? You'd be surprised how often the details that bite agent and client both are buried in them, and any time an agent puts their focus on production, the quality is going to suffer. A better agent may not live so high on the hog, but their clients come out of the transaction much happier.
With the market turndown, Liquidation auctions are becoming a big thing. They were just advertising one on all the stations around here. The other agents in my office asked if I was going, and I told them, "There will be no bargains there." Two of them went anyway, one going so far as to take a client.
To be fair, this only applies 100% to one specific auction house, which I'm not going to name - but the tactics and terms are pretty standard. Here's the claims they make: "Huge selection" (which means, in this case, 222 properties of all sorts, 147 of them in the county, 75 out of the county, as opposed to 20,600 active residential properties in San Diego County MLS on the day in question), "Easy financing" (they rent some space to one specific lender). In fact, they do their best to restrict choice of lenders - giving some minor preferred terms if you do business with their tame lender, which isn't known in the business for being a good lender to do business with. This violates RESPA, by the way. "Perfect for families." If you believe this, I own not only beachfront property in Florida but also a bridge in Brooklyn and an albino pachyderm, and I want to sell them all to you for a low discount package price -contact me for private details. You've got to be some kind of idiot to believe that it's a good idea to bring kids - a genetic and conditioned emotional distraction - to a real estate auction. Their commercials have sound bite interviews with people right after they win an auction - excited that they "won" an emotional battle for a house! Of their very own! Not later, once they've discovered how rotten the situation is that they have gotten themselves into.
Reading the fine print, it didn't take much to figure out what's really going on here: They want to get buyers together in an emotional auction environment where it's psychologically very easy to overbid for a property, get them committed to buying the property, and cut them off from all of the really good due diligence they're allowed to do on every other property out there. Lock the buyers into what they do in the heat of the most emotional moment these artisans can create - while the sellers are free to reject the deal on a whim. They allow the prospective buyers no "cooling off" period at all. This is legal for purchases, but isn't a good situation to be getting yourself into as a buyer, particularly not in the current environment for most of the country.
Here's the skinny: First off, prospective buyers need a $5000 cashiers check made out to yourself, which you will endorse over to them, and the balance of 5% of the purchase price in the form of a personal check or something similar. What this means is that no matter what, the lender is getting $5000 of that buyer's money. Period, end of sentence. Furthermore, they have to put 5% of purchase price into escrow. This is way above the "traditional" 2% which is far too high for most transactions nowadays. Putting it into escrow means that, at a minimum, somebody else is holding onto it until and unless all parties agree to release it or a court tells them to. Given that you have to use their special "purchase contract" which wasn't available ahead of time, what do you expect that the terms of that contract are as regards to things like liquidated damages and money owed to the lenders for the "privilege" of sitting in escrow on a property where there's no real due diligence done? Their brochure said the purchase contract was available on their website, but I couldn't find it, and I not only checked their site map, but clicked on everything that I thought could conceivably be associated with it - which was basically everything. It wasn't there, but I don't have any reason to distrust their claim that it renders you liable for damages if you don't carry through on purchase. In other words, you find out a reason why you don't want the property, you still pay for the fact that you had the high bid. Not to mention their purchase contract is completely mandatory, and you can't negotiate anything about it, and you don't even find out what those terms are until after you've agreed to the price. Since contract terms can move the price by thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in regular negotiations, it shouldn't stretch your imagination to figure there's a reason they're waiting to spring all of this upon you - most likely a contract people wouldn't have signed at the peak of the seller's market in 2003. Furthermore, you're required to sign a "winning bidder confirmation" immediately upon making the high bid. What that says also wasn't subject to prior investigation - which is a polite way of saying they want it to be a deep dark secret until you "win" the auction for a given piece of property. Use your imagination for a moment, and ask yourself, "Why would they want to keep it secret until then? What might such a document say?" I'll bet you millions to milliamps the reality would be worse. These folks are professionals.
Did I mention that you're agreeing that you've already done your due diligence? Yes, but I didn't go into what it really means. They supposedly have three open houses for inspection, but how many people are really going to drag an inspector, an appraiser, a termite inspector, etcetera out to the property just because they might be thinking about bidding on the property? That's sinking anywhere from $800 on up into the property just on speculation of winning the bidding. If a prospective buyer does this due diligence ahead of time, it psychologically prepares them to be willing to go higher on the bid (they've already spent money). If they don't do this due diligence ahead of time, they're putting that 5% of the purchase price - however many thousands of dollars - at risk. Suppose you bid $400,000 and it's accepted. You need to put $20,000 into escrow immediately! If a prospective buyer thinks they might bid on two properties, that's twice as much. Furthermore, although the purchase contract wasn't available, I'm quite willing to take the word of their brochure that there are no financing or appraisal contingencies allowed in that contract, even for their preferred lender. Their verbiage is adamant on the point of "as is, where is, including all faults." They're very explicit about no liability by sellers, which is basically standard for lender owned property, but they're not going to accept any requests for repairs either, which isn't. In fact, in some circumstances, it's illegal. Not to mention that you normally have seventeen calendar days to do your due diligence after there's a fully negotiated purchase contract, even with lender owned properties, before your deposit is likely to be in jeopardy.
They use a "property previously valued to" come-on, which is disclosed in the fine print to be the highest of 1) an appraisal 2) asking price, 3) assessed value or 4 ) broker's price opinion. You shouldn't need to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that this means the asking price - the exceptions just make for something even more cockeyed. It's been on the market for months, and it didn't sell for that price. If it had, they wouldn't be auctioning them off in these circumstances.
There's also an undisclosed reserve price. What this means is that if the auction doesn't get high enough to go over the reserve price, you don't get the property even if you have the high bid. Furthermore, reading through the fine print, you find that the auction has planted other bidders in the crowd, who can and will bid the price up. If claims they won't go over the reserve price, but since neither the identity of the plant nor the reserve price is disclosed, it's somewhat difficult to verify this. The job given these plants is plain and simple: Get the bidding going, and get it emotional, so people will keep bidding for a long time. Since the auctioneer knows both the plant and the reserve price, they can collude quite easily to a common purpose. As a matter of fact, the fine print says the owners don't even have to accept the reserve price. What does this mean? If, after all the psychological games they can play with you, you don't bid enough to make them happy, you still don't get the property! In fact, they've got 15 days to turn you down. You, on the other hand, are required to close escrow within thirty days, which means you had better get working immediately, even though they reserve the right to pull the rug out from under you.
If all of this isn't enough, they reserve the right to alter terms and conditions as they go, specifically including, "Advancing the bidding," which is a euphemism for jacking up the price for no apparent reason. In addition to that, there's a 5% surcharge on all winning bids in order to arrive at the final sales price. So someone knows their limit is $300,000 and advances the bidding to $297,000 before winning - only to discover that this translates to a "real" price of $312,000 - a price they already know they can't afford! Result? Minimum of $5000 in their pocket (your endorsed cashier's check), and they offer the property for sale again right away.
Have I mentioned the psychology of an auction yet? Particularly one with inexperienced bidders? Most of whom have no idea of the risks they are taking, let alone the fact that they should be compensated for them, or how much? I've heard too many inexperienced people saying that "Everybody knows" that foreclosures and auctions are great deals. I'd like to meet this Everybody, because he's spewing rank fertilizer in the form of unsubstantiated rumors that are far from universal even if they are sometimes valid when you've got a sharp agent on your side in a high transparency situation where both sides have to come to the table as equals. That's not the case here.
I looked through their book of available properties. There was precisely one that I had been in. It was a 3 bedroom 1.75 bath property on a lot that was mostly level because the developer had terraced it fifty years ago, with a deep crack in the foundation the entire width of the house - you could even see the evidence on the outside, for crying out loud. Nice paint, great view, some other nice touches - but flat roof I couldn't see, no yard, no close parks, no place for kids or pets, all the fixtures and surfaces other than the carpet were original, it sat on a busy connector street, and I couldn't tell you whether that house was going to be there tomorrow without a soil engineer's report on how well the leveling of the lot was standing up, how well the soil had been compacted, etcetera. I suspect problems, because the foundation wouldn't likely have cracked if there hadn't been soil compaction issues. I remember thinking, "Maybe $300,000, if the soil report comes back solid. Otherwise, you couldn't pay me to take this property." They were telling people it was valued at $429,000. Seriously, I would rather have a 1970s vintage townhome less than a mile away listing for $279,000 - and this includes HOA dues and dealing with a homeowner's association in the first place. More usable yard, a couple of small communal parks and a communal pool, and less environmental noise - not to mention that even if that condominium had structural issues I didn't spot, dealing with them would have been a communal issue as well. This seemed about average for what was being offered. The less desirable areas seemed to be heavily over-represented in their offerings. This is about as coincidental as falling down when you trip. All the usual war zones that people don't want, even when they think they're getting a deal.
The point of all of this is to get people foolish enough to bid on these properties locked into deals, where the sellers are not locked in at all. Get them emotional, so they bid up the price, and if they can't do that well enough, the seller has the option of taking their marbles and going back to what they were doing. So you can imagine that I wasn't very surprised when my two co-workers called me about halfway through the proceedings to say, "You were right. We're leaving. There are no bargains here."
About half the listings around here do not have a single number asking price, but rather a range in which offers will be considered. Even many agents have trouble understanding range pricing. I've seen and heard more than one agent rail against it, saying that it is essentially "repricing the home".
Range pricing began in Australia and was brought to the United States by a certain major real estate chain. That chain is not one I particularly like doing business with, but that doesn't mean range pricing is a bad idea.
Range pricing is a way of starting people talking, and to begin the negotiating process; nothing more. If there's no offer made in the first place, I can guarantee there will be no transaction. The idea of range pricing is to jump start the negotiations.
Range pricing is not appropriate for all properties, nor in all markets. In the buyer's market we have now, I'm certainly more hesitant to use it, as it offers more information as to the owner's state of mind. In a seller's market where prices are rising rapidly and sellers have all the power, it gives an indication as to what a serious offer is and what it is not. In a buyer's market like now it tells some buyers exactly how much leverage they may have. I'm also more leery of using it on commercial properties.
One thing many agents (and others) misinterpret range pricing to mean is that any old offer inside the range should be accepted. This is the mark of an inexperienced negotiator. If they say offers will be considered between $400,000 and $425,000, that is not the same thing as saying "I want $425,000, but I'll take $400,000." There are many other terms and conditions on a purchase contract besides just the price, and there is no mandate to agree with even a full asking price offer if those other terms are prohibitive. Indeed, an agent who knows how to figure out other terms to offer in place of higher price is likely to save you far more than any commission they earn. Even price is rarely just price. For instance, if I write an offer for $410,000 cash, no contingencies, with a $10,000 deposit, most sellers should rightly treat that as superior to an offer of $425,000 with the seller paying $10,000 of closing costs and only a $2000 deposit, contingent upon financing for sixty days. Note that the seller nets over $4000 more if the latter offer actually closes, but the former is a much stronger offer and if two such offers were to come in and other things were equal, I'd strongly counsel taking the cash offer, especially as the latter offer is indicative of a not very well qualified buyer without much commitment to the idea of purchasing the property, and there would be a high probability that the transaction will not actually close. There are all kinds of terms on purchase contracts, and having a discussion as to what's important to the other side can be a way of making your offer much more attractive without necessarily raising your price. For instance, owner occupants are often understandably nervous about whether the transaction is going to close, and committing large sums to alternative housing before it actually does close. If you can think of a way to address that concern, you're miles ahead of the negotiator who can't. Every situation is different, and what works one time may not be appropriate to even offer the next.
So if I see a property with range pricing of $400,000 to $425,000, I want to educate my buyer clients that an offer of $400,000 exactly, with the seller paying up to $20,000 of closing costs is not within the range indicated. Indeed, as I've said elsewhere for such offers, a $380,000 sales price with the buyer paying their own way is a superior offer from the seller's point of view. If they insist, I must and will submit it, but even in the current buyer's market I wouldn't be surprised to see it rejected outright with no counteroffer.
In the current buyer's market, those few buyers willing to purchase properties have an enormous amount of power, and this will continue until the seller to buyer ratio gets a little less lopsided. So in the current market, I might actually offer significantly less than the asking price range, secure in the knowledge that if this seller rejects it, I'll find something just as good tomorrow where the seller will accept. Some will. So if some won't, so what? You learn to spot the sellers that have the power to refuse, and the ones who have to take anything vaguely reasonable.
Now admittedly, I don't do a lot of listings, as most sellers don't like to listen when I tell them to price their property to the current market if they want to sell. (And if they don't, why are they talking to me?) I've only got one listing right now, and quite often, none. But when I'm showing them what the market is like, and what reasonable prices for properties like theirs are right now, I'll ask a couple of questions once I'm convinced they understand. Everyone knows what they want to get for the property, and by the time I'm done, they better understand what a reasonable asking price is and why it's stupid to list for more. But after that, once I've explained that there are offers and then there are offers, and the price isn't the only thing worth paying attention to, I'll then ask them, "Now that you know what a realistic asking price is, what would be the lowest price you would consider selling for, if someone offered everything else you wanted? Great deposit, all cash, no contingencies for financing, etcetera?" Next I'll ask, "How far over the realistic asking price we've agreed on would you require going if the buyer came up with some odious terms: takes possession early, no deposit or not much of one, wants a long escrow, etcetera?" Rebates always raise the necessary price at least dollar for dollar, by the way. A $380,000 offer with no rebate is superior to $400,000 with $20,000 rebate from both buyer's and seller's perspectives. Then, depending upon how much the seller needs to sell, I'll use that information to help me figure the endpoints of the asking range (assuming I'm not just going to use a single asking price). I won't just use either number, of course. But that, together with the state of the market and how much power buyers think they have in the market at the time, will give me a good feel for what the lower number of the range should be.
There is another, entirely different benefit to range pricing is that when the search is done on MLS or its substitutes, the lower number in the range is going to trigger your property coming up on more searches. Now, if you're a listing agent, MLS and MLS substitute buyers are more likely to be aggressive, and often unrealistic, bargain hunters, as opposed to people who really want to live in the neighborhood around this property. MLS inhabitants are not my favorite buyers when I'm listing a property, for that and other reasons. But if this property comes up on their search, they might look, and if they look, they might make an offer my client is happy to accept. If they don't even see it as they're searching, I guarantee no offer will come in from them. So range pricing helps me capture these people's attention. Whether interest, desire, and action follow is anybody's guess. But they might, where without range pricing they definitely wouldn't.
In short, range pricing, properly done, is not repricing the home, and it is a good way to get the buyer and seller to the table. It is not appropriate for every property in every market, but for those it is appropriate for, it's a useful tool. Properly used in the right market, it can even help your seller get a higher price for the property than any single number asking price you'd dare use.
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