Archive for the ‘Tips & Advice’ Category:

How to Break Up With Your Real Estate Agent

Buying or selling a home rarely happens overnight, and it's not uncommon for buyers or sellers to interface or even work with multiple agents. Best-case scenario, the right agent shows their face early, and the relationship (and transaction) is a huge success.

But somewhere along the way, you may find that your relationship with your real estate agent just isn't working anymore. Maybe the agent is moving faster than you'd like. Or they're not as available as you need them to be. Maybe they just don't get you.

So what do you do? Is it OK to break up with your real estate agent? And if so, how do you gracefully end it?

The answer depends on whether you're working with an agent as a buyer or a seller.

Advice for buyers

Real estate agents earn their commissions from sellers, and the money is split between the sellers’ and buyers’ agents. As a general rule, buyers won't be asked to enter into a contractual or financial agreement with a real estate agent.

Instead, a buyer makes a (sometimes nonverbal) handshake agreement with the real estate agent. You're basically agreeing to exclusively rely upon that agent. And that's fair.

Agents often work hard and spend a lot of time engaging with buyers, watching the market, writing contracts, showing properties, reviewing disclosures and so on. Imagine how they'd feel after spending months working with a client only to be informed that another agent found them the home they want?

Before you shake hands, do your homework. Ask friends for references, and check out online agent reviews.

Going to open houses is a good way to meet and interview agents who work where you want to buy. Don’t jump in with the first agent you meet. Like any relationship, start slow and feel it out. It’s harder to break up with your agent if you’re deeply engaged.

If you're not quite ready to be tied down, it's better not to engage an agent until you are ready. Early on, a good real estate agent should read your situation well and provide the appropriate amount of attention as needed. They'll act as a resource and be available when you need them. Once the search kicks into high gear, agents and buyers will spend lots of time together and communicate 24/7.

If you do find that a relationship isn’t working, be honest and upfront before more time passes. Offer the agent constructive feedback about why it's not working for you.

Advice for sellers

Since the seller pays the real estate agent's commission, the brokerage requires the seller to sign a listing agreement upfront.  During the listing period, you're contractually obligated to work exclusively with the agent and brokerage firm, specifically on the sale of your home.

In fact, even if you find a buyer on your own (such as a friend), the listing agent or brokerage firm is still due their commission.

Just as a buyer must do their homework, it's even more important for a seller to do their research, given the commitment. Most listing agreements state that if the listing agent brings an offer at the listing price and the seller doesn't accept it, the agent is still due a commission. This scenario happens sometimes when the listing agent and seller aren't getting along.

In most situations, if the listing agent isn't doing a good job but there's still time left on the agreement, you should simply tell them it's not working out. A good, fair and honest agent will apologize for not meeting your expectations and will agree to release you from the agreement ahead of schedule. But that's not always the case, and sellers typically respond by no longer agreeing to open houses or considering offers from the agent.

Sometimes an agent wants to break up with the seller. Maybe the seller insists on keeping the price of the home too high or isn't cooperating to accommodate showings. The agent simply feels they can't be successful with the seller, no matter how much time they put into the job.

If you're a seller whose agent wants out of the agreement because you aren't taking the necessary steps to sell your home, it's best to let them go - and decide if you're really ready to sell or not.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Originally published September 2016.

Quiz: Should You Renovate Your Home or Sell?

Most homeowners have that one thing about their home that they wish were different.

For some, the home’s fatal flaw exists outside the four walls. Maybe the house backs up to a creek that floods whenever it rains, resulting in a squishy backyard and mosquitoes. Or perhaps the home is located on a busy street that generates too much traffic noise. It could just be that the house is too far from the homeowner’s job, and the long commute has gotten old.

If you’re feeling discontent with your home, you may be thinking about renovating … or getting out entirely. But before you knock down walls or put your home on the market, check out our quiz - it could help you think differently about your situation.


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Originally published March 2018.

Is Buying a Historic Home Right for You?

Some home buyers want new, modern and move-in ready. Others prefer older homes, with character and charm they can't find in new construction. If you’re interested in historic homes, take these factors into consideration as you shop.

Historic neighborhoods often impose restrictions

Many towns throughout the U.S. have zoning and planning commissions that, among other things, set out to preserve and protect historic homes and neighborhoods.

As a result, renovating and altering a historic home - particularly the building’s facade - will require a separate layer of approval and sometimes bureaucracy. If you buy a 100-year-old home, you may not be able to renovate it the way you want, and that is a serious consideration.

Some landmark or historic districts retain an immense amount of control. As a result, renovations and planning can take longer and cost more. If you’re purchasing a historic home with intentions to renovate, you should consult both an architect and town officials.

Recreating architecture from the past can be challenging - and expensive

Let’s consider the example of Victorian-era homes. Contractors and home builders constructed Victorian homes through the mid to late 19th century, often with materials that are no longer in use today.

If you buy a home in less-than-perfect condition, finding the wainscoting, picture rails, crown moldings, and richly decorative and ornate features common in Victorian architecture can be tricky. Architectural salvage companies can track down these materials, but there’s often a steep cost attached.

Repair and maintenance needs could be extensive

Most buyers want move-in ready homes because they don't have the time, money or energy to embark on a renovation project. These buyers also don't want to be burdened with systems going out or having to live with older or outdated technology. For them, it's a quality of life issue.

If you want a historic home, you need to have a maintenance strategy in mind. Unless you plan to do major renovations or updates (subject to any landmark or historic area regulations), you have to be ready to address issues that arise. Broken systems, leaks or flaws mean time and money.

For history buffs, no amount of time commitment or money will stand between them and a one-of-a-kind home. That person appreciates the architecture and knows that intensive maintenance is par for the course. If you don't share that appreciation, a historic home is not right for you.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Originally published February 2015.

5 Things to Look for in a Rental Listing

Whether you're looking for an apartment, single-family house or townhome - and whether you're in a city, the suburbs or a small town - be prepared to spend a lot of time online and even more time driving around to tour the most promising places in person.

If you want to save time and avoid headaches, make sure that every rental listing you consider has all the information you need. High-quality listings help you weed out the places that don't fit your criteria (wait, Fido's not welcome?), but they also indicate an organized, communicative and professional landlord - something every renter wants.

As you begin your search, consider these five important things every good rental listing should contain:

1. Detailed details

Front and center should be the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, square footage, storage space and a floor plan to help you visualize the layout.

Avoid listings with vague terms like "junior one bedroom" or "open one bedroom." According to Zillow research, 65 percent of renters require their preferred number of bedrooms. Landlords know this, so they get creative with descriptions to attract more tenants.

Another need-to-know detail is how safe the property is. Zillow research reports that 75 percent of renters said that a safe neighborhood is a must-have. Most landlords will say that the neighborhood is safe, so do your own research, especially if you're new to the area.

Speaking of being new - if you're moving to a new part of town or an entirely new city, look for listings with important facts about the neighborhood, including proximity to transit or major freeways, convenient shopping centers, and nearby recreation and entertainment options.

2. Amenities - all of them

Beyond basics like heating and kitchen appliances, every renter has different amenities that they consider must-haves.

The most popular amenities renters look for include air conditioning, in-unit laundry, ample storage and private outdoor space. Watch for other nice-to-have in-unit amenities, like recent renovations, hardwood floors, plenty of windows and upgraded kitchens.

Shared amenities should be included in the listing too - things like parking, rooftop decks, fitness areas, outdoor space, swimming pools and bike storage.

3. Major (and potentially problematic) policies

The listing should disclose any policies that could be a deal breaker for you. Examples include rules around pets (including specific breeds), the maximum number of people who can live in the unit, smoking, parking, noise and - most importantly - lease terms and length.

Additionally, see if you can tell if the landlord lives on-site or if a local property management company manages things. If the landlord is nearby, they'll likely handle repair requests quickly, along with general building upkeep and maintenance.

4. Clearly described costs

Make sure the landlord is exceptionally clear about the dollars and cents:

  • What is the monthly rent?
  • How much of a deposit is required, and is any of it refundable?
  • Are there any one-time fees?
  • Is there a pet fee or monthly charge?
  • Does parking cost extra?
  • Who pays for utilities?

These additional charges can quickly move a listing from feasible to fruitless, so make sure you have all the info you need to do the math ahead of time.

5. High-quality photos

Focus on listings that have not only good photos but also recent photos - and lots of them.

Look for listings that include both interior and exterior shots, plus photos of all shared amenities. But renter beware: If the landlord says the photos are of a similar unit - not the one that's actually for rent - you may find yourself in a bait-and-switch situation.

Once you find a few listings that include these details, you're off to a great start. You can more easily compare properties side by side, identify deal breakers and find areas where a landlord might be open to compromising.

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Originally published June 2018. Statistics updated January 2019.

How to Move Cross-Country: See How These Renters Made It Work

When former New Yorkers Erica Warren and Cici Harrison drove across the country and settled in the Pacific Northwest, they had a list of criteria for their new rental.

They’d need a parking space, a home office so Erica could work remotely and, of course, a yard so they could adopt a dog. And this rental couldn’t be too splashy, because a cross-country move is expensive enough.

All of this complicated their search in Portland’s tough rental market. Luckily the couple were able to stay locally with friends until they found the right rental. And their new home ticks all the boxes - while requiring some minor compromises to make it all work.

We chatted with Warren to hear how she and her wife navigated a cross-country move, including finding a home in a new city and making their new rental feel like home.

Where is your home, and how long have you lived there?
We're in the Southeast, specifically the Richmond neighborhood. We moved there in March of 2017, and we've been there a year and a half.

How did you find your rental?
When we got here, we were staying with Marty and Tera, our friends who live here locally. The day after we arrived, there was the biggest snowstorm Portland had ever had in 30 years. That put a damper on our apartment searching, because we couldn't drive our car or get anywhere. This place was actually the first one we saw, because it was in walking distance from Marty and Tera's house.

We heard about it because Tera had sent an email around at her job asking if anyone had a lead on a rental. Someone else who worked with her had recently purchased a duplex and was looking for renters for the other side.

We walked over and saw it, and it was a very nice place. But it was the first place we looked at. We had no context for if it was a good deal or not. Of course, it seemed like a good deal to us, coming from New York. I was like, "It has a washer and dryer, it has a yard - I'll pay any amount of money for that!"

So we didn't say yes right away, and then we probably spent the next two or three weeks looking at places. We looked at about a dozen places all over the city. We saw all the different variations.

At some point we were almost ready to sign a lease on a 1 bedroom in a new apartment complex. It was, on paper, everything we were looking for. And Cici, out of nowhere, goes, "Why didn't we want that first place that we looked at?" The one we were going to sign a lease for was 1 bedroom, and this was 2 bedrooms, and it was bigger, and the monthly rent was less. And we were like, "Oh, that was a much better place!" So we emailed the landlords to see if it was still available, and it was.

What price range were you looking for, and what did you end up paying?
We were looking in the $1,500-$1,700 per month range. This place ended up being right in the middle. It was $1,600 when we started the first year we were here, and it's now $1,685. It seems like a pretty reasonable price for the neighborhood we're in, because the rental market in Portland seems to be growing so fast.

What was the application and approval process like?
It was really straightforward. Our landlords live on the other side of the duplex, and they're really nice people. I think they were looking for good neighbors as much as they were looking for good tenants. So I think that also helped with the relationship.

Were there any surprise fees?
We paid first month's rent and a security deposit. The only extra fee when we moved in - we had just adopted Billie, and they had a $25 monthly dog rent. Which they told us about beforehand, because we were very particular about wanting a building that would allow us to adopt a dog. We got her a month after we moved in.

What was your cost of moving across the country?
We paid about $5,000 total for a full-service moving company, which is a lot of money. It was our biggest moving expense, but all we had to do was box up our things. They sent a whole team of people, packed our stuff into a storage cube, stored the cube for us, and then when we found a place, shipped it across the country. We didn't have to do any of the logistics, and we didn't have to do any of the carrying of things - we just had to pack a few boxes and unpack the boxes when we got here.

New York is notorious for small apartments. Is your Portland space bigger or smaller?
It's slightly bigger, and I feel like it's most noticeable in the kitchen. The kitchen that we have here is two or three times bigger than what we had in New York. I didn't know how much I wanted a really nice kitchen, but now that I have one, I'm like yes, this is exactly where we needed the extra space!

We also have outdoor space, which makes a huge difference. It's not huge - it's more like a patio than a yard. We have a little grill, and we can sit out there on a nice day. Plus, it's got a fence, so we can let our dog out.

Did you have any challenges making the place functional?
Nothing major. It was built in the ’60s or ’70s, but the landlords had renovated our unit before we moved in, so the kitchen, bathroom and flooring were all brand new - you know, everything works and is nicely designed, so that helped.

I did a little bit of work in the yard, just because it was a little muddy, and it's Portland, so it's wet in the winter, and Billie likes to dig. I got some pebble stones to fill in some of the muddy areas. We got into some light container gardening, because we never had outdoor space in Brooklyn. So we have a little blueberry bush, some star jasmine and some other little things I'm trying not to kill.

What else have you done to make your rental feel like home?
We painted a couple accent walls, which our landlords were totally fine with. We have this wide picture window in the living room that faces the road, but because of that you can see right into our house. So we got a custom shade that you can pull up from the bottom or pull down from the top, just so that we can have privacy but also sunlight if we want.

How long do you think you'll stay?
I don't know specifically. When we moved in, we talked about how we'd love to stay here until we're in a position to buy a house. One day I'd like to own a house - a dining room would be nice at some point in my life. But where we’re at right now, this is the right amount of space, and it’s a really great neighborhood.

What do you want from your next place, other than a dining room?
A big fenced-in yard for Billie! Cici’s mom sent us an article about how the thing that's finally getting millennials to buy houses is their dogs.

I'd also like a little bit more guest space so we could have people visit more frequently, because all of our family is on the East Coast.

And this is 100 percent because Cici has already claimed it - whatever house we buy has to have a basement so that she can play drums there. Number one is a yard for Billie, and number two is a basement for a drum kit and band practice.

Erica's tips for finding a rental in a new city

1. Look around to get a sense of the market

Look at as many places as possible. Because even if you don't want that unit, it gives you a sense of the market. So when you do find a good deal, you know that you have a good deal.

2. Know where you're willing to compromise

If you have enough money that you don't have to make sacrifices in renting, you probably don't need to be renting. So everything’s a trade-off. There's not a perfect rental out there. So it’s like, “This place has 2 bedrooms, but it's more expensive, or this place has a bigger yard, but it's farther out.”

3. Get a little help from your friends

We were so lucky to stay with Marty and Tera in their guest room until we found our own place. And Tera emailed co-workers to see if they knew of any rentals, which is how we ended up finding this place.

4. Conserve your energy and hire a full-service moving and storage company (if you can)

There’s enough stress in moving at all, amplified by moving cross-country. We probably could have gotten a U-Haul, packed it up, driven it cross-country and put our stuff into a storage unit here. But the logistics, let alone the physical labor, were not extra pieces of stress we needed. And even though it was really expensive, it was worth every penny.

Apartment photos by Erica Warren.

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7 Places in America That Will Pay You to Move There

If you're willing to move and if you meet the qualifications, many rural American towns are offering incentives aimed at attracting new residents and reviving their communities.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rural America housed more than half the country's entire population. While the number of Americans living in rural areas has been roughly stable over the past century - as urban and suburban America have boomed - its share of the total population has declined, falling from 54 percent in 1910 to just 19 percent in 2010.

This is due, in part, to migration to urban cores, especially by younger generations and the middle class.

This decline in population - and the accompanying social and economic challenges - is forcing rural America to come up with incentives to attract new residents back to rural communities.

Tribune, Kansas, offers such a program. "If you move here, we will pay down your student debt," explains Christy Hopkins, community development director for Kansas' least populated county, Greeley (in which Tribune sits).

This program, called the Rural Opportunity Zone (ROZ) program, offers perks to grads from big cities for moving to underpopulated towns in one of 77 participating Kansas counties. One of the incentives? They'll help you pay off your student loans - up to $15,000 over the course of five years.

And it seems to be working - for both the town and its new residents.

"We're the least populated county - we're 105th in population for counties in Kansas, and now we're eighth in college degrees per capita. There's a correlation to draw," says Hopkins.

Here are five towns and three states that offer a robust set of loans, programs and/or assistance for those seeking to become homeowners:

Curtis, Nebraska

Population: 891
Median home value: $79,000

Dream of building your own home from the ground up? Curtis, Nebraska, has a sweet deal for you. If you construct a single-family home within a specified time period,  you’ll receive the lot of land it sits on for free.

Marne, Iowa

Population: 115
Median home value: $75,300

Just 45 minutes east of Omaha, Marne will give you a lot of land for free - all you have to do is build the house (conventional construction or modular) and meet program requirements. Houses must be a minimum of 1,200 square feet, and the average lot size is approximately 80 feet by 120 feet.  

Harmony, Minnesota

Population: 999
Median home value: $93,900

Dreaming of a a newly built home in the Land of 10,000 Lakes? Good news: Your dream comes with a cash rebate.

The Harmony Economic Development Authority offers a cash rebate program to incentivize new home construction. Based on the final estimated market value of the new home, rebates range from $5,000 to $12,000, and there are no restrictions on the applicant's age, income level or current residency.

Baltimore, Maryland

Population: 616,958
Median home value: $116,300

Definitively not a rural town, Baltimore offers homeowners incentives that are too appealing to leave off this list.

Baltimore has two programs offering robust incentives for buying a home in the city. Buying Into Baltimore offers a $5,000 forgivable loan (forgiven by 20 percent each year so that by the end of five years, you no longer have a balance) if you meet certain qualifications.

The city’s second solution is a brilliant one. The Vacants to Value Booster program offers $10,000 toward down payment and closing costs when you buy one of the program’s distressed or formerly distressed properties.

New Haven, Connecticut

Population: 131,014
Median home value: $168,400

Also not a rural area, but offering an incredibly generous package of homeowner incentives, New Haven offers a suite of programs totaling up to $80,000 for new homeowners, including a $10,000 forgivable five-year loan to first-time home buyers, $30,000 renovation assistance and/or up to $40,000 for college tuition.   

Alaska

Population: 739,795
Median home value: $310,200

Alaska offers incentives for veterans and live-in caretakers of physically or mentally disabled residents. They even have a manufactured home program and a rural owner-occupied loan program. See the full list of programs here.

Colorado

Population: 5.6 million
Median home value: $368,100

Colorado offers traditional programs that assist with down payments and low interest rates, but it also has a disability program that helps first-time buyers who have a permanent disability finance their home.

The state also has a down payment assistance grant that provides recipients with up to 4 percent of their first mortgage, which doesn't require repayment.



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Originally published October 2017. Information updated October 2018.

How to Make the Most of 500 Square Feet: See How This City Renter Did It

When Lola Simmons and boyfriend Garrett Moore began looking for an apartment in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, they were hoping to spend around $1,400 on monthly rent. So when the pair found their dream spot for just over $1,000 a month in Seattle's infamously difficult rental market, they knew they'd struck gold.

"I walked in, and after about two minutes, I said, 'Yep, I'll take it,'" says Simmons.

From there, the process was easy, and the couple experienced little surprise throughout their move-in - besides an out-of-commission antique freight elevator on move-in day.

We sat down with Simmons to discuss how she found the perfect rental and how she's made the cozy 500-square-foot space into a home over the past three years - including turning the walk-in closet into a bedroom.

How did you find this place?
Garrett's good friends lived here, and they were moving out. They were looking for someone to take over their lease.

So after the lease was up, you renewed? Did the price change?
Yeah. When we moved in, I think it was $1,050, and when we renewed the lease, it went up to $1,245. Now it's $1,270.

And what about utilities?
They have a set rate included in the rent, which I thought was a unique way to do it. The only thing we pay for is electricity, which is about $40 every three months or so.

Other than it being a great deal, what else drew you to this place?
I've always wanted to live in this building, ever since I moved to Capitol Hill. Everyone's lived in this building. It's kind of special.

I think it's so cool that every apartment in this building is different. Each one has its own character. Even if you go into another one with the same layout, it's still totally different. Some flooring is different or the tile in the kitchen. It's really interesting.

When the old building manager was here, he'd leave the doors unlocked for me so I could go into the empty apartments and look at the different layouts.

It can be easy for a rental to look basic, but you've totally personalized yours. How did you make your space unique?
I'm drawn to that '70s palette that's really saturated and drab, and also those really bright '80s colors. I've acquired a lot of stuff. I think as much as I'd like to be a minimalist, I like to have stuff.

We've got a lot of plants, and I think tending to those is really fun. Learning about them, making it cozy for the cats - there's really nowhere in here they can't be.

Having a lot of music and books and colors everywhere was really something that I was working toward, and I just really love the junk stores, so I go and buy a bunch of stuff. It scratches the itch, you know?

It's hard for me to understand why people would spend a ridiculous amount of money on stuff. I like to mismatch stuff and make it work. It's not as easy as buying straight from IKEA, but you're not going to find the same stuff in someone else's house. The thrill of the hunt is important to me.

Garrett has a lot of worldly things like instruments and things from his travels, and it definitely goes with my stuff, but it makes it feel more cultured.

Other than sourcing interesting items, what's been your greatest challenge with your apartment?
There have been a lot.

The outlets. It's an old building - it was built in the early 1900s, and you have all these gadgets today. From our living room outlet, we run a cord into the closet, which is also the bedroom, so we can charge our phones at night.

When we first moved in, the only outlet in the bathroom was the one attached to the light fixture. It was blown out when we first started living here, so I had to blow-dry my hair in the living room.

When we moved in, I had a queen-size bed, and basically it was sandwiched in there with the edges coming up on the sides against the walls. We ended up getting a full-size bed, and it fits perfectly - exactly. I mean, if the bed was a quarter of an inch bigger it wouldn't fit.

And then storage is a huge challenge - making it look like it's not just a bunch of stuff everywhere. We have a lot of under-the-bed storage. You have to get really creative.

So what do you want out of your next rental?
I really want a bathroom that has a huge clawfoot tub with a lot of natural light. An actual-sized bedroom, to be able to walk on either side of the bed, maybe have a nightstand. And I just want a really big kitchen.

Despite what it lacks in space and outlets, how do you feel about your apartment?
My childhood was all over the place, and we moved around a lot, and I never had that sense of "home." We're entertaining the idea of moving to California because of the seasons - it gets kind of hard when it gets cold and gray.

I'll be really sad to leave this apartment. It's honestly the first place I've lived that I've really, really loved.

Lola's tips for small-space living on a budget

1. Live with a complementary partner

I think if you're going to live in a small space, you have to really have a plan about responsibilities, because they pile up. And he pretty much lets me have my way when it comes to design, which is good.

2. Get creative with storage solutions

A lot of that isn't stuff that comes to me right away, but I experiment by moving stuff around and asking if it's functional - is it in my way? Does it serve the purpose I'm looking for?

It sometimes takes a long time. It's a lot of measuring and returning things, and it's not always easy, but I think it's rewarding. I feel really accomplished when something fits perfectly.

3. Let your space evolve

I'm not very patient whatsoever, but something I've learned is that when you don't have a large budget or you shop the way I do at secondhand stores, you have to be patient. You don't know what they're going to have.

You also have to cycle things out. Our free pile in this building is great - I've gotten so many cool things from that.

4. Look for unique ways of acquiring items

I got a table from the free pile, and the top was really worn down, so I was going to sand it and restain it. But once I sanded it, I realized it was particle board, so I returned all those supplies and got paint. I also added a shelf below it to put my blankets in.

I think repurposing things and making sure they fit with all your other stuff is the trick. There's a bunch of other shelves in here I painted the same color with the rest of the paint. They were different colors, and it looked kind of weird, so I but painted them orange.

You work with what you have. I think it's really fun, because I like DIY projects. Being able to think of what you want and then create it with a really small amount of money is really pleasing to me.

5. Measure the benefits against the costs

Our security deposit was only about $300, so if we did want to repaint at any point, I might consider taking that hit. You want your space to look the way you want, you know? It's a lot of work, though, to paint a whole room, so I'd have to really think about it.

Photos by Callie Little.

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