Bryan Ellis joins us for this episode of the FlipNerd.com Expert Interview show to talk about the good, bad and ugly of self-directed retirement account investing. We also compare self-directed IRA’s to 401K’s, and discuss a major pitfall to avoid, that is the #1 way to get yourself in hot water. It’s a great episode that you don’t want to miss!
Mike: Hey, it’s Mike Hambright with FlipNerd.com. Welcome back for another exciting Expert Interview show where I interview successful real estate investing pros and entrepreneurs in our industry. Today I’m joined by Bryan Ellis. He’s the publisher of the Bryan Ellis Investing Letter and he’s the host of the Self-Directed Investor Radio show and podcast.
Bryan is a veteran real estate investor that puts a lot of focus on teaching real estate investors how to invest with self-directed retirement accounts. And today he’s going to share just that. Some pros and cons on using self-directed retirement accounts for your investing and he’s really going to include the number one reason you should avoid self-directed IRAs as a real estate investor. Before we get started with Bryan, let’s take a moment to recognize our featured sponsors.
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Please note, the views and opinions expressed by the individuals in this program do not necessarily reflect those of FlipNerd.com or any of its partners, advertisers or affiliates. Please consult professionals before making any investment or tax decisions, as real estate investing can be risky.
Hey Bryan, welcome to the show.
Bryan: Hey Mike, how are you man?
Mike: Good, good. Glad to have you on. I know . . .
Bryan: Thank you so much.
Mike: Like I said, we’ve been hunting you for a while and we finally caught you, and so, we’re so happy you’re here.
Bryan: Well thank you. I’m glad to be here. I’ve heard great things about your show.
Mike: Thank you, thank you. Obviously we know you’ve got your ear to the ground. Well, you create just a ton of content. So from one content creator to another I’m definitely excited to have you on, appreciate you being here.
Bryan: Thank you, thank you.
Mike: Hey, for those who don’t know you, or don’t know you that well, they might know a lot of your content that you put out, but they don’t necessarily know you directly. Tell us your background and how you got started and how you got to where you are today.
Bryan: Yeah, sure. Well, I was that geek kid in high school that was good with computers and started by getting into the computer world. And I had a goal back then of getting in to Georgia Tech to study computer science and my goal was to get a full academic scholarship to do so, and you know what? That happened and it turned out that about a year and a half later I was bored as could be, and realized I never set the goal of actually graduating.
So I quit and started a software company and that worked out really, really well. Made a lot of money, did really well and then something crazy happened, my first daughter was born. And right about then I decided that this whole working 90 hours a week thing wasn’t going to work for me. And so I really focused on learning other ways to make money and one of the ways that I focused on was real estate investing. And Mike, to say I was bad as a real estate investor, I would have had to improve a lot to be bad.
For the first year and a half I don’t think I did any deals at all. It was awful. I was a master of all the theory, all the strategies. I could talk the talk as well as anybody. But I wasn’t making any money. And then at some point along the way I learned what I was missing which is marketing. And I learned how to find people who needed me and learned how to apply those strategies and started doing pretty well from real estate. And from that sprung ultimately where I am today.
We started a little email list way back then of local real estate investors that we used to flip deals to. That list of just a few thousand people back then became what is now the Bryan Ellis Investing Letter where we teach hundreds of thousands of people all over America and all over the world, the strategies and tactics they need to be able to get involved as real estate investors themselves.
Mike: Yeah, that’s great.
Bryan: That’s where I started.
Mike: That’s great, that’s great. It’s funny how there are these seasons of your life that you really never saw coming but it’s just interesting how things evolve and unfold when you get married and have kids and find out what you’re good and what you’re not good at in your business, and it’s pretty . . . I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying.
Bryan: Yeah, so it’s pretty humbling to find out how much I’m not good at really.
Mike: Yeah. I think the important thing is to be able to identify that, like I said.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah. That’s true. I really focus on such a small number of things now compared to what I used to do, it’s exactly that. Learning what you’re good at and focusing there.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Awesome. Well, I know we’re going to talk about using self-directed accounts today to help people fund their business. So why don’t we dive in? Tell us a little bit about how you got into this space because you probably . . . my guess is this is something you picked up along the way. Talk about how that came about and how that evolved.
Bryan: Well, I was successful as a software developer to begin with and so I learned fairly early what it meant to have to pay the tax man and never was a big fan of that. And once I learned about this thing called self-directed IRA, it was both practically very useful and also intellectually very engaging to me. And this is back in the ’90s and nobody even knew self-directed retirement accounts existed at the time. Self-directed IRA, self-directed 401(k)s didn’t exist at the time.
So basically what happened is I learned that they existed. I started doing some research and put them to use in my own business, did some things right, did some things wrong. But really what I discovered about it, it’s not that there’s magic in the accounts themselves, but that there is a big, big demand out there on the part of people who actually have some capital, but don’t know how to deploy it. And these people inherently don’t trust Wall Street and they don’t trust the government. And self-directed retirement accounts are basically the venue through which they can invest their retirement in assets that they believe in. So I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Mike: Yeah, you know it’s funny as . . . I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this on the show before but my undergrad is in finance and specifically in investments. So I want to work for a huge, huge retirement account custodian. Literally they managed, at the time I was there, in the year . . . I’m going to date myself here, long time ago, long time ago. They were managing over a trillion dollars in assets. So we’re talking about huge corporate pension funds and I was so excited to go into what I saw, coming out of college, going into investing, I was really just like a glorified auditor really. So it wasn’t that exciting.
But when I started to talk to all these money managers, that was part of my job was to measure performance and started to learn that most of their metrics were to try to beat the S&P 500, and I’m like, well why doesn’t everybody just invest in the S&P 500? Things got really boring after that. And then of course when I started in real estate investing several years back I realized how much more comfortable I am in something that I can control. Something that I inherently can understand better, than all of the gaming that happens on Wall Street these days or at least that’s how it feels.
Bryan: Yeah it’s really interesting you say that because most of the people who listen to my podcast Self-Directed Investor Radio are folks who they have large portfolios, most if not all of their portfolios are invested in stocks but they’re just not happy there. And they’ve all been taught the exact same thing, that the S&P 500 is the standard by which everything is judged. Well, here’s the dirty little secret about that. The last 50 years if you look at 50 years ago, up to today 6.6% a year. That’s what the S&P 500 has done. Who cares? I’m not interested.
Mike: Yeah. And what’s typical is people are going to show you a different time period, something that makes sense. Well if you look at it over this 20 year period here’s what they did, so they bend the statistics to sound good, right?
Bryan: Yeah, exactly that’s what have been going on for the last three years. It’s been beautiful. Well, not this year, it’s been flat this year. But for the two, three years before that it’s been amazing. And then for the five or six years before that it was a disaster zone. It’s just unpredictable, and it’s scary, and that’s why there’s so much interest in self-directed retirement accounts.
Mike: Yeah. So the one of the great things about self directed accounts and I’m definitely not an expert and I know you are so we’ll share some insights here. Is that there’s a number of ways people could benefit if you’re an investor and you need money to do your deals, where you traditionally go to a hard money lender, or maybe a traditional lender, that there are actually people out there that have money in their retirement accounts they can lend it to you. Or if you’re the type that doesn’t want to get your hands dirty, you want to invest money. You feel more comfortable maybe investing it with somebody that knows what they’re doing, and that you could be essentially the money partner that has that money in your account that’s lending it. So maybe explain those two different scenarios a little more eloquently than I just did.
Bryan: Sure. Well, I can give you two examples from today actually. Just about an hour ago I had somebody respond to one of my shows that I did yesterday or the day before. And that was about how to get a consistent 8% return. Now 8% is a point and a half better than the S&P 500 has done for the last 50 years. But that’s not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that I can show people how to do that while taking almost no risk whatsoever. The probability of ever losing money is virtually, it’s not exactly zero but it’s virtually zero. The S&P 500 of stocks can never ever say that. So for the person who just wants to grow their account consistently, man it’s easy to find that money in the form of retirement accounts.
Now the big deal is, let’s say you’re an investor and you need a quarter million dollars. By the way it’s been less than less than four days since the last time I had somebody call me up and say, “I’ve got a quarter million dollars. Can you use it at 8%?” So there is an ocean of money out there right now, it’s an ocean of money.
We used to borrow . . . we used to basically pay 10%. We don’t even have to do that the anymore. We pay 8%, we could probably drop that. But the reality is that the person out there who wants to fund their deals using self-directed retirement accounts, they can do so if they just learn to go out and find people who have regular retirement accounts and then educate them about the opportunities that exist in investing in assets outside of Wall Street. That strikes a chord because if you understand real estate secured notes for example, it’s easy to make a case for why a person should invest in one of those, because you make good money, and that’s really, really safe. So that’s one thing.
And then on the other side there are a lot of folks who have capital, they’re interested in doing deals, but they just don’t know how to do those deals themselves. A couple months ago Realty Track you’re probably familiar with Realty Track, they came out with a report about flipping. You’re the FlipNerd, you probably get this kind of info. Realty Track came out with a report that in Q1 of this year, there were about 17,000 flips that completed. And they defined a flip as anything that was bought and sold in the 12 month period. Curiously, the average gross profit per flip during that period of time, was over $72,000. It’s a lot of money, and so what we have is investors out there seeing those numbers and thinking, I want to get involved, but I’ve also heard that you can get your head handed to you if you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s true.
So there are lots of opportunities. This is something we do for our clients regularly is to partner with people who really know what they’re doing. Everybody take a share of the profit so everybody’s eye is on the same ball. And in so doing, people who have money can participate in flipping profits without actually having to get their hands dirty, or actually having to do anything other than focus on their job, their profession where they’re really a student and proficient already.
Mike: Yeah. I think it’s somewhat counterintuitive to people that have not been active in real estate investing to say that, well why would a real estate investor give up? Why would they pay those higher rates? Because people are so conditioned by what the mortgage rate is on their personal home, which obviously is much less than that. But I think when people get into real estate investing, and they realize, if they realize that capital is their restraint, then they’re willing to share that pie and joint venture with people if you will, because otherwise they get zero right?
Bryan: Yeah. It’s interesting you say that. The clients that I work with who are listeners to self-directed investor radio the vast majority of them are fairly affluent. They have large portfolios, they have the ability and if they want to do a $200,000 flip, every one of them has the ability to write a check for $200,000, every one of them. No exceptions. But almost none of them choose to do that. Almost every one of them still uses leverage whenever they can or hard money loan or some other source of funding just because it makes sense to be able to do more deals, to be able to spread your money around. It’s not really about the cost of the capital if you can still be profitable, and student investors get that.
Mike: Yeah. So talk a little bit about the leverage. So I know that with self-directed accounts people could typically get a non-recourse loan, and leverage that up. But are you saying that if I was to lend my money to you, to do a deal that I could lever that money up as well?
Bryan: Well, specifically what I’m talking about is, say my client Joe Blow comes in, and Joe wants to do a flip deal and his options are to put up $200,000 to fund everything himself, or he has the option to put up say, $50,000 which will fund a 20% down payment of the purchase price of the property plus some rehab costs. Well Joe’s almost always going to choose to fund $50,000 and get a hard money loan for the remainder because it just makes sense.
Mike: Okay I got you. So talk about . . . we’re talking about pros and cons. So I know we’ve gone over some of the pros, but tell us a bit more about some of the most prevalent pros of using self-directed accounts.
Bryan: Biggest one is no taxes or potentially no taxes. There are two types of self-directed retirement accounts, traditional and Roth. Traditional accounts allow you to make a deposit into that account and take a tax deduction depending on a few factors but most people can take a tax deduction for the money that they put into those accounts. But whenever you take money out after retirement, you got to pay taxes on it.
So just kind of like . . . you’re just delaying the inevitable with a traditional IRA or a traditional 401(k). A Roth account is very different. If you put $10,000 into one of those accounts, you’ve got to pay taxes on that 10,000 up front. But you never pay taxes on that money ever again. And that’s an amazing thing. All you’re doing is you’re paying taxes on a tiny amount now so that you never ever have to pay taxes on a much greater amount later. So that’s the biggest one.
Mike: And you talk . . . go ahead.
Bryan: It’s just generally a very good thing also for asset protection purposes. The asset protection in a self directed retirement account and an IRA particularly is not rock solid, it’s better than a 401(k). But it’s still way better than doing things in your own name or usually even in an LLC. So there are multiple benefits.
Mike: So talk about that a little bit more, asset protection.
Bryan: Yeah. So basically there are some statutory protection that exists for IRAs and 401(k)s that make it difficult for a creditor to take away any or all of your IRA or 401(k). Basically there are laws on the books, and this is a state to state kind of issue, Mike. But there are laws on the books that basically say if person X loses a lawsuit, or if they go bankrupt or whatever, most of the time the IRA is going to have some protection under law. There are a lot of exceptions to that. 401(k)s, much better, much more solid protection. It’s actually hard for somebody to take a 401K away from you. Much easier for an IRA. But the asset protection is really very good because not only is it a separate entity, just like an LLC is for example, but it also has a separate specific statutory protections that are in the law that LLCs and corporations don’t have.
Mike: Okay, okay. And then share a little about some of the cons that could exist out there.
Bryan: Well, self-directed IRAs in particular are like a powder keg. Nobody really wants to hear this, but it’s the truth. Self-directed IRAs can be messed up very, very easily. And when you mess up a self-directed IRA, the ramifications are huge. They’re negative, it’s awful. And you can do it so easily. I’ll tell you what the ramifications are in just a minute, but just follow me along on this little example. This happens all the time. You have used a self directed IRA to purchase a piece of real estate and you’re going to rent that property out.
You’ve hired a property manager, they’re doing everything for you, they’re going to run an open house tomorrow, or they’re going to have a lot of people there to find your tenant, and everything’s hunky dory. And because you’re an excited investor, you drive by that house today and you see that somehow the front door has gotten dinged up, scratched up, and so you want it to look good tomorrow. So you go to the Home Depot you buy a can of paint, you go back over there, you paint it, it’s nice, everything’s good right?
You probably just blew up your IRA, because you cannot use your own personal funds to purchase that can of paint. Doing so is a disallowed contribution, and doing so is what’s called a prohibited transaction. Whenever you commit a prohibited transaction there’s a technical term called Being Fully Distributed that describes the legal status of your IRA. But the bottom line of it, you’re screwed. If you bought that house five years ago, or maybe if you painted the door five years ago, let’s just do it like that, and five years later the IRS discovers that you painted the door using a can of paint that you bought with personal funds. Well that means that as of January first of the year, five years ago when you did that, everything you’ve done in your account since then, is fully taxable, subject to penalties and interest, and it’s going to be ugly. It’s a really bad thing and it’s not easy to fix either.
So self-directed IRAs can be a powder keg if you do not use them properly. And it really is, unfortunately it’s pretty easy to mess them up, which by the way, is another argument in favor of self-directed 401(k)s. We can get in to that later if you’d like.
Mike: Sure, yeah. So how do you . . . what’s the right way, for those that haven’t used them how do repairs typically get funded versus you maybe funding it and reimbursing yourself. What’s the typical way for those who have never used them at all?
Bryan: You don’t fund it and reimburse yourself. That’s not the way it works. Really you shouldn’t do the work yourself at all, you should have the property manager do it and pay them. You can’t do anything where there is the possibility of you receiving any benefit prior to retirement. Even if it’s rational like that, there’s nothing irrational about you going and spending 12 bucks on a can of paint, painting the front door. But even if it’s rational like that, that can be a prohibited transaction.
And here’s the harsh reality. The number of audits of self-directed IRAs has gone way up, and that number is going up and up and up and the IRS has changed what they’re looking for. Most people don’t know this Mike, but there’s this little form that the IRS sends in, I’m sorry, that your custodian for your IRA sends in to the IRS every year. And it says things like, what’s your name, what your Social Security Number, and what’s the value of your account. Well that’s been going on for years and no big surprise there. But last year they made a change, and one of the changes that they made is that now the custodian has to report whether you’re doing things like investing in illiquid assets like LLCs, like trusts, like real estate.
Because the IRS is looking for those things to go and audit them because they know there are literally trillions of dollars sitting in IRAs right now, and the IRS is looking to raise money and this prohibited transaction thing is a gold mine for them. And now that they’re going to be able to tell who has those types of assets in their accounts, you can be assured that the number of audits is going to go up even from where it is right now.
Mike: Wow, wow. And so this is different for self-directed 401(k)s right?
Bryan: [inaudible 00:21:45] First of all, self-directed 401(k), not everybody can have one. It’s not like a self-directed IRA where 99% of the country can have it. A self-directed 401(k) is exclusively for business owners, and they have to have a particular type of business, a tiny business, a business where it’s only the owner and the owner’s spouse who are the only full-time employees generally speaking. That’s an easy thing to come around to get around. If you have any type of business, it can work. You can make it work somehow.
But the bottom line is this Mike, with self-directed 401(k)s, other than the fact that not everybody can have one, there is nothing else that is better about an IRA than a 401(k). The 401(k) is better in every way and it’s not even close. You can put in a lot more money, you have a lot more flexibility, the taxes are lower, people don’t really generally realize that you actually might have to pay taxes in an IRA. But it is particularly relevant for real estate investors.
If you do a real estate deal in your IRA and you finance any part of the purchase, well you’re going to have to pay taxes even on your IRA profits to the extent that your taxes and your profits were generated by leveraged money. Well, that tax goes away entirely in a 401(k). It just goes away. So it’s a huge issue. But the really big issue is that with a 401(k), if you mess something up like that whole painting the front door issue, there’s a cost to be paid but it’s pretty nominal and it’s really pretty easy to fix. That difference alone, if nothing else, that difference alone makes up directed 401(k)s correctly structured self-directed 401(k)s. A far better alternative than self-directed IRAs for most investors.
Mike: Okay. And I think I’ve heard in the past, any event that the IRS disallows something that is just restricted to that transaction right? Not everything that your account, as long as that . . .
Bryan: That’s a very astute observation. As I was describing just a second ago with the IRA, everything you’ve done in the last five years is blown up. If the same thing that happened in the 401(k), it would have affected only that transaction and nothing else. You’re absolutely right.
Mike: Wow. Wow. So any other things people should look out for when they’re setting up a 401(k)? Talk a little bit about the . . . and what you’re referring here to, probably as much as possible, is a self-directed Roth 401(k) if you can right?
Bryan: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. The thing about self-directed 401(k)s is that if they are correctly structured, they have both a traditional and a Roth element to them. So you can do either type of transaction at your own discretion at any time. So that’s a great thing. Yeah.
Mike: And talk about so again, this is typically speaking, if you’re a 401(k) you have to be a small business owner, and what are some of the other restrictions that would probably not allow you to be a 401(k) holder versus an IRA holder.
Bryan: Well, yes that’s true and it’s not Mike, to have a solo 401(k), that’s what most people think of as a self-directed 401K. To have a solo 401K you have to have a tiny owner operator type of business only. There are fully self-directed 401(k)s that are available for bigger companies. Almost nobody does it, but those are available too. So it can be done regardless of your company size. It’s just a little bit more expensive and a little bit more cumbersome to manage. But it can be done regardless and it’s a good option for just about anybody.
Mike: Yeah. So for those that understand the opportunity here, think they’re excited about it, what are some things that would prevent them from getting started, or talk a little bit about what some common objections are as to why . . . and that sounds really cool, I’m going to do it when X, and you’re saying, hey, don’t wait till X do it now. But talk about some of the common objections and why they’re not . . .
Bryan: Well, the biggest common objection is, “I’ll do it two months from now,” it’s not “no,” it’s I’ll do it when I get around to it. When that happens, it never happens. But here’s the bigger issue that I’ve observed Mike, it’s not that people don’t want to get involved in self-directed retirement accounts, it’s that when they do, once they set up the account, once they actually roll their funds over to a self-directed retirement account, it is disturbing how frequently people will just leave that money sitting there and never actually self-direct it into anything.
Kind of makes sense if you think about it because whenever you have an IRA at Schwab or Fidelity, all you do is pick up the phone and say I want to buy a hundred shares of Apple. And that’s pretty easy to do. But when you want to buy real estate or you want to buy a note, it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s just not a market place for going to find a note or an unconventional investment. So that’s really what Self-Directed Investor Radio is all about. Is connecting those people with the opportunities to deploy their capital.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. And from what you’ve seen is it . . . and I can see that, absolutely. People know they want to invest in this, but it’s hard to find deals. It’s hard to find those investors or there’s not a real logical place to go to. In your experience, are people more comfortable investing in their backyard or are just going anywhere?
Bryan: It’s not my experience that affluent investors care at all. What they want . . . this is the way I’ve explained that traditionally. There’s that book called Think and Grow Rich, I think it’s in that book that talks about having specialized knowledge. Well, affluent investors where their investment portfolio is concerned, they don’t want, in my experience they don’t want to have extensive specialized knowledge.
They want to be focused on what it is that made the money for them in the first place. They’re probably a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe a senior executive or something like that. That’s what they want to do. What they want is they want relationships, they want somebody that they can trust to say this is a good deal, this is why it’s a good deal, this is why it’s rational, why it’s plausible, why is it that we use a standard called simple, safe and strong. They want to understand why an investment is simple, safe and strong.
What I have seen is that they don’t care about geography. What they want is a deal that makes sense.
Mike: Yeah. I understand that. I would say even, I have a rental portfolio and I go out of my way to never drive past a house that I even own, because I just don’t want that to enter into my mind. I’ve got enough things that are on my mind today, that I don’t want to know that the grass is long, or there’s some car on blocks in the driveway, or whatever it might be. So there’s actually some benefit to it not being in your backyard I would say, in my experience.
Bryan: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah, yeah. They don’t care.
Mike: And I guess if you’re looking to apply that money too, one of the challenges is, if you say, hey I want to be close to where I’m at, it’s going to restrict the opportunity that’s out there for you.
Bryan: Yeah it really is, and furthermore my clientele of affluent investors, they don’t know what to do with this stuff. It’s not because they’re stupid. They’re very intelligent, very successful people, but they’re not property managers. They’re not really real estate investors. They’re successful doctors, lawyers and executives. So it doesn’t benefit them for it to be close to them, so it doesn’t matter.
Mike: Well, Bryan, take a minute and just tell us more how folks learn more about this and tell us more about your radio show as well.
Bryan: Well anybody who’s interested in learning a little bit more can go over to SDIRadio.com, that’s SDIRadio.com. We do a daily show, only seven minutes long. We keep it very, very short, but every day we do something, give some information that is substantial and impactful like today, and I bet nobody that’s listening to this right now has ever heard this before. Well, today we talked about a strategy for bleeding the money that’s in your traditional IRA or 401(k) over to your Roth, so that even though you get to take a deduction when you put money in, you never pay taxes on the backside. You get to have your cake and eat it too and there’s a way to do that. You have to do it right and that was the topic to today’s show.
So that’s what Self-Directed Investor Radio is and we also talked a lot about specific investment opportunities, and how to analyze those. And so really it’s just it’s kind of a great, group of people that only existed for four or five months now, but it’s boomed. It’s just come from out of nowhere and done really, really well. So we’re just very grateful.
Mike: And congrats on that, that’s fantastic. I would say in my experience a lot of people, a lot of what cues people out of using self-directed accounts to invest is, one is, if you’re dealing with the traditional Etrades and Schwab and stuff of the world, they don’t understand that at all and they might tell you that you can’t do it, or maybe even that it’s illegal and we should just . . . they don’t know. Like everything in real estate, you have to surround yourself with people that understand how this works so that you can learn from people that are doing it. I think there was going to be a second thing that was really good and I’ve already forgotten what it is, but
Bryan: Well, you know what? I bet it was brilliant.
Mike: It was, it was so good, it was would have gotten me an Emmy or an Oscar or something. Anyway . . .
Bryan: [inaudible 00:31:05].
Mike: Any kind of final words of wisdom you’d share with people that resonate with today’s show that want to learn more?
Bryan: Yeah. Don’t sit around and think about it forever. Be a person of action. Whatever your next step is, go ahead and get it marked off your list so you can actually move forward. And obviously you need to keep listening to FlipNerd too. This is a great show and I appreciate the opportunity to be here.
Mike: Fantastic, hey thanks for being here and we’ll add a link for your show down below.
Bryan: Thank you.
Mike: Everybody, Bryan Ellis, thanks for being here with us today, I appreciate you my friend.
Bryan: Thanks man, I appreciate it.
Mike: I look forward to talking to you soon.
Mike: All right, bye-bye.
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