Paula describes how she got started in real estate and highlights the importance of taking action when opportunities arise. She also discusses some of the mistakes she’s made and offers advice for people thinking about investing in real estate.
Our conversation really changed my mindset about real estate investing (and seizing opportunities in general) so I hope you find it as interesting and inspiring as I did!
- Frugality vs. wealth building
- Mental energy is limited so use it wisely
- Think like a creator, not like a consumer
- Scarcity mindset vs. abundance mindset
- How to start investing in real estate
- Real estate niches and strategies
- Becoming a real estate agent
- The Secret to Happiness
- Quit Your Job, Travel, and Live Remarkably
- You Can Afford Anything, But Not Everything
- Quit Thinking About Consumption. Start Thinking About Creation
Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Paula from AffordAnything.com. Paula describes her site as the anti-frugality blog. What she means by this is that rather than focusing on frugality and limiting spending, you should instead focus on building wealth and using that wealth to live the life that you want to live.
Paula’s primary method of building her own personal wealth is by investing in real estate. Unlike Shilpan from the previous episode of the podcast who invested in commercial real estate, specifically hotels, Paula invests in residential real estate.
So, I’m very excited to find out how she got started and what advice she has to give others out there, myself included, who would like to eventually start investing in real estate someday.
Without further delay, hey Paula. Thanks a lot for being here. I appreciate it.
Paula Pant: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Mad Fientist: My pleasure. So before we get into the questions, I was hoping maybe you could just tell a little bit about your background and how you started writing about personal finance.
Paula: Sure! I started my career as a journalist at one of those print and paper newspapers. Do you remember those?
Mad Fientist: Yeah, from back in the ’80s, right?
Paula: Exactly! Yeah, I started life as an old school newspaper reporter. That was great. It gave me my initial training in terms of how to write and how to tell stories and all of that.
I really enjoyed it, but unfortunately, I entered right at the point where the industry was sort of shrinking. Not sort of shrinking, but really shrinking. Newspapers were shutting down. People are getting laid off.
I was at a small town newspaper. It was in Boulder, Colorado, which is a college town. It was fun and I had a great experience there. I really liked my job. But there was one little problem and it was that I couldn’t just travel and do whatever I wanted. I had to actually show up for work. And that was a bit of a deal breaker.
So, I saved up and saved and saved. I wrote freelance articles for a bunch of magazines and just saved as far as I could. And then in 2008, I quit my job and just went and traveled for a while. And by a while, I mean almost two and a half years.
Mad Fientist: Wow!
Paula: In my life, I’ve been to 27 countries. Seventeen of those I visited during that two and a half year span after I had quit my job. And it was a fantastic experience, but there was one little problem that was nagging in the back of my mind and it was that I was blowing through my savings and once my savings were finished, I would have to work again. So I put my mind to words, “What can I do that would help me avoid that?”
That was when I decided that I was going to come back to the US and really focus on creating some passive income. I moved back to the US. I moved to Atlanta, settled in Atlanta and started buying rental properties. And now I’m up to five units spread across three buildings all of which are in the Atlanta area. I’m hoping to collect a couple more this year and then after that, start paying down.
Mad Fientist: Yeah. That’s the thing I’m really excited to talk to you about, all those rental properties and how you got into that and all the challenges you faced along the way and things like that. Before we do, I definitely want to focus a little bit more on your site and your message in that two and a half years of traveling.
You say on your site that you can’t afford everything, but you can afford anything. I think that’s a really, really good point. That’s probably what plagues a lot of people. They try to afford everything and then they don’t have the money to afford what is actually important to them.
You saved up and probably sacrificed a lot along the way, but then you got to travel for two and a half years and see the world.
Paula: Right, exactly. So here’s this thing that really bothered me. When I quit my job and announced to all of my friends that I was going on this big trip, a lot of them said, “Wow! I would love to do something like that, but I can’t afford it.” That was what almost every single person said.
The thing is my friends lived in bigger apartments than I did, drove nicer cars than I did. They ate out more and drank more alcohol and got their hair done and got their nails done and wore nicer clothes. They spent a lot more than I did. So when they told me that they couldn’t afford it, I frankly don’t believe them because I think that they can. Many of them, they could afford it. They just didn’t make it a priority.
Sometimes when people say, “I can’t afford it,” sometimes they are simply trying to politely say, “It’s not important to me or it’s not a priority.” But a lot of times, people genuinely believe that they can’t afford it because they’re not conscious of the many ways that money is just leaking out of their life.
Mad Fientist: Right! One of your articles (that’s one of my favorites actually), there’s one that you talk about that where you say that when somebody goes out and buys a brand new Honda Accord or something, nobody says to them, “Wow! I wish I could afford that. Wow! that’s amazing.” I think you gave a couple of examples. It’s definitely true.
If you do something that’s out of the ordinary – in that sense, go travel the world – people are thinking, “Wow! How can she afford it?” But people are doing far more expensive and silly things with their money and it just seems to go unnoticed.
Paula: Right, exactly. You go out and you buy a car and if you pay cash for it, that’s $15,000. I know it depends on what kind of car you buy, but no one will ever say, “Wow! How on earth could you afford a Honda Civic? You must be rich.”
Mad Fientist: Yeah, it’s crazy. I really liked that article of yours because it is such a good point that you just really don’t think about. And I think it is in that article where there’s a quote that I really like that you had said, “Cutting on things that don’t matter and then spend money lavishly on things that do.” I think that’s a great point for people that are pursuing financial independence.
Freedom is the thing that they’re saving their money for, also great things like travel or whatever you want really as long as it’s a conscious thing rather than just doing whatever one else does.
Everyone buys a car as soon as they get out of college and eventually buys a house on hopefully 20% down maybe. And then, it’s just this cycle that everyone’s programmed into and then there are a lot of people that aren’t happy.
Paula: That’s the thing. Right now, I own a lot of rental – I guess a lot is a relative number. I have five rental units. I sometimes have friends that jive me. They’ll say, “Wow! Landlords, money bags. You own all these houses. Why is it that you’re too cheap to go get a pedicure? That’s only $25.”
It’s not a priority, that’s why. If I had to spare $25, would I rather put it towards getting financial independence or would I rather pay somebody to throw some paint on my toes?
Mad Fientist: Right, yeah.
Paula: And for me, the answer is obvious. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily the right or wrong choice for everybody. I’m saying you need to think very, very hard about what your priorities are and align your spending with that.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, absolutely. Another topic that I think linked to one of your posts actually, it’s about thinking like a creator and not like a consumer. There tends to be a lot of focus on frugality in the personal finance world and frugality is good. To me, it comes very naturally. Every expense is scrutinized just because it’s like, “Whoa! What am I spending money on this? This isn’t an investment.” But a lot of the focus is on frugality.
I really like the idea that when you’re always thinking about not spending, you’re still focusing on the wrong side of the equation. You’re focusing on spending. So maybe think like a creator instead of focusing on the earning side. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Paula: Sure! Well, there’s a mindset difference between abundance and scarcity. If you’re constantly focused on pinching pennies and saving money, I find that you’re operating from a scarcity mindset. You imagine that you have x amount of money and that is your threshold. And from that point, you try to save as much of it as you can.
Yeah, it’s important not to waste your money. It’s important to plug those leaks, absolutely. But your mental energy is limited. There’s only so much that the human brain can focus on. And while it’s important to not waste your money, it’s I think also very important to focus on the abundance side rather than the scarcity side and to think about, “How can I increase my income? How can I earn more? How can I create something awesome and do something good for the world and get rewarded for it?”
Here’s the thing. The personal finance world is full of people who want to talk about coupons and deals. Advertisers refer to coupons as ads. They’re coupon ads because they’re designed to get you to spend and they’re designed to get you in the store. Yeah, you’re spending less than you normally would. You’re paying $1.50 for that thing of yogurt instead of $2 for it. But at the end of the day, you’re still buying stuff and buying stuff is just not the mentality that we should be in.
I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with saving money per se, but I do think that there’s something wrong with being in this mindset that is so focused on consumerism and on pinching pennies and saving that you’re not thinking about “How can I create something and do something awesome and find a way to get rewarded for it?”
Mad Fientist: Yeah, it’s awesome. That’s definitely one of my favorite articles that you had written. I’ll link to it on the show notes. But yeah, it totally changed my mindset because like I said, frugality is something that comes very naturally to me. I’ve never liked spending money throughout my entire life really because I know what money can do and if you don’t spend it.
Just really thinking on the other side of the equation, it made a lot of sense and it’s something that I’ve tried to do ever since reading that article of yours. That’s great.
Speaking of what you can do to create wealth rather than spend it, I’m really excited to talk to you about your real estate portfolio and how that’s growing it seems because back when I started reading, it was shortly after I think you got your first one. Now you have five. So would you mind just talking a little bit how you got into real estate?
Paula: Absolutely. I got in and it was certainly almost by accident. When I moved to Atlanta – my boyfriend and I moved here together and didn’t really know the city very well and didn’t know anybody here. So I contacted the only person that I knew who lived in Atlanta, this girl who had gone to my college, and said, “Hey, where should I live?” She replied, “There are really lots of different neighborhoods here and the one that’s going to appeal to you depends on your personality and your style and your interests.”
So she said, “There’s this one particular neighborhood. It’s called midtown. It’s fun and it’s universally appealing.” She said, “Go just take a temporary six month sublet there and while you’re living there, you’ll get a feel for Atlanta and you’ll figure out where you want to live.”
We did that and it just so happened that as we were living there, we noticed the for sale sign in the track light across the street. So we’re in a very urban environment where land values are premium. So a lot of the houses here are multi-units. There are triplexes or four-plexes.
We had done the math on the place that we were renting and realized that our landlord was not getting a very good deal. And so when we saw that the house across the street was for sale and it was also a three-unit house, a triplex, we were curious. We wanted to do the math on it. It was selling at a pretty substantial discount because it was a short sale. The previous owner paid too much for it and now he was just trying to unload it.
So we crunched the numbers and found that we could make this property cash flow very, very well. We just bought it on a whim. So it was an impulse buy.
Mad Fientist: What year is this?
Paula: This was 2010.
Mad Fientist: Okay.
Paula: So we bought that house and then I blogged about it. And then one of my readers contacted me and said that she was a foreclosure agent in Atlanta and she led me to this house that was for sale for $21,000.
So that was another impulse buy. We just snapped it up. I say “impulse by,” but I mean we ran the numbers in a spreadsheet. We looked at the numbers and the math told us to do it. It’s so much sense.
Mad Fientist: Before you go on, what kind of neighborhood is a $21,000 house in 2010? Are you talking somewhere you’d be willing to live or somewhere you wouldn’t be willing to live, but at least it’s safe to go and paint the walls in?
Paula: In terms of neighborhoods, there are places that are dangerous, places where I would just be too scared to go particularly at night. And then there are places that are suburban and boring and what I would describe as blue collar suburban, working class suburban. They’re perfectly safe. I would and had spent a lot of time there, especially at night, especially because when you go down to fix the unit or do repairs, usually you’re going after work, that’s night time. That’s where this house is.
It’s a blue collar working class suburban neighborhood. It’s just non-descript, cul de sac suburb, so it’s “boring” in that regard and that’s the reason that I wouldn’t live there, but not because it’s dangerous by any means. It’s just not walking distance to the local dog park or yoga studio, the way triplex is. And those two types of houses appeal to very different clientele.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, I know you guys manage them yourselves. Is that correct? Are you still doing that?
Paula: We managed two of them ourselves and then one of them we had outsourced to a property manager.
Mad Fientist: Is it quite a lot of work? Or do either you or your boyfriend have management experience?
Paula: No. We’ve just learned it as we went along. Let’s see. Is it a lot of work? Well initially, the biggest component of work is the fact that these are all fixer uppers. So we’re not buying turnkey places that you purchase and then you can rent out the next day. We buy places that need a lot of work done. That’s really where the work comes in.
When we first started buying, we were trying to do the work ourselves. What we discovered was that if you do the work yourself, maybe you can do one house at a time, but you can’t really build a portfolio very fast if you’re doing it that way.
So once we started hiring contractors, that’s when more of our time was freed up to earn more money doing our jobs and then use that money to buy more houses. And we started building out a lot faster and growing a lot more once we switched from working in our business to working on our business.
Mad Fientist: Alright, that’s a great point. It gives hope to people that do want to start this, but feel that they have a full time job already and it may not be possible to go out and constantly fix things and houses and improve them. That’s really good.
When you do the work, the property management yourself, do you still include that in your cash flow statements? Is that correct?
Paula: Yeah, absolutely. If I’m doing the work myself, then I’ve got to pay myself the exact same amount that I’m going to pay a contractor or a property manager. I feel it’s very dishonest to run the numbers and say, “My profit is this much because I did the work myself and I’m valuing my own time zero.” That’s not profit. That’s just work that you’ve done.
So if you want to talk about passive income and you want to talk about financial independence, you’ve got to compare apples to apples. The only way to do that is to budget for the amount that you’re going to pay a contractor and the amount that you’re going to pay a property manager.
Mad Fientist: Absolutely, yeah.
Paula: After that, you budget for that money. You’ve put that money aside and then you make your hiring decision. If you choose to hire yourself, then cool. You pay yourself that money. And if you choose to hire somebody else, that doesn’t change the equation.
Mad Fientist: That’s a great point. What about mortgages? Are these financed properties? Did you…
Paula: The $21,000 house, we paid in cash. The rest, we financed. Mortgages are the hardest parts. What I encourage people to do is to get creative because people are stuck in this mentality of “Oh, you good at banking, you get a 30-year owner-occupant mortgage.” And that’s only one of many, many, many ways to get financing.
I mean you can get bank financing. You can get private loans. There are just so many ways to raise money. Think of it as building a business. How would you fundraise for a business that you want to start? There are multiple ways to do it, so real estate is no different than any other business in that regard.
Mad Fientist: Does it help if you are working full-time when you start out? Do you think getting that first foot in the door with the bank possibly?
Paula: For the banks, yes because they like to see that you’ve got the personal income to back it. For private lenders, no. In fact for private lenders, it makes you look like an amateur.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s a good point. How about property size? How is the triplex compared to the single family homes? As you’re looking maybe for your next property, do you have any preference?
Paula: What I encourage people to do if they want to invest in real estate is to pick one niche and one strategy. Here’s what I mean by that. A niche would be single family homes, two to four units, large multi-family homes of 4 to 16 units, commercial properties, office complexes, apartment buildings that are above 20 units. I mean there are so many different types of real estate out there, bare land, mobile home parks.
So pick one and focus on that and really learn everything there is to know about that particular type of property. So that’s your one niche. And then pick one strategy, whether that’s rent, buy and hold renting or flipping or wholesaling or lease purchase options or hard money lending to other investors. Pick one type of monetization strategy.
So you’re starting with one niche and one strategy and that’s what you’re focusing on, that’s what you specialize in. You start there and then once you’re very, very comfortable with that, then you can decide if you want to expand from that or not.
There are so many different ways to make money in real estate that buying a mobile home park and parceling it out and selling it off as lease purchase options is a completely different animal from buying small multi-family units and renting them. One of the main things that I talk about on my website again and again is that human brain is very limited and we can’t do it all and we tend to be successful if we really narrow our focus and pick one thing and just become the best at that.
Mad Fientist: That’s great advice. Did you make any mistakes along the way? You’ve been around for three years, but it sounds like you’re doing pretty good.
Paula: I think the biggest mistake in the beginning was trying to do the work myself. My boyfriend and I were trying to do the work ourselves and we were very much coming from this mentality. Remember we’ve just been traveling for two years. So we haven’t really been making any money during that time. So we were coming very much from a mentality of we don’t make that much and our time is not worth that much.
We were very much willing to devalue our own time and put ourselves through a lot of distraction and heartache and effort for the sake of performing a task that could be done by somebody else for $11 an hour. So that was probably one of my biggest mistakes in the beginning. This comes from that I tend to be naturally frugal. So being a little bit too much of a DIY-er I think was the big mistake and it slowed me down quite bit.
If I could have bought more houses in 2010 rather than waiting until 2012, I’d be doing a lot better because the market was a lot better back in 2010, a lot better. That was the time when the deals then were good.
Mad Fientist: Are you still finding anything that’s worth purchasing? Are you actively looking now for your next property?
Paula: I am, yeah. I want to buy a few more. But it’s a lot harder now than it was back then. Back in 2010, a lot of investors were scared and so there were a lot of houses on the market and not a lot of buyers. It was a great time to be shopping around.
Now, the recession happened so long ago, the housing bubble burst so long ago that everybody’s flooding back into the market. We’re reaching this point now where your grandma is talking about buying a rental property. When that happens, the good days are over.
Mad Fientist: Yeah.
Paula: I should say I know that’s true in Atlanta. Every real estate market is local. So I can’t comment on what things are like in Vermont or in Philadelphia or Detroit. But certainly for Atlanta, that’s true.
Mad Fientist: So it makes your job a bit harder, but I’m sure you’ll find something. There’s always opportunity in any kind of market I guess.
Mad Fientist: It’s just a little bit harder work. So what piece of advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of starting out? You sound like you just dove right in. Would you maybe do a little bit more – I don’t want to say more preparation because people, me included, just get hung up on preparation and you just read and read and read, but then take no action. So with diving right in, would you recommend that do you think? Obviously, you ran all the numbers and everything, but you didn’t spend three years reading every book you could get your hands on about real estate investment, I assume.
Paula: Right, yeah, exactly. I would say do both. Dive right in and read the books and read the blogs.
Mad Fientist: Hmmm…
Paula: I mean there is no reason that you can’t do both simultaneously. Limit yourself. Say that you’ll spend half an hour a day or 40 minutes a day reading books about real estate or reading blogs about real estate and then another 30 or 40 minutes a day actually doing something active to pursue that goal.
Last year, I went ahead and got my real estate agent license. And I don’t run around telling people that I’m a real estate agent because I don’t want to give people the idea that that’s my full time job or anything like that. But that was very helpful for giving me direct access to the FMLS.
So now I don’t have to rely on a third party to go look around and try and find something for me. I can just sit on the MLS and set my search criteria and look for house. When something pops up, I can jump on it right away. I can pick up the phone and call the listing agent right away.
Mad Fientist: That’s really cool. That’s something I’ve thought about. I know my wife may want to settle down eventually after our next planned maybe a decade of geographic arbitrage and traveling and living at long periods of time in different countries and things like that. So I’m trying to think of something that would really interest me in one place and I could see myself maybe 10 years down the road, living in somewhere that I enjoy and really just exploring all the different neighborhoods and taking the time to do that and then getting my real estate license and diving into real estate investment. So yeah, that’s good to hear that you think it’s worthwhile to go ahead and get that as an investor.
Paula: Yeah, absolutely. Honestly, it’s not that hard. It’s about 100 hours of work. I just took an online class. I studied on my own time at home and then went in and took the test. So yeah, the whole thing only took about 100 hours, spaced out over the span of about three or four months. So it really wasn’t that bad.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, that’s not bad at all. That’s cool. So now once you buy a couple of more properties and you have your real estate empire that you’re happy with, what are your plans after that?
Paula: That’s a good question because my boyfriend and I – his name is Will. We’ve been talking about it a lot because we’re at that point now where we’re trying to figure out whether we are in the acquisition stage or in the pay down stage. I mean we can both see that at least in the Atlanta area, the good deals are behind us.
For example, the area where we bought that $21,000 house, houses there are selling for $50,000 now. That’s in two years. Those home prices have doubled.
Mad Fientist: Has that increased a lot or not anywhere near doubled?
Paula: No, it pretty much stayed the same.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, okay.
Paula: Typically what happens is that when there are more buyers in the market, rents actually decrease because more people are able to buy houses, so there are less rental demands. Actually what happened with the recession was a lot of people lost their homes, so there were more renters on the market. So rent prices went up. As home values went down, rental prices went up.
And so one thing we’ve been a little bit afraid of is seeing if the reverse would happen if rental prices would go down now that there are more buyers in the market. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rental prices seem to be holding steady.
Mad Fientist: That’s good.
Paula: And regardless, we’re very strict about what houses we buy. We only buy houses with big, big margins so that rents could drop by 100 a month and we’d still be all right.
Mad Fientist: Right, yeah.
Paula: Yeah, having big, big fat margins of error is very nice for your peace of mind.
Mad Fientist: Yeah, absolutely. Have you decided? Are you in pay down phase then?
Paula: So we want to buy three to four more units, whether that’s in the form of one multi-unit property that has four units in it or whether that’s in the form of three of four single family houses – that I don’t know. But we want to buy three or four more units and then after that, we’re going to flip strategies and go into pay down. So yes, that’s pretty much the plan.
Mad Fientist: I know you’re interested also in geographic arbitrage. Are you heading abroad at any point in the next decade or so to maybe live and enjoy the rents coming in and expand it somewhere it’s a lot cheaper?
Paula: Maybe, I don’t know. I’m turning 30 this year. And I mentioned I’ve been to 27 countries. So I want to hit 30 by 30.
Mad Fientist: Nice.
Paula: So I’m going to Jamaica in May for a week, for a friend’s wedding. That will be country number 28. So I need to go to two more places before the fall.
Mad Fientist: Do you have any in mind?
Paula: I have no idea honestly. We’ll see what happens. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I need to get my wisdom teeth pulled. And being self-employed, I don’t have dental insurance. I’ve actually figured out I got a couple of quotes and I figured out that it’s cheaper for me to go to Bangkok and get my wisdom teeth pulled there than it would be for me to do it here in Atlanta.
Mad Fientist: That is crazy. I had a buddy that hurt his shoulder when he was studying abroad in Germany. I think he came back to the States after he was done studying. And he I guess got some sort of maybe an infection or something he was worried about.
It was cheaper to buy a plane ticket to Germany to get it looked at than it would be to get it checked up since he didn’t have insurance when he came back. So he flew to Germany and that’s what he did. Luckily he wasn’t infected. So he just flew back, which is absolutely crazy.
So we’re getting near the end of the interview. So I usually ask all my guests if there is one piece of advice you have for anyone that’s pursuing financial independence, what do you think it would be?
Paula: Good question. It sounds obvious, but just focus on ways that you can create passive income. I know that’s a little bit of a duh-statement if you’re trying to reach financial independence. But focus on ways to create passive income.
You know what I said earlier about picking one niche and one strategy and really zeroing in on that. I would actually advocate something like that if you’re trying to reach financial independence because there are many ways to do it. You could buy rental properties. You could become a dividend investor. You could write a song that gives you enough royalties that you’re completely financially independent.
There are lots of ways to do it. But pick one strategy and learn everything you can about that and just really focus on that one strategy.
Mad Fientist: That’s great advice. Yeah, focus on it and just kill it like you guys are doing with real estate. That’s awesome.
I just want to thank you again for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been wanting to speak to you ever since I’ve started reading your blogs and I thought I could pick your brain for a little bit. I’m sure the listeners there are thankful as well.
Is there any way people can get in touch with you? Just go to the blog or…
Paula: Yeah. If you go to the blog, there’s a contact button at the top. So just click that and my e-mail address is there and then there’s a contact form.
Mad Fientist: Perfect. Excellent. Thanks, Paula. Yeah, I really appreciate it.
Paula: Great. Thank you.
Mad Fientist: Take care. Goodbye.
Paula: All right. Bye.
Mad Fientist: Thank you very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Paula as much as I did. I often record these outros a few days after the interviews themselves. So it’s been about two days since I spoke with Paula, but I’ve actually been thinking about our conversation quite a bit since.
It’s really inspiring to hear that she and her boyfriend just dove into real estate investing. I know personally I tend to spend a lot of time reading and planning and researching in real estate investments, especially it seemed like they require lots of knowledge and lots of investigation. But to hear Paula’s story, it makes perfect sense.
They knew what the important numbers were. They’re able to reasonably predict the values that they didn’t know. And then they just did the math and realized that “Hey, this is a great investment. So why not just jump in?” And there’s no better way to learning than to just do something. So I’m sure they’ve learned more after purchasing that first property than I would if I spend two or three years reading everything I could on real estate investing.
It was a great story and it’s definitely made me think about how I tackle feature opportunities in investments. If you haven’t already checked out her site yet, I would highly recommend you go to AffordAnything.com. I’m going to link to some of the articles that we discussed in the show notes, but all of her posts over there are excellent. They’re definitely worth reading. So go over there and check them out.
Anyway, that’s it for me. So thanks again to Paula. Thank you for listening.
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