September 10, 2021

JF2565: 5 Ways to Unlock Value in New Developments with Joshua Benaim

Former Wall Streeter and real estate private equity investor Joshua Benaim is constantly working to marry a value investment approach and apply it to real estate investing. He’s currently working on investments in New York, Washington, Miami, Charlotte, Kansas City and Nashville. Joshua tells us why he was confident he’d be successful in an insecure market at the time, the key item he looks for in developments, and the top five ways he finds value in new developments and new builds.  

Joshua Benaim Real Estate Background:


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Ash Patel: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to the Best Real Estate Investing Advice Ever Show. I’m Ash Patel, and I’m with today’s guest, Josh Benaim. Josh is joining us from New York City. He has over 20 years of real estate investing experience. Josh has acquired, renovated or developed over 2000 multifamily units, and specializes in finding value opportunities.

Josh, thank you for joining us, and how are you today?

Josh Benaim: Terrific. Thanks a lot for having me.

Ash Patel: Wonderful. Before we get started, can you give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and what you’re focused on now?

Josh Benaim: Sure. I’m a real estate investor and developer, kind of an entrepreneur in the real estate world. I’m also a dad, I’m a father of three, and sometimes I’m an opera singer, if you catch me in the right moment. And I’m working on a number of developments; the company that I created, Aria, is the developer and investor in about six or seven projects at the moment that we have going up between New York, Washington, Miami, as well as Charlotte, Kansas City and Nashville. So we’re always looking to expand our horizons, but bring the same ethos and the same strategies. And the strategy and the approach that we’ve espoused over the years has been to marry a value investment approach, the kind that is used by Warren Buffett and other kind of value investors, primarily in the stock market, and apply it to real estate investing, as well as to bring an old-world traditional real estate developer, which is kind of the hands of a craftsman and the eye of neighborhoods and location, which is coming from the real estate world, and bring those two things together. That’s kind of our special sauce.

Ash Patel: And how did you get started in real estate development?

Josh Benaim: I actually started in finance on Wall Street. I did a couple of years in investment banking, and sort of got to understand the financial side and valuation. And then I moved over to part of the company that was focused on real estate, which was real estate finance in the beginning. And that was a time when then things went haywire; there was the Russian default—this was in the late ’90s—and the financial markets went upside down. It was kind of a preview of some of the things that we have seen in the last number of years. But it got me a bit hooked.

And then I had a chance to work with my uncles, who are in the real estate space and who are terrific guys and mentors, and really taught me an enormous amount. So I had a chance to work with them on building a building in lower Manhattan. I mean, this was not that long after September 11. And basically, we had to understand the subsurface conditions, what was underneath the ground to build a high rise in downtown Manhattan. And there were pneumatic caissons, these gigantic concrete columns going all the way basically to bedrock, that had to be removed. But it was right next door to a subway line, with a 100-year old brick subway tunnel, about two feet away from the property line. So designing and developing this building, which we eventually ended up selling en route to developing it, was super exciting, just figuring out how you can excavate the site, given that it was full of concrete, but you could barely touch it, because you didn’t want to touch the subway. We put in seismographic machines to test for earthquakes, to see if we were digging too hard, to make sure that it would not affect the subway, because you have hundreds of thousands of people going through each day, and their lives depended on that.

So that was my moment when I thought, “This is a really exciting industry,” and I had the potential for mentorship and some really difficult challenges, and I think that’s probably when I got hooked.

Ash Patel: And Josh, for my own curiosity, how deep was the bedrock at that site?

Josh Benaim: It was about three stories down.

Ash Patel: That’s a lot of digging.

Josh Benaim: It’s a lot of digging to do with what was described by one of the engineers as “digging with a spoon.”

Ash Patel: Yeah.

Josh Benaim: Because you couldn’t blast anything, you couldn’t use heavy equipment for fear of doing damage to the neighboring buildings. And there were a lot of more twists and turns in that development, but it was almost like archaeology. Because you’re going down into New York City history, other buildings nearby, you have to make sure that the water pressure wasn’t removed, because otherwise you could risk buildings on the same block; if you suck out all the water all of a sudden — not only did we have to excavate it, but there was water down there. So you have to pump the water, but you have to actually create what’s called a bathtub before you take out the water, because if you start pumping the water, then everybody else’s water goes away. And then their buildings could fall down, which you don’t want to have happen.

Ash Patel: What a dynamic introduction to development. What was your next step on your path to becoming a developer?

Josh Benaim: Oh, wow. That was a time in which I had just spent a number of years singing opera. So it’s two completely different worlds collided. And I think what I realized, coming from a very cautious background, and conservative way of looking at business, and from the financial side — in opera I got to see the marketing, performance, the product creation… Because you are the product, and you create it, and you have to put it out there every day. And if you do a mediocre job, you’ll be instantly forgotten, and no one could care less. You can also fail; you can go out there and just fail. I was not sure if I could really be an entrepreneur, I’m a more cautious individual.

So the combination of opera and that kind of introduction to real estate development made me realize that I needed to do this. What I then did is I went to business school, I’m still cautious; I was not ready to go crazy. Entrepreneurially, it’s come to me over time; I went to business school, then I went and worked in a real estate investment shop for three years. So I kind of tried to learn as much as I could, and put the pieces together to be able to do this. But I didn’t get back into development really until a few years later. And I think there were a couple of seminal moments. One was renovating a historic building in Washington. That was unbelievable. But I thought I could do it single-handedly, kind of like the way I’d heard my uncles had done it… You just get in there and you’re like, “Okay, put the kitchen over here, put the fridge here.” I didn’t have an architect, I barely had a contractor, I would run over to Home Depot to pick up some stuff… And it was kind of a disaster, but we’ve made a really good deal and done really well with the neighborhood and the community, and that worked out. That was another sort of moment of becoming a developer.

And I would say another key moment was when I joined my partners, David and Tim, that I’d known since childhood… But we decided to pursue a project in Miami Beach. And it was a defaulted note that had a piece right on the water. This was during the last financial crisis. And we made a deal with the borrower to take the property and let him off the hook on a bunch of other stuff. And then we had suddenly this awesome site in Miami Beach to develop. And sitting there looking at that basically one acre sitting right on the beach, which we had figured out how to get – you sit out there and you look at this site, and you have to envision what are you going to build? Who’s the customer? What’s your product? And how do you make something that’s really extraordinary when you have a site of that caliber, whether it’s New York City or anywhere that is a meaningful location – you’ve got to do justice to it. So that really kicked us into high gear to try to shape that site. And that I would say, that was the next real seminal moment.

Ash Patel: Josh, were your partners developers already?

Josh Benaim: My partners were in the real estate business and in the financial business. But I think to a certain degree, we became developers together. One of my partners, David Arditi, who’s based in Miami – he had developed a couple of buildings with his father, and was the most hands-on developer of us. And he had actually paid back the bank in the case of that project, where the bank was delighted. And that’s how we got that other deal, because the bank came to him and said, “This is a guy who helped us out and made sure he paid it back during the other times.”

So David had done this, and I had done some renovation work on a smaller scale, but I had not really developed a building like that. So 321 Ocean in Miami Beach was really our collective development learning journey. And then some smaller buildings in Washington and New York were simultaneously projects that we did on a renovation basis. To really know real estate inside out, I think you have to build ground up and you have to renovate. Each one has its slightly different skill set, and they can both be really hard. People who do ground-up say they would never touch renovation, it’s impossible. “Once you open the walls, you’re finished.” People who do renovation would say, “Well, I’ve never touched that ground-up. I don’t want to get under the ground. I don’t want to excavate. I don’t want to deal with utilities and neighbors and the permitting and supportive excavation.” So you really want to have the whole enchilada in terms of that experience.

Ash Patel: Let’s focus on the Miami Beach location. Can we do a deep dive on the numbers on that one?

Ash Patel: Sure. So you got to note… What was that amount for?

Josh Benaim: It was approximately $125 a foot per buildable foot; it was under $10 million. Basically, our underwriting was that we would be all in for about 550 a net sellable foot, and sell at 850 a net sellable foot. As we did the project, we then went through an extended rezoning process in regards to the neighborhood, because we were sandwiched between two long skinny buildings. So we had this frontage, we had 100 feet of golden frontage right on the water, but we had 400 feet of depth. And most people who looked at it, including some of the big, big players, said, “It’s too deep, we’re not going to do much with the depth.” Not that many units are going to face the water, and it would be a sort of a long and skinny building, facing the sides.

We went through a process with the neighborhood where we listened to everybody in the neighborhood, and at that time there was an openness to improving the zoning to make something of high caliber get built and to get something residential built, because things were getting foreclosed left and right. So we made an agreement with the neighborhood and the Zoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Board and the mayor and the council members, who voted twice, to approve a reallocation of some of the footage from the middle to one part of the building, basically an extra 25 feet of height on the side that was closest to the water, and then reduced the height in other places and reduce the bulk of the building in other places.

So we created a courtyard in the middle. While we were doing this, we were originally planning to do efficient, smaller medium-sized units. The market started going up, because it took a long time from 2010-2011, we were working through 2012, and the market started picking back up significantly. So we kept making slightly larger units, because the family-style larger units in such a luxurious location – there was nothing left on the beach.

So finally, we ended up creating floor-through apartments, two on a floor with a private elevator, and each apartment would have both East and West views and sunset/sunrise, breeze. We ended up developing a somewhat quite luxurious product. This is the most luxurious thing we’ve ever built. We’ve often done some stuff that is much more affordable and still luxurious, but this was luxurious-luxurious. So we ended up building two to a floor. The first three buyers combined two units, and took 3,000 feet and just made them 6,000 feet mansions. And that was sort of unexpected, but it ended up costing more than we had anticipated. We made a nicer building with bigger balconies and a higher quality finishes, and we ended up selling for a lot more than we had underwritten also.

Break: [12:47] to [14:48]

Ash Patel: This was a courageous move, because back then nobody wanted to touch Southern Florida. There was so much inventory online.

Josh Benaim: Yes.

Ash Patel: And foreclosures were left and right. Why did you guys think you were going to be successful at residential development?

Josh Benaim: It’s a great question. It’s hard to put ourselves back in those shoes as you have just done. Because now it seems like, “Ah, you know, everyone likes Miami. It sounds like a great place.” At that time, it was the worst thing and no one would touch it. Everyone we talked to said we were complete morons, it was the worst idea, and there was seven years of inventory on the market. I think there was a few things.

One is we realized that this was a very scarce and rare site. So one of my favorite things that I’d say — best piece of advice in real estate is to look for something that’s rare and precious. The best thing is something irreplaceable; nobody can compete with that. And we had a piece of oceanfront, and everything else was either developed or condominiumized. So there were no other really good sites available. So I think that gave us confidence that we would be protected. And I still try to look for that. You can’t always only buy irreplaceable stuff; sometimes you do buy stuff that’s middle market, more commodity-type stuff, and then we try to develop something special.

The motto that we started the company with was “location, scarcity, and beauty.” So that particular site hit all three of those buttons; the location in the south of the Fifth neighborhood that was just up and coming; the scarcity value, because I was going to say they’re not making any more ocean. But then again, I’ll tell you some funny stories, that doesn’t always work out so well. It was a sufficiently rare piece of property. Then we did something that was from a design and sort of marketing and human interest point of view a beautiful project, that people really related to, that was useful and enjoyable and added to the neighborhood. So, yeah.

Ash Patel: So Josh, just so our Best Ever listeners can get a visual of this… What was that address again?

Josh Benaim: It’s 321 Ocean Drive, in Miami Beach. Third and Ocean. It’s a modern building. We did it with Enrique Norten, who works between Mexico City and New York.

Ash Patel: In that climate, were you able to pre-sell any of these units? Or was this an apartment? Are you leasing them or selling them?

Josh Benaim: No, this was a condominium.

Ash Patel: Okay.

Josh Benaim: And we were able to pre-sell some of the units. But in that environment, buyers wanted to see the building going up, because people had lost faith that developers necessarily could — and rightfully so, they could always finish their jobs. So we started the construction, and I believe then we did pre-sell a number of those units. We possibly sold them a little bit early, but some of the units didn’t make sense until you were standing in them.

I remember there was a second-floor duplex, that duplex down to what we call the “villa units”, that were right on top of the pool in the ocean. That was almost like having your own private beach house. And we knew these were terrific apartments. However, it wasn’t apparent that you would have such a spectacular view until we built it, and then I stood there and I saw that you’re looking at the ocean right in front of you. It’s literally like having your own home on the water, because you’re at that low height. Many people thought, “Too low, it’s not a good floor; it’s way too low.” In fact, you have a great view from 26 feet in the air or whatever, I don’t remember, but you’re up there. So we saved some of them for later.

In our more recent projects, which we’re doing downtown, which are spearheaded by David, we have a couple of projects,  YOTEL and a YOTELPAD, which is nearing completion… And then we have just launched sales on Fifth Street called 501 Residences. And we have entirely pre-sold that project, without commencing development.

Ash Patel: And that is in—

Josh Benaim: In the last, I would say six weeks, we’ve pre-sold 400 units, which to me is mind-blowing. And basically, I guess, once you seal your reputation in that marketplace, that you actually deliver the goods and your product is high quality, and you show up with a building when they want to close, then you really have the ability to pre-sell more.

Ash Patel: Josh, throughout this interview, you’ve mentioned finding value. What are some of the ways you found value in both new developments and renovations?

Josh Benaim: I really like to look for things that other people don’t appreciate, because that’s where I think the value is going to be. So what are the things that everybody else says is a headache – complex structures, upside-down capital structures, partners that don’t want to talk to each other necessarily, fractured interests where leases—where you buy the land underneath the lease that’s got let’s say 10 or 20 or 30 years left… Rent control, tenant negotiation – things where we’ve come in as a white knight in many cases, because we’ve been willing to work hand in hand with tenant advocates and the tenants themselves. Most people don’t want to sit down on the floor and spend a few hours talking to people that are not necessarily from their world. In some of these buildings, you’re talking about people of all income brackets. I spent a number of times working with Ethiopian immigrants and Latino immigrants and making sure that they get what they need in terms of housing.

One of our DC projects, I actually have rebuilt, we worked with a number of rent-regulated tenants to build and redevelop their site. And then we offered everyone the option to move back into the building upon completion, and we would help cover their expenses in the meantime. And a number of those people have actually moved back into one of these, including an 80+ year old African American lady who’s blind, and is the sweetest, most generous person that held my hand through a lot of this process. And I got to put her back into her own brand new home, after 60 years in that building, with no one paying attention or couldn’t care less.

So again, there are a lot of things in here, I’ve got to unpack this… But what I’m trying to say is that value can be found; you have to look for true value where other people may not want to go. And other people might not have said that there’s value in this kind of a site that has a building next to it in Miami Beach or in that particular market, or in a deal where you have to sit down with an 80-year old blind lady and help her life and make sure she is great, and that it works out, and then you get to fix that.

I think that finding fixer-uppers where essentially something needs to be fixed, something needs to be changed, but then when you change it, you unlock all that value. That’s how I go about doing it. And I often look for the value more than the projects. A lot of the time—it’s gotten harder to do this, but I look for the strange situations. I have my ear to different creative brokers, attorneys, engineers, architects, and often they’ll say, “Well, there’s this puzzling situation… This brother and sister own a piece of land, I don’t know what to do. The brother wants this, the sister wants this. What do we do with this?”

So I think that value comes from being able to look and trust yourself that you see something that other folks don’t see, and you’re willing to tread where other people might fear to tread.

Ash Patel: Yeah, that’s a great outlook. You know, you mentioned buying land with a long 10-20 year lease on the building above it. What do you do in that situation?

Josh Benaim: It’s one of the coolest kinds of investing; it’s very hard to find anybody who’s willing to do this with us, but we have found some really incredible investors that have come into this kind of a project with us. And basically, you’re buying at a massive discount. We bought a piece of land in Florida, another piece on the water that looked like it was too good to be true.

David called me and he said that one of his friends who is a broker represented this deal. And it was like, “Wow, everything’s great about this and it’s so cheap. What’s wrong with it?” And then it was, “Oh, it’s leased for 36 years with zero income.” But then we were like, “Well, that’s super interesting, because no one’s going to touch that.” That is something that is definitely going to go for a real monster discount.

So we ended up buying it for something like 15 cents on the dollar of what it would have been worth unencumbered today. What happens in those deals – and each one is different, because these are deals that are like archaeological artifacts that you find because somebody in their 20s or 30s or 50s or 60s did a long-term lease, and now time has passed and it’s coming due and nobody had really thought about that. So anything with 30 years or fewer on the lease left, it gets complicated, because who’s going to put money into something? Tom Friedman used to say that, “Nobody ever washes a rented car.” So who’s going to put cutbacks into a property that is ultimately going to go away? You’re only leasing for a while. So there always are complexities around that.

So my theory on those deals is that the most secure kind of deal – they’re almost like a very senior bond, like a triple-A bond, but a zero-coupon bond. And if you buy for 15 cents on the dollar, that means you’re making roughly seven times your money in 30 years, plus inflation; because that’s the value today. But if there’s inflation of 2% a year for the next 30 years—we did the math, actually—it’s like a high single digits return on your money for 30 years, but it’s like a guaranteed seven times your money. So that’s kind of cool, because the passage of time is your only catalyst. It’s kind of like the most brilliant value investment thing possible, if you have the patience or you want your kids to enjoy something that you may not be around. Some of the people that I spoke to were like, “I’m not going to be around, forget this. I don’t want to do that thing.” But what people don’t necessarily realize about these long-term type of structured options is that there may be a win-win with the tenant somewhere down the road. Maybe it’s not the full 30 years, maybe it’s in 10, maybe it’s in 15. Because essentially, at some point, they don’t want to put more money in it. It’s probably not its full potential. In this case, it was like a ’50s motel that was right on the water.

So we suspected that at some point, somebody would be reasonable and say, “Look, you know, there’s only 15 years left. Let’s just make a deal and we’ll buy you out, you buy us out” or somebody will do something to unlock all the value of having a two-story building where you could build 15 stories. It did make sense. Then somebody builds a big hotel down the block, very high-end property, and started mopping up the block. We are still in the denouement of this investment—it’s a long story. But basically, I think it’s going to work out quite well.

Ash Patel: You’re still holding it.

Josh Benaim: We’re still holding it at this moment. But I think it’s quite possible that it may be monetized well in advance of that term, because it’s worth a lot more to someone else. And that was—

Ash Patel: That’s a great out-of-the-box mentality, because you’re right, no one’s going to touch that deal. No one has the patience when they could deploy capital and get double-digit returns.

Josh Benaim: Right. On the other hand, if nothing happens, you make seven times your money, at least. If there’s inflation, you’ll probably make 15x your money over a very long period of time. But if something goes right, which occasionally does happen; mostly things go wrong, but sometimes things do go right like in this case… I think things might have gone right for us. So I think we will be realizing a very nice return in seven years. You never know, it’s not done yet. But it becomes a very interesting standoff, because who’s going to blink first. But in those situations, you want to be the one on the ground. You don’t want to be on top, with a melting ice cube… Because every day that passes, we get closer; every year that passes, we get closer.

Ash Patel: Yeah, patience is going to win that game.

Break: [26:33] to [29:32]

Ash Patel: Josh, what’s your advice to somebody who’s been in the renovation industry and they want to try their hand at ground-up development?

Josh Benaim: Well, I think it’s a great training for ground-up development. I think it’s the best training for ground-up development, because what you really learn in renovations is floor plans. You have to milk every inch of that property. You don’t get to change anything about it. You don’t get to change the outside. You don’t get to change the location, the address; every inch of that kitchen has to be perfect. You have to have the bedroom the exact right size; the living room, the exact right size. If it’s an office, or a hotel, or a home… In renovation, you hold constant a lot of variables; the facade, the decoration, the ceiling heights, what kind of windows you have – all this stuff pretty much gets held constant and you focus purely on the floor plans. The floor plans to me in business – that’s your purest business plan. The floor plans and real estate to me say, “Who is your customer? What is your value proposition? And how are you designing it so that every inch is utilized, and you’re not wasting any foot?” Especially in renovation, no square foot can go wasted.

For example, in Washington, when we renovated a building that was used by the IMF as kind of a residential hotel product, they had nine units on each floor. We changed the floor plate to 10 units. But they had all studios and one-bedrooms. I had four two bedrooms, three one-bedrooms and three studios on each floor. So I added about 50% more bedrooms. This was during the last downturn, where roommates was a really great product for that location. So tons of students.

So I was saying, we could get much higher rent per square foot if we put that into bedrooms, instead of living rooms, big closets. That’s not always the case, but you have to know your customer and the market. So we said, “Look, a lot of this is going to be roommates.” And we have nice one bedrooms and studios, but nobody’s tapping that. So when it first came out, the newspapers said, “What do you think it feels like to live in a shoebox?” I was like, “Thanks, guys> You’re really helping my [unintelligible [00:31:44].23]”

But basically, they hadn’t been there. They hadn’t seen it. Nobody who walks into that place—everyone thinks it’s much larger, because of the way it’s designed, to feel spacious, open… And the rents we got, that’s a $4 per square foot per month market. So 50 bucks a foot per year rent. We’re getting $5 a foot. So it’s a significant premium if you make every inch count. And in that case, we made it count with bedrooms; more bedrooms, not larger.

Ash Patel: That’s a great example of how you—

Josh Benaim: Totally different.

Ash Patel: —continue to unlock value out of properties. Josh, you mentioned earlier your best real estate investment advice is learn the development and the renovation side. I’m going to ask you what your second-best real estate investing advice ever is.

Josh Benaim: That tough. I would definitely say, read my book; that would be the second, number two, because it’s all got all the juicy stuff in there.

I would say number two is really know your customer. Once you’ve mastered renovation and development, and you can master also investing and acquisition, buying it right… The key to developing it right—basically, you’ve got to buy it right and you’ve got to build it right to make a great deal.

And I think the key to buying it right has to do with finding the right situation, understanding value. The key to building it right, whether it’s development or renovation, is to know your customer. That’s the “Who are you building for?” And the floor plans are really the physical manifestation of your business plan, which is the physical manifestation of who your customer is. Are you building this for roommates? Is it senior citizens? If it’s for senior citizens, try blindfolding yourself and walking around and see how you feel. Are the buttons at the right height? Does everything feel right? Can you tell what the elevator is — imagine if it’s for young couples; why don’t we put two vanities? In the same space, we can put two vanities.

In one of our projects in Washington in a normal neighborhood that we’re about to break ground on, I’ve read that 52% of the people in that neighborhood are couples, of the apartment renters. So I said, “Why don’t we make many of these one-bedrooms—,” you can’t give luxury on everything. You’ve got to pick your battles. But maybe I would say, I’m going to make a one-bedroom that’s 600 square feet, 585, nothing crazy, kind of efficient. But then I’m going to give them some delightful things, like a really cool design kitchen and two vanities so people don’t kill each other.

And I guess if I would sum up, my second big piece of advice would be “low cost with meaning.” Can you deliver something at a very reasonable price that’s fun, sexy, meaningful, joyous, beautiful, that really makes your customer light up? I think that’s the art of development. And it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. But that’s what creates value on the build; not just the buy, but that creates value on the reno or the build.

Ash Patel: Josh, are you ready for the lightning round?

Josh Benaim: Oh, my gosh. Okay. Yes.

Ash Patel: Alright, let’s do it. Josh, what’s the best ever book you recently read?

Josh Benaim: I read a terrific book called The Immortality Key, which is about the ancient Greek mysteries and their philosophical religious experience, and an archaeological and botanical exploration of what exactly they were drinking in those potions, and what exactly was going on in their brain; but it reads like a thriller. It’s a great historical exploration that reads like a thriller, because you’re trying to find out what was in those wine glasses. And it’s a great read.

Ash Patel: Josh, what’s the best ever way you like to give back?

Josh Benaim: I like to give back by mentoring other folks in our industry, and giving them a chance to succeed and spread their wings.

Ash Patel: That’s great. And Josh, how can the Best Ever listeners reach out to you? And please, let us know what your book is called as well.

Josh Benaim: Well, the book is called Real Estate, a Love Story: Wisdom, Honor, and Beauty in the Toughest Business in the World. And it’s, and you can check out our website of some of our buildings and products, and Any of those ways would be great. I’m also on LinkedIn and all that good stuff, and anyone can find us. We’re looking for the next generation of talent always.

Ash Patel: Josh, thank you for being on today’s show. You’ve got an incredible out-of-the-box way of thinking. And you said you’re not a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, you’re more of an artist with your opera background, and it shows. And I think that’s what’s led to a lot of your success and your unique perspective at looking at real estate. So thank you for sharing all of that knowledge today.

Best Ever listeners, thank you for joining us. As always, thank you for listening and have a best ever day.

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