Show Summary

Today, Dave Pelligrinelli, a national title expert, shares a lesson all about what title search and title policies are, and some common mistakes that investors make. Most real estate investors simply want someone to say “the title is clear”, without actually knowing what that means, or why it may not actually be completely clear. It’s not the sexy side of real estate investing, but can eat your lunch if done wrong. Please don’t miss this episode of the Flip Show to learn more!

Highlights of this show

  • Meet Dave Pelligrinelli, title search expert.
  • Learn about what title search is, why it’s important, and how it can impact you.
  • oin the discussion on common pitfalls that investors face around title policies, or lack thereof

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Listen to the Audio Version of this Episode

FlipNerd Show Transcript:

Mike: Welcome to the podcast. This is your host, Mike Hambright, and on this show I introduce you to expert real estate investors, awesome entrepreneurs and super cool vendors that serve our industry. We publish new shows each week and have hundreds of previous shows and tip videos available to you, all of which you can access by visiting us at or visiting us in the iTunes store.
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Hey, it’s Mike Hambright of Welcome back for another exciting VIP interview, where I interview successful real estate investing experts and entrepreneurs in our industry to help you learn and grow. Today I’m joined by Dave Pelligrinelli. Dave has been over 20 years in private investigations and title search and has been featured in many prominent publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, New York Times, and of course now, the best of all,
He is also on the Board of the National Association of Land Title Examiners and Abstractors. So Dave knows all about title and the importance of title. It’s actually not a topic that we really talked much about on the show before, yet it is an expense the real estate investors pay all the time without ever putting much thought into it, other than, this is something I’ve got to do. So today we’re going to talk about title research and title policies and all that is title work, to make sure you have clear title on your policies so you understand what you’re getting into. So before we get started though 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 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, Dave, welcome to the show.
Dave: Glad to be here. Now I feel like I’ve made it, I’m on FlipNerd.
Mike: That is right my friend. That is right, we are anointing you. I’m so glad you’re here and as we were talking about before we started, its one of those topics that a lot of real estate investors just see as a necessary evil, if you will. You want to have clear title but there’s so much that goes into it and I know that sometimes my title company will say, “Here are copies of the title research” and stuff like that and I almost never look at it. I don’t have a decoder ring just tell me in a minute if there is anything here I need to worry about or is it clear. I know that’s something you live in every day. So I’m excited to share that knowledge with our real estate investors. In fact I’m going to learn a lot today myself, I’m sure.
Dave: Yeah, that perspective is really common the way you described it. The investor clients and other clients we talk to, that’s exactly the way they look at it. They just want to know simple answers, is it clear not and what the status is.
Mike. And in the event that something comes back, am I covered?
Dave: Yeah, exactly.
Mike. So before we dive into talking about title research and what a title policy is and really just kind of some of the fundamentals for folks out there, tell us your background. I know you started off as a real estate investor, but how you made your way into the space?
Dave: Yeah. A very long time ago I was actually a commercial real estate broker. I did commercial deals and then from there, I did some investing. For about a decade did a bunch of deals, usually in the single-family residence area, mostly purchased through direct from seller, a few MLS deals. When things were really hot you could buy deals through a realtor and still have some daylight in the deal and did that for a period of time. It was very enjoyable, it’s a great business enterprise model and then this company started in the mid-’90s and from there that’s what I focused on.
Mike: Okay, okay. Can you talk about how you made your way from being an investor into doing title research. It seems like a non-typical path?
Dave: Yeah, the investing actually was not really intended. I had moved to Florida and I had bought this house just to live in. I was sort of looking around and seeing, okay, there’s something going on in the market and there’s a way to turn that into an enterprise. So I realized that if I bought one and then sold that and bought another one, you’re never going to really be more than buying and selling at the same level, at the entry-level. So I bought a few at a time and mostly there were minor fix ups and flips. I really didn’t keep any for any extended period of time. Had some excellent upsides.
I had one property that was almost [inaudible 00:06:04] and in like eight or nine months this was a hot a period of time, it was like ’99 to 2007. It was really a hot period of time in Florida. It wasn’t really intentional, didn’t look to go into it. I saw the market and got into it.
Mike: Okay, but talk specifically about how you got into title research, how did you find your way there?
Dave: Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting story. The company started as an advertising and marketing company, think like Mad Men where it’s traditional advertising, print, media, electronic. One of the thing here is we did quite a bit of work in, was direct mail. We were sending mail pieces out to hundreds of thousands of potential customers for our clients and for our own use.
And one of the things we did was, we do a lot of really deep data analysis, we call it money balling, where we’re looking at information, looking at records and we found that if we tracked demographics with real estate records, we could narrow down who we’re mailing to. If we found people who recently bought a house at a certain loan-to-value mortgage, the house was at least this much money but not too much money, it matched the demographics of our client. Let’s say it was an auto retailer, we could match up the car-buying demographics with homeownership.
Mike: Right.
Dave: So we started researching all this real estate records to use for that purpose. We had all this excess records. So I started putting ads in some legal publications, excess real estate records. We got a ton of inquiries, people asking, “Can I get a title search?” For a few months we said no. But after you get so many people who want to buy something, I’m going to figure out how to sell it. So we started selling title searches and come to find out at the time, there wasn’t a direct path, where somebody could buy a title search by [inaudible 00:07:51] without going through the whole closing process with an escrow company.
Mike: Right.
Dave: And it was a market that wasn’t served. So that’s how we got into it and that has dramatically eclipse of all of our marketing and advertising type work.
Mike: Yeah, that’s great.
Dave: It led us into investigations, but that’s the interesting story how it goes from marketing to title research.
Mike: All small businesses stories, there is a lot of very interesting stories of how somebody got to where they are and that’s not where they thought they would be, but they wound up there. And it was just one way or another, through a series of trials and tribulations, they ended up an expert in something that wasn’t their original intention.
Dave: Yes, that’s an interesting story and you had a, I think a guest on a while back. His name was Justin Williams, I think. He had the same thing, a story where he started one way and ended up totally convoluted different thing into something he really loves to do.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Justin is a good guy. So tell us a little about the difference between, so what most people do, and what I do when I buy a house I just go to my title… in our contract it says who is going to pay for the title policy, but I’ve never gotten just a title search. And I want to talk about why people would get just a title search.
But always my title company, they obviously do a title search in the process of getting the title policy, which is effectively is insurance and that’s where they make money at. In what instance would somebody want to get just a title search and have no intentions of actually buying the insurance behind it?
Dave: Yeah, it’s a good question. There are two scenarios where an investor might want to purchase a title search as a standalone product. One is when it’s a distressed sale like a foreclosure auction or tax auction where getting a title policy in advance of that transaction is impossible. Usually the turnaround time is too short. A title policy usually takes two or three or four weeks for underwriting. You might only have two or three or four days before an auction and you want to do some due diligence to make sure that property is unencumbered or at least you know what the liens are, so you can account for that factor it into your purchase.
Mike: Right.
Dave: The second scenario is, a buyer who is going through that normal closing escrow process but in advance of that wants to use the title search, in what we call title forensics as Intel, in order to how to set up that deal or maybe how to approach the seller or maybe even how to do, what we call an entry strategy. We all have an exit strategy on that property, what we’re going to do, wholesale it or resell it or retail it, flip it. Maybe even keep it for inventory or for rental. But an entry strategy might be affected by what the history of the property is and sometimes paralleling with other properties. That title research can help put the deal together to begin with.
Mike: Okay, okay. I don’t personally buy houses at auction but I know people that do and that’s a pretty common scenario, is that you want to know if there’s a clear title aside from the reason that’s it at the foreclosure. But because I do know people that have bought a house and then it turns out that the title is not clear and they have a mess on their hands.
Dave: Worse than that, I remember one of the stories that sticks out, it was probably in the mid-2000s, I had a phone call and I happened to catch the call from the inquiry. The guy wanted to buy a title search. Great. What’s the address, put it in, we started the process and come to find out he told me. “I just bought this property at auction, it’s a great deal, it happened to be in Southern California. I paid $290,000. This property is a worth a $1 million. It’s about 1.1 million appraised value.”
Okay. Sounds good. So we got this search started and I started doing some research. Sure enough, the tax assessed value is like 1.2 million and he said he paid 290 for it. And I called him back and he bought the auction that day. Unfortunately he had to give certified funds that day for the auction, for the property. Well, guess what. The title didn’t have any other liens on it but what he bought was a second mortgage.
Mike: Okay.
Dave: Right. The second mortgage is what was being auctioned off at that foreclosure sale. There was a first mortgage in front of it for 790,000. So if you add them together it was a million bucks, maybe there was a little daylight in the deal. But he would have to go though the whole process of rehabbing the property, reselling it, commission, everything else and maybe squeaking out and getting his money back.
Mike: Yeah. So he found out through having you do a title search that, that existed and but hadn’t provided the certified funds yet. So I assume he had a back door.
Dave: No, he did. He had already paid the certified funds. So I don’t know what his exit strategy was. He can either walk away from almost 300 grand or go through the whole process of getting the house sold and maybe getting back 150 or 200 of that money, which is probably what the better thing to do. But who knows, I mean, sometimes the assessed value doesn’t really match up with what you’re going it sell for.
Mike: Right, right. So there are a lot of obvious things that a title search finds, whether there’s any liens against the property, mowing liens, could be mortgages against the property. Talk about some of the other things that aren’t so common that real estate investors need to be worried about that could show up. The types of things and maybe break it up into things that can generally get cleared and then some things that just totally encumber the property and its probably never getting a clear title?
Dave: Well, that’s a good question. Title search and the title abstract which is the official document of a title search. That is one of the tools that a title insurer, the underwriter, the agent will use to put together that policy. And if you look on the title policy, the first one or two pages is what’s called exceptions from coverage. That’s the stuff that they don’t cover.
Mike: Right.
Dave: Those will be things that will be found on a title search. If there’s a lien, it doesn’t mean the insurance covers that lien, it means that prior to writing the policy they’re telling you this lien is not covered. Anything that is found in the search is excluded from coverage
Mike: Okay.
Dave: Additionally on a title search you’re going to find things like maybe an easement. Well that’s not necessarily a cloud or an encumbrance but it does affect the use of the buyer. If there’s a driveway that goes across your property, you might not be able to use that space. Maybe things like mineral rights, maybe at some point in prior history, the surface rights where the house is or the property is, where the structures are, have been separated from the mineral rights. Oil and gas rights, surface or other types of coal rights and there may be allowable access for an oil company to get onto the property to do those things. So those are the things that a title search will show.
In addition, it’s going to evidence things that may not be in the land records but also might affect title. Did the prior owner ever acquire a judgment against them personally? Let’s say, if I’m walking my dog down the street and it bites somebody. They sue me in small claims court and win a $3,000 judgment. That’s not technically lien on my property. But by statute it attaches to any property I own if that judgment is filed in the civil court records, not even in the land records. So that’s an area where it could affect the property.
We do all the searches as an expert witness testimony for the US Department of Justice, federal government. We come in five or six times a year where somebody had bought a property and a lot of these properties have title insurance on them. And some owner, three or four owners ago in the chain of title, had a tax lien against them from the Department of Justice. They didn’t pay their IRS taxes, IRS slaps a judgment on them.
A lot of searches, if they’re not done to standards, will miss that because it’s not really a lien on the property. IRS doesn’t care. They come against the new owner. The new owner says, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m not John Smith. I paid all my taxes.” “Doesn’t matter. Bob Jones from 20 years ago didn’t pay his taxes, it’s on that property, it’s on you now.” And a lot of times they’ll hire an attorney to try and to defend against it and the IRS hires us to come in as an expert witness to say this is a valid lien and it is and they have to pay or their insurer generally will pay it.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I know that you said your company does not sell title policies. Is that right?
Dave: Right.
Mike: But let’s talk about that a little bit. How that typically works for people. So a lot of people may be surprised to hear that effectively that’s just an insurance product. That is basically saying, you have clear title and in the event that anybody ever comes back, maybe in a situation like you just said with an IRS lien, that wasn’t found through a title search, that will ensure that we’ll get you clear title or somehow, make you whole or maybe I am wrong there. Go ahead.
Dave: Yeah, it’s a good point. Again, you want to look at the specifics of the policy. The title policies generally are all pretty much the same. There’s four major companies in the country that write title and it’s a good product. If you’re buying a property it’s almost, always a good idea to get title insurance, if it’s available. You should always get that, but understand the limitations of coverage.
The first thing is that first one or two pages, it’ll exclude very specific things from coverage and you should know that as the buyer, as an investor what’s not covered. It also does not require that the insurer has a duty to defend or a duty to make you whole or clear the title. It’s a duty to pay you the policy limit. So when you buy the property, let’s say you buy it for $322,000. Your title policy will be for $322,000.
If there’s some type of a claim, the first thing the title insurer is going to do is look at the policy and say, “Well is it excluded?” “No, it’s not excluded.” “Okay, we’ll try to defend this.” They’ll look to see if there’s a way to clear it, if there’s a way to fix it, depending on what the nature of the cloud is. If they can’t, they just pay you policy limit, $322,000 and that’s it.
Mike: Okay.
Dave: If that claim is still there, well you have that money, but what if in the meantime the property has appreciated to 500,000 or 600,000. You get your 322, you still have that title issued. Their duty is not to clear the title, it’s to pay you the policy limit.
Mike: And similarly, for folks like me, if you’re a real estate investor and you buy a house at a distressed price, let’s just say it’s just a point of example, half the price of the market value. And then you put a bunch of money into it repairs, you’re not insured for that repaired amount. It’s just the amount you purchased it for, right?
Dave: That’s right. Usually for a typical buyer it takes a long time to get where it’s different. But for an investor, that gap might exist almost immediately.
Mike: Yeah, two weeks, three weeks.
Dave: Yeah.
Mike: So even though you don’t sell policies, maybe you could educate us on how that works. So I’ll tell you what I think it is and maybe you can correct me because I’m probably missing some pieces.
Dave: Excellent.
Mike: So the title companies are typically — effectively they’re also almost insurance agents. They write those policies. They’re paid a portion of the title policy costs, just typically the majority of it, probably 65 to 70% is typical. And in the event that you have a claim against the title, what is typically the role of that agent, because I understand that they have some role in helping defend or clear that up?
Dave: In my experience as both a customer and a consumer of title insurance and also working with insurance companies as a provider of services, my experience is that it’s the opposite. Once you have a claim, it goes right to the insurer. It could be Old Republic, Fidelity, First American, the major companies, Chicago Title and they will handle the claims processing.
Now, they will check in with the agent, because the agent typically wrote the policy and did some of the underwriting. They may have done the search, they may have done a property survey, inspection, background checks on the prior owners to see if there is any judgments. Sometimes the home office actually does all that. The local agent just does the closing. It depends on the company and also even within the company, certain offices do different things. So typically, the claim goes right to the home office to determine if it’s valid and then also to handle what the move is for them to try to fix that.
Mike: I see, I see. I am sure it’s more complicated than this, but the high-level chain of events is title research is done and then once it’s done or close to done, then it goes through an underwriting process where they effectively, [inaudible 00:20:40] title plant, I guess is basically saying, we will underwrite this policy or we won’t or we have more questions and these need to be cleared up. Is that right?
Dave: There is. Now as a side note, if you’re an investor and you want to use the title information for some other use, the title information that might be on a title policy may be limiting. One of the strategies that title insurers have gone to over the last, really decade, is do what’s called a thin search. When we do searches for other clients who aren’t getting insurance, we do much more extensive searching. The insurers do thinner, cheaper searches, because they’re insuring over anyways. They just want catch the big stuff. The big chunky stuff. There’s little stuff, they’re saving more money on title searches then makes up for that in the long run.
So instead of spending 150 or $200 for a title search, they might only spent 60 or 70, get a partial, limited search, knowing full well that the odds are they might miss a few things over the long run. But that’s 70 or 80 or $90, they’re saving, they can bank that, put that away. So when they do have a claim, they have the money to pay out those claims. So the searches are done more on a limited basis.
Some of these searches are actually done overseas in India by outsourced people just doing electronic searches, not even looking at the land record. Now it doesn’t matter for you as the insured, because you’re covered. Even if they miss something, they’re going to pay the claim.
Mike: Yeah, yeah.
Dave: But the search information may not be as complete.
Mike: Yeah. Then maybe you could share, I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole here, but in terms of how things differ across the country, because I know in some parts of the country there are very different laws in the ways the things were tracked. I think Louisiana is a state where there are some old French laws that make it much more difficult to track the history of a property. But maybe you could share a few examples of some parts of the country that are a little more complicated. I’m in Texas and I think it’s probably pretty straightforward here, but maybe I’m wrong. It’s become the normal for me. But maybe talk about some extreme cases around the country?
Dave: It’s worse that that. It’s not even at that state level, it’s at the county level. The title records are actually housed and maintained at the county level and there’s 3,611 counties or recording venues nationwide. So when a search is done, we have to actually go into the county courthouses for that county, not even at the state level. So every county is different.
Now the state will have statutes that define how records are kept in that state but even at the county level some counties will have microfilms, some will have books you pull off the shelf. Some will have it indexed a certain way and you can go 20 minutes away to another county, completely different. It’s very complicated to keep a track of all those things.
Mike: Yeah. And then with title policies I also understand there are, in Texas where I’m at, if I buy the house and then I sell it a week later and then somebody else buys it and sells it. If we were to wholesale a house and there’s all these title policies. It seems like a bit of a racket because it’s a whole new title search, a whole new title policy and so that part of the side of whether that’s a racket or not, we won’t go there. But I know that in some parts of the country though, they basically will take the title policy and the next person is basically just buying insurance from the time the last policy was pulled. Is that correct?
Dave: It could be. In some places, in almost every state you could do that. You can get a reissue credit. So if it’s within a certain period of time and you can get a hold of that other policy, you can get a reissue credit because is not as much of a risk because that other policy took some of the risk. We keep in mind though that, you understand the difference as an investor between an owner’s policy and a lender’s policy.
Mike: Yeah.
Dave: If there is a lender’s policy on the property, that means that the lender required title insurance. So let’s say you’re buying a property and you have a loan through Bank of America. BOA requires you to have a policy, they have a lender’s policy. You might think, “Well, that’s good enough, they’re covered.” So even though the loan might not be the full value of the property, it’s close enough. I don’t want to pay anymore.
Well the problem that comes in is, if there is a title claim, it goes to that policy, the lender says “Hey, this title is no good. There’s this cloud on the title.” They filed a claim with the insurance company. Insurance company pays it, the lender is made whole, but only the lender is made whole. The insurance company now owns that mortgage. They don’t clear the property for the owner. So now the mortgage company goes to you as the owner or the borrower and says, “Well okay, BOA is off the hook, but now we own the mortgage. So now you pay us.” But there is a title cloud. “It doesn’t matter. We own it now. You’re didn’t buy an owner’s policy, so you have no coverage. The coverage only benefits the lender, not the owner.”
Mike: Okay, okay, I see. Maybe you can share some short words of wisdom for anybody that’s out there listening now that buys and sells properties, that doesn’t buy a policy or doesn’t do proper research?
Dave: Yeah, I would highly recommend to…
Mike: Give us the Surgeon General’s warning now.
Dave: Definitely do research. The stuff that we do in investigations and even title searches for government agencies or companies is, all due diligence. And these companies when they’re doing a business deal and it might even be a smaller dollar amount at risk than a property, it might be a $400,000 business deal. They do thousands of dollars in due diligence to make sure that the company they’re buying is legit.
Do the same thing with real estate. You don’t just spend thousands of dollars, you could do the title research yourself. A typical search might be 7 to 10 man hours of research. One thing to do is don’t rely on electronic records. Don’t try to pull something up on the Internet or Google search or any kind data search, unless you can actually see paper documents, see deeds and liens and mortgages and read through them. You’re not getting the full info.
So even if you do it yourself, that’s fine. All the information that we use to create title abstract is all public records, it is in land records. You could pull books off the shelf at the courthouse to get this info. But actually look at the actual legal documents. Don’t try to use data. Data isn’t enough stuff and you’ll be missing info that will be valuable for you to take risk out of your deal.
Because you guys as investors, buying and selling is enough of a roller coaster, right? You have good weeks, bad weeks. You buy property, you don’t buy a property. Don’t include title risk into that roller coaster ride. It’s not worth it for what it costs either in time or money. It’s relatively inexpensive. You get the highs and lows off doing deals, not off worrying about if there’s going to be a $50,000 lien that pops up and takes all the fun out of the deal.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Well Dave can you maybe take a couple of minutes and tell us about your company and the service you provide, which is title searches largely for real estate investors. But talk about what you do and what you offer real estate investors?
Dave: We love dealing with individual independent investors. That’s where the company started. When we found it there was a need for title searches outside of that MLS channel. That was mostly that base of market that came from real estate investors, people trying to buy properties at auctions that couldn’t get a search anywhere else. And doing that due diligence to take the risk out of the deal. We love helping independent investors to avoid those kind of problems that we talked about and we also love hearing the success stories.
We talked to, I remember a woman was in her 90s, who bought a $20,000 property and flipped it three weeks later in the $40,000 range. And when she called back to get another title search on her second deal she said, “I am a granddaughter of a slave. I never made $20,000 a year in my life. I made that in one deal.” So we love hearing those stories and working with investors small or large.
The one thing that we like to do more of is help investors get to their first deal. The most important deal for an investor is their first one, it gets you in the game. It gets it past being a conversation or a dream that you now dreamt it real. But that first deal is the hardest one because you might have to spend money. We see it at the frontline because sometimes a title search is the first time you actually have to come out of pocket for actual money.
You could be on the boards, you could be reading all the different discussion groups, watching FlipNerd, do all the stuff. But until you actually do that first deal, that’s what gets you into the game and we love helping people do that. But we understand it is a leap of faith to do it.
Mike: Right, right. Unfortunately a lot of new real estate investors, the first time they tend to not know what they don’t know and maybe cut some corners with things like title search and just general insurance on the property. They buy a house and if it burns down the next day, they’re out and just some basic stuff. So, yeah, that’s great. That’s great.
Dave: Even doing inspections, a couple hundred dollars for inspection. I remember talking to an investor that was trying to do a deal and “I don’t want to spend the $200 for inspection, because it’s too much money.” Well, if you catch a $1000 furnace that needs to be done or a $10,000 roof, it’s a couple hundred bucks and if you’re not to the point yet, I don’t know if it was emotional coming up with the money or literally don’t have the budget, either way, I wouldn’t do the deal unless you’re ready to fully commit for those funds and that time and effort.
Mike: So Dave if people wanted to look into your company and learn more about getting title searches done, where it makes sense and I know that lot of investors, if they don’t have a relationship with a title company, they’re not intending to buy a title policy per se or at least not committed to that yet. Most title companies won’t just do a title search because they don’t really make any money on that, they make money on the whole search and policy together. Right?
Dave: Yeah, another area where an investor can use title information either from us or doing it yourself is analysis. We call it money balling the deal, when you’re looking at comps, making sure that the comps are actual arms length transaction comps. Not just the bank taking back a property and paying full value.
Mike: Okay.
Dave: Matching up that property’s history, maybe going back 30 or 40 years in the property’s history of value with other properties in the neighborhood to see if it trades higher or lower than the average property. So you know what the current values are, where that property is going to land.
Mike: Right, great. Well Dave, if folks want to learn more about you and your company and maybe talk about doing some title searches, where do they go?
Dave: Yeah, the best, quickest source is our website, easy to remember. It is what it is, its We have another one for investigations, which is But those are the two to find us and if you want to find out more about me or other’s websites, you can just do a Google search for Dave AFX and you’ll find all kinds of stuff.
We have hundreds of videos for investors on how to do deals, how title goes into deals, how to find the right properties, how to buy right to begin with, because you usually make a profit when buy it and not when you sell it. And you can find tons of videos. Our YouTube channel is Dave AFX and there is some other ones. But there is all kind of resources that are free. You don’t have to buy anything, you don’t have to sign up for any subscription. You can just get all kind of free info.
Mike: Great, great. We’ll add some of those links down below the video here. Dave thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate you sharing some of that information that a lot of us… it’s unfortunately for most of us not the sexy side of the business, but it’s obviously an important thing to make sure that you’ve got it buttoned up.
Dave: We’re glad to do it. I appreciate being here.
Mike: Yeah. Thanks so much. Have a good day.
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