The inner workings of a car dealership (and how to use them to your advantage)

Yesterday a reader named Dave Black left a long comment on an old article about how to buy a new car without getting screwed. This is his glimpse into the inner workings of a car dealership. I've edited Black's comment to make it a little more readable, but the advice is all his.

I sell cars, and believe me, there are lots of opportunities for a car dealership to make money.

Front of the house profit is derived from the MSRP less the invoice price (the price the dealer actually pays for the car). Each deal has a “pack charge” or “lot fee” of $200-600 or more that goes in as part of the dealer cost, so when a dealer tells you for example, our invoice is $22145, you can subtract $200 to $600 for the lot fee. There are also dealer rebates and consumer rebates to factor in.

On the sales contract there is always a “doc fee” of again several hundred, and a fee for title processing and sales tax. All but the sales tax can be negotiated.

Never trade your car in unless it has major problems and you just need to dump it. You don't really know how much you are getting off the new car for the value of your trade. Most dealers I have worked for use “rough black book”, which is a number that they can start with before they do an appraisal on your car.

The back of the house profit comes from the finance office. Let's say you have great credit. They could qualify you for 5.5% loan or less, but the finance manager may hit you at 7.5% and tell you that's the best he could get. This can be negotiated, too. There is a lot of money being made on raising your interest a couple of points.

Do not buy any add-on service contracts and warranties. The profit on those is 50-100%, and the finance manager is a commissioned salesman. Remember that!

Do not try to bluff or BS anyone in the dealership — they are a lot better at it than you are, and they do it far more often.

Most salespeople do not make a lot of money. I have made as little as $300 a week and as much as $3500 in a week. My average is around $40,000 a year working five days and 55 hours a week. It's a difficult job. The salesman is trying to negotiate between you and his sales manager. He is more on your side than you might think. He wants referrals, and he will work you hard after the sale, so he wants you to understand that he is going to get you the best deal he can and still make a profit.

Most deals on new cars pay minimum commission — $100 to $150 — because the profit margin on new cars is lower and the competition is higher. You can easily compare prices on new cars because every dealer sells the same car. Used cars have more profit built in, and there is no simple way to price shop because condition and mileage on each car varies so much.

Do not offer a price that is way too low. Be realistic. We are there to make a profit, and we must not sell cars at a loss. Give us a break. Don't lie or steal from us, and we will treat you right.

The best time to buy a car is end of the month and before the new model year comes out. Monthly bonuses for volume can be very good, so they might be more willing to do a loser sometimes and make up for it on bonus.

Most dealers and salespeople are good honest hard-working people with families and lives like yours. Treat them with respect — they deserve it.

Driving through a lot drives us crazy. If you are really interested in looking at cars, stop and get out and let one of us open the car up and give you a demonstration. If you aren't really ready to buy, go to the lot after hours so you're not wasting anyone's time but your own.

Once I had a customer came in and tell that me he and his wife would like to check out a couple of cars. He said he would give me $20 to work with them for a while even if they did not buy. I liked this. Now the salesman is motivated to work for the customer as well as the dealer — he can't lose either way.

J.D.'s note: Black's comments about financing made something clear for me. The last time I bought a car, I thought I got a good deal — $500 over invoice. But I was surprised at the relatively high interest rate. “Are interest rates really that high?” I asked. “Yes,” the salesman said. I didn't know enough then to argue the point. I just took the high interest rate. Now I know it was a way for the dealership to make back the money they'd given up on the sales price. Chevy sign photo by rjs1322. Negotiation photo by Tony Lanciabeta.

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Sam
Sam
12 years ago

Helpful information for us as we are getting ready to start the nused car buying process. We plan to pay cash, so far I’ve got $15,700 saved for the car and our target date is towards the end of this year (once the new models are out) and our target model year is 2006.

A lot of the articles I have read suggest that buying a car, especially a new car, is easiest (and perhaps cheaper because the internet sales manager is paid on volume?) over the internet. Would be interested in the author’s thoughts on internet sales.

Kris
Kris
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Most internet managers are paid the same as the sales people. We all get volume bonuses. It depends on the car you are buying. Most of the newer imports don’t have much mark up, but a domestic truck, for example, could have thousands in mark up.

dannatx
dannatx
12 years ago

My husband is a car sales man and I agree with this article. People get so upset that a car dealership wants to make a profit. But they don’t think twice about buying a $1.89 drink from McDonalds which costs McDonald’s about 3 cents.
Internet sales managers make commission just like a regular sales person.

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
12 years ago

Great post! As a former car dealership employee, I can vouch for everything that Dave Black has written.

It is unfortunate that the car sales business has become so adversarial, especially from the consumer’s point of view. Your salesman is entitled to make a fair commission, and you’re entitled to get a respectible deal. If you approach the process reasonably (and find a reasonable dealer), you’ll do alright.

Rob M.
Rob M.
12 years ago

I agree with Sam. Saving money and being able to pay cash for a car is the best way to go. Just figure what a monthly car payment would be on a three year note and save that amount monthly in a high-yield savings account. In three years, you can pay cash for a car. However, if you must finance, shop around for auto loans before you go to the dealership. Walking in there with a pre-approval letter gives you a lot of negotiating power if you decide to finance through the dealership. Also, statistically speaking, a vehicle’s depreciation is… Read more »

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
12 years ago

Good points, Rob.

But while the first year is worst for depreciation (25%+, in many cases), most cars continue to depreciate at 10%-15% a year for at least the first 5 years. Many people think that after the first 1-2 years they’re avoiding depreciation, but they’re not.

Jill
Jill
12 years ago

The one thing I disagree with is the “driving through the lot makes us crazy”. Did he ever consider walking through the lot makes US crazy? Has he been hounded and followed annoyingly while trying to make a big money decision? Maybe some of us are driving through the lots to avoid high pressure salespeople that we don’t need in the mix just yet while we are perusing and deciding which models/colors we like best. I think car salespeople would get a lot more “respect” if they let their foot off the gas and turned the BS down a little… Read more »

Laura
Laura
6 years ago
Reply to  Jill

Jill I understand what you are feeling but now that I work at a dealership (not as a salesman) I see how the guys get yelled at and or fired. These guys are only doing their job.
If you just want to “look” at vehicles look online or before/after hours .

Reese
Reese
6 years ago
Reply to  Laura

As a salesman at a car dealership I can tell you why it bothers him. When I see someone in the lot, I go out to talk to them and answer questions. I can’t tell you how many times I see people out walking looking at cars and the moment I step outside they go into panic mode and dang near wreck trying to get away so quickly. We are here to make money just like any other job. It’s like if you were to go to the salon to get your hair done and after when the lady asks… Read more »

Chris
Chris
6 years ago
Reply to  Jill

Jill, You will know when you have a good salesmen when they talk to you about your want and needs in your next vehical. What kind of driving you do, do you need to transport people or cargo, long distance trips, what you like about your current ar, don’t like, like to see diffrent on the next one. If you really want to know if they are good, give them your phone number and see if they call you back. They are suppost to, but a lot don’t. And the ones who do call back will say something like “have… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
12 years ago

Russ Roberts did an interview with Steve Cole, the sales manager for a Honda dealership, for his EconTalk podcast that gives some additional fascinating insights into the market for cars (http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2008/06/cole_on_the_mar.html).

KC
KC
12 years ago

I like how you placed this phrase in bold – Never trade your car in unless it has major problems and you just need to dump it. Most people don’t do that. They want a new car every 3 years. I have a neighbor that has a new car all the time. He’s worried he’ll have to take it in for repairs – so he trades for new about every year. But he always tells me “but my note didn’t go up.” I’ll bet it keeps getting longer and longer, though, and his cars get less nice every time he… Read more »

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
12 years ago

First off, are car sales men entitled to commissions? Honestly, why does an educated buyer need one?

Also, a clever trick that I thought off, but have not implemented yet is to do the following:

Get the best deal you can. Then before the conversation for financing starts tell him that you are willing to pay 9% and make him lower the price of the car by some amount. Then payoff the loan with cash before the end of the first month.

-ThatGuy

Bart
Bart
6 years ago
Reply to  ThatGuy

ah yeah thats a great attitude, go into the deal with deception in mind but yet you dont want a salesperson to deceive you.

Ted
Ted
12 years ago

Edmunds.com also had a nice writeup of The Life of a Car Salesman: http://www.edmunds.com/advice/buying/articles/42962/article.html

Both of these articles give you a good feeling for what it’s really like on the other side of those big glass walls.

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
12 years ago

That Guy: I’ve thought of that plan, too :). Unfortunately, many loans have early repayment penalties that can cut in to any move you would save. But if you had a loan that didn’t, it could make for a nice negotiating tactic.

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

All you need to know about buying a car is at

http://www.carbuyingtips.com

Seriously, that’s a great site full of information. I’m pretty sure I still have the cheapest brand new 06 Rav4 on there!

I also use the DR snowball method, sorta. I save a regular car payment into a savings account for the expressed purpose of buying a car outright every 10 years or so.

Rob M.
Rob M.
12 years ago

@MoneyGrubbingLawyer Good point on vehicles being a continually depreciating asset. I was pointing out that you’ll take the biggest hit in depreciation for the first two years. Also, after five years, repair costs begin to catch-up/outpace depreciation. Ideally you should have a side business, lease a car and write off all the expenses on taxes. Remember folks, there’s a difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Tax evasion is illegal. Tax avoidance is both legal and ethical. @ThatGuy Your idea sounds interesting, in theory. However, the dealership will more than likely add in a pre-payment penalty clause if they are… Read more »

RDS
RDS
12 years ago

Great post. I would add four things: 1. Pay cash if you can. If you need a loan, you will almost certainly get a better deal anywhere but at the car dealer. 2. Negotiate the price of the car – not the monthly payments. 3. Make car dealers work against each other. I visited a dealer to know what I wanted, and then called all the dealers within about 100 miles. I told them that I was looking for X model, with X features and I needed to buy it at the end of the month. Once I got all… Read more »

deepali
deepali
12 years ago

I agree that being friendly and reasonable goes a long way. I bought my first car (new) about a year after college. My brother and I went around and test drove different cars and asked questions. We were obviously young (<22), but we were upfront about wanting to get to know all about the cars before making any decisions. Everyone was cool with that. I found the car I wanted towards the end of the summer of 2000, when the 2001 cars were coming out. The dealer/manager was eager to get it off the lot, so he gave me $500… Read more »

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

Interesting bit on the financing indeed. When I was stupid and bought a brand new car, I did take the dealer financing. I already had an approved loan with my credit union for the same amount, with a 4.5% rate which I thought was great. The dealer financing was 1.9%, all other terms being equal. It wasn’t until I went through FPU that I found out how they can make money offering rates that low. A few weeks after I bought the car, my loan went from “Dealer Subaru Financing” (don’t remember actual name) to Chase Auto Finance. As Ramsey… Read more »

kiwiwannabe
kiwiwannabe
12 years ago

Be careful if they show you “dealer invoice”. When we bought my wifes car, they were happy to show us the invoice printed out, and sell it to us at that price. However, we used Consumer Reports and paid $12 to find the actual invoice. Consumer Reports saved us $1200 because that is what we paid below that printed “invoice” they had showed us.

Daniel@youngandfrugal
12 years ago

It is always best to talk about a trade-in, financing, and the price you will pay separately. I recommend negotiating the price of the car, and tell them you can talk about other things after the fact.

Also, go in pre-approved from your bank or credit union. I was able to laugh at the finance guy when he told me their rate. I got 6.5% at my credit union, they quoted me 9%. I told them if they could match what I was getting through my bank (which I didn’t tell them) that I would go through them.

Charlie Park
Charlie Park
12 years ago

Hey! I grew up down the street from that sign!

Richie
Richie
12 years ago

#9: First off, are car sales men entitled to commissions? Honestly, why does an educated buyer need one? Isn’t it fun when you are looking at a car and you know more about it than the salesman does? You might ask them a question about which motor the car has (you already know that it comes in a 2.0 and 2.6 liter version), and then he says “oh this is the 3.0 liter.” (Which doesn’t even exist.) I think this is the area where car salesmen (all salesmen really) get a bad rap. They’ll just say anything to get a… Read more »

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

I have had a bad experience with dealers as well. I was buying a small hatchback back in 1996 (when gas was under $1/gal) and it was a loss leader. The ads normally came out on Saturday and they sold two of these cars at a loss. So I called thursday and asked what the price would be in the Saturday ad and they said $6500. I went in and was told $6500 again, and was all set to purchase the car they even told me how much it was going to be with all the taxes and fees and… Read more »

Richie
Richie
12 years ago

Oh, I forgot the stupid scam that the dealership pulls where I bought my most recent (used) car. They install some stupid electrical ignition interrupt system on every used car on their lot (this device, where if you pull out the little plastic plug the car cannot be started). They add the price into the car. (I think it was like $300.) They do not give you the option of saying no to this device. I was very close to walking away from this car because of that. But I ended up buying it because I was sick of shopping… Read more »

dale
dale
12 years ago

I’ve never worked in a dealership, but I have worked in indirect auto finance for over a decade. My job put me in contact with dealer finance managers, sales managers, etc on a daily basis. A couple of things I’ve learned about the car biz. 1. Dealers don’t discriminate. They attempt to maximize profit on EVERY customer. 2. The best negotiators get the best deals. Being informed, prepared and willing to walk away from a transaction is paramount to getting a good deal. 3. The “document fee” is pre-filled on most sales contracts. The salesman in many cases cannot remove… Read more »

Cara
Cara
12 years ago

I have traded in my last two cars, for the following reasons: 1. I am a single woman, and don’t like the idea of giving strangers (especially men) access to my car, garage, location of my house, etc. Yes, I have friends who could be on site, but not all the time, and not on short notice. 2. I have a busy work schedule, and meeting people to show the car and let them test drive it would mean taking time off of work, or eating into my free time (which I treasure). I know I’m getting less for a… Read more »

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
12 years ago

Cara, in some jurisdictions you get a tax credit on your trade-in, so the difference between trading and selling privately is reduced.

And as someone who has sold 14 (yes, 14!) cars privately, I can say with authority that it’s a total pain in the tailpipe. Don’t feel bad about trading in. 🙂

Jason B
Jason B
12 years ago

I felt good about some things and dumb about others with my first new car purchase. I kind of took the dealers word at face value that the Fit was kind of hard to get your hands on, so I didn’t really haggle on the price. But I worked hard to get a decent trade in for the beasted high mileage Tahoe, and I got a better financing rate from them than my credit union offered. But then I agreed to purchase “Xylon” or something like that… (I went back later and refused it and got my money back though!)… Read more »

F2O
F2O
12 years ago

*ThatGuy – That’s almost exactly what I did this past Feb when I bought my wife a new CRV. I wasn’t quite that bold about it, but close. During the negotiating process, I told the sales guy that I had a particular price in mind and I would be financing. When he tried to play the monthly payment game, I told him I didn’t care what the monthly payment was – only the price of the car. We could talk about the payment later. He took that back to the sales manager and they came to within $50 of my… Read more »

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I think the “don’t trade your car in” advice is more about don’t include the trade in during your negotiations. The sales folks will work whatever is important to you be that the monthly payment, the value of your trade in, etc. and you lose sight of the actual cost of the car. I’ve factored in the value I think my current car is worth (based on research from Edmunds and other sites, my goal is to save $17,000 and get $3000 for my car for a total of $20,000 for the nused car) but when I go to buy… Read more »

dorothy
dorothy
12 years ago

We bought our car by contacting about 20 dealerships through their internet sales representatives (after looking up the invoice price from an independent source) and going through a few rounds of “our best price from the first set of offers was $X, can you beat it?” About a dozen dealers dropped out after the first round but we ended up with about three dealers whacking $100 off each other’s price several times in row (boring, but whatever). Because it was the end of the month we eventually bought for about $500 under invoice (including everything but sales tax). I’ve heard… Read more »

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
12 years ago

Another fun fact that many people don’t know about finance is that 3.9% or 0% rate they give you is really fake. The way it works is the dealership gives the finance company a “blind” discount. Thus they sell you a 10,000 car and you get a loan for 10,000 dollars with 0% for 5 years or a monthly payment of 167. The finance company gives the dealer 8,500. Thus in actuality you are paying close to 6.5% on the car, while bragging to your friends that you have a zero APR loan. It is a little more complicated but… Read more »

FFB
FFB
12 years ago

When I bought my first car I checked my credit score and got a pre-approved loan online. When I went into the finance office they tried to give me a ridiculous high rate. I told him to check my credit score and he told me I was right and gave me a lower rate. Still too high for my score. I then told him I had a loan in place. It was then that he gave me a better rate. The dealership makes money on having the financing through the car company so they may beat any rate you get… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

I would just like to know why can’t cars be purchased like any other consumer item? Just as another commented above, is there a reason we can’t just go to some store (not dealership) and purchase a car? Either with cash or a credit card or something. I know salespeople would be needed sometimes, just as with furniture and TV’s and what not, but if I know what i want, why can’t they just have the prices listed and I can just go buy it?

AndrewGP
AndrewGP
7 years ago
Reply to  Tim

I have exactly the same question myself! What is the big deal about cars so they not selling them in supermarkets? It is merely a transportation device! Don’t tell me about danger and safety of those things and all that BS, because I can buy used car wherever and that thing is potentially way more dangerous than new car. Dealers do nothing for me except making me to pay for their wages and fancy buildings with all the included maintenance costs whenever I want to buy a new car.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

the real dealership profit leader isn’t sales, it’s service. in the long run, it’s those guys you want to watch out for.

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

@ThatGuy, What the car dealership and the finance company have negotiated is immaterial. Thats like saying you’re paying 20% too much when a manufacturer sells a car to a dealer and they mark the price up 20%. If the lowest negotiated sale price of the car is $10,000. Why wouldn’t the consumer take a $10,000 loan at 0.0% from the dealer instead of a $10,000 loan at 4.5% from their own bank? @Tim, There’s plenty of “no haggle” dealerships that will allow you to do exactly that. You buy the car on their terms (usually a lease deal these days),… Read more »

Lee
Lee
12 years ago

Okay, haven’t read everyone’s responses so some of the following may have already been mentioned… 1. The Doc Fee varies from state to state, here in CA, it is capped by the state at $55.00 2. The trade-in decision comes down to the individual deal. I don’t believe a blanket statement like “never trade your car in” is accurate. You have to look at the whole deal. How much are you paying for the car that you are buying? Is it below market value? Some people do not have the time to try selling their car privately, others don’t have… Read more »

Ken
Ken
12 years ago

Great info…Just something to add about trading in & sales tax. Let’s say you are buying a $10,000 car and trading in yours for $6,000. You would only pay sales tax on the difference ($4,000), not the full $10,000. Just something to keep in mind, especially if you live in a high tax area like I do (TN – 9.25%).

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
12 years ago

@jtimberman

What I was getting at is that in theory a dealership should be willing to accept 8,500 from you, IF you pay in cash.

ThatGuy

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

“If you aren’t really ready to buy, go to the lot after hours so you’re not wasting anyone’s time but your own”

I don’t agree with this. If I want to look for a new car but I’m not ready to buy and I tell you that I’m not ready to buy, then leave me alone. When I find the car that I would like to purchase,I’m certainly not going to deal with the guy who wouldn’t leave me alone. I’ll choose some nice fellow who respected my wish to shop in peace.

Greg C
Greg C
12 years ago

Some comments have talked about saving to buy a car with cash. Saving money to buy a car cash is alright. But don’t forget inflation. Whatever you save up over a 3-5 year time period, a portion will be eaten up. MAYBE with a high yield savings, the interest will pay for the inflation and taxes. But I really wouldnt count on too much compoundng. Let’s say you want to save for a $15,000 car now and you do the “save the monthly payment thing” and have the money in 3-5 years. The car you wanted might cost $20,000 by… Read more »

Jack
Jack
12 years ago

RDS: I have to disagree on your statement “Pay cash if you can. If you need a loan, you will almost certainly get a better deal anywhere but at the car dealer.” While I agree that you should pay cash if you can, I disagree about your statement regarding finding better financing through non-dealer channels. First, because of the credit crunch, banks and other financial institutions are witnessing their cost of funds increase dramatically, and unfortunately, they are passing that on to consumers in the way of higher rates. Second, because of weak auto demand, auto manufacturers are loading on… Read more »

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

@ThatGuy

Buy from private party :-). Cash sings to people looking to sell a car.

Lee
Lee
12 years ago

Another commment on the Cash vs Finance.

This does nothing to change price. The dealership gets the money either way, whether it’s from your pocket or the bank.

In fact if anything, you are more likely to get a better deal financing through the dealer as thats how they make money.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

I still like my Mom’s method of negotiating for a car. She decides what kind of car with what options she is interested in then goes to three dealerships. She tells them that she is buying a car today and for them to give her their best price for the car that she is interested in. She then buys the one that is the best deal. It’s straightforward and not too time consuming. She always sells her own used cars. As far as financing goes, someone told me to prearrange financing at a local bank or two so that I… Read more »

Bill in NC
Bill in NC
12 years ago

I hope mom checks prices with an independent buying service as well.

That’s going to be cheaper than any price you’d get from the dealers for a new car.

Were I buying a new car, I might kick the tires at a dealer (I’d give their internet person a shot at my business) but I’d never negotiate price or financing options on the lot.

Too much emotion involved, and like the poster said, they’ve got years of experience you’ll _never_ best.

Look at the previous comments and you see just how many buyers got pwned by the car dealer.

Financial Course Blog
Financial Course Blog
12 years ago

Great and very informative reply, really makes me understand more about the process. The best way to buy a car is to pay by cash even if that means going to the bank and getting a loan for personal needs because a loan that the selling company gives you can be full of special statements or hidden details or just have a higher interest rate. Plus you don’t want to pay more for a car that you don’t basically own till the end of the credit while in the same time the actual value of the car goes down day… Read more »

FFB
FFB
12 years ago

I keep hearing that the best thing is to pay cash. That may be the case most of the time but I don’t think that’s always the case. I bought my recent car with a 0.9% financing from the manufacturer. We could have bought the car outright but we’ll make more by keeping the money in out ING Direct account. Even better if we put it into a CD. Also, by getting the financing deal through the manufacturer, the dealer qualifies for incentives which allowed the dealer to give us a better deal. You have to do all of your… Read more »

KAB
KAB
12 years ago

While I would like to believe that most car salepeople are decent hard working individuals, I guess I have not been lucky enough to have encountered the likes of them during my current car shopping. Perhaps it is even worse because I am a single professional woman and they seem to find it odd that I have done my research and have very specific ideas and questions related to things I deem important in my decision making process about the model I will eventually choose and get rather defensive if I challenge them or am not fawning over their make… Read more »

Renae
Renae
12 years ago

As previously mentioned, the article by Edmunds website titled, “confessions of a car salesman” was an eyeopener. I was dragged all over town when we were looking for a car and encountered so many of their scams. Are there really any honest car salesmen around? I don’t thinks so.

Paul
Paul
12 years ago

From my experience: Used is usually a much better value than new. Do not finance a car. Don’t pay interest on a depreciating asset. Trading in may be the best option, even if your car is in good working order. The hassle of selling it yourself vs the ease and convenience of trading it in has a value. Agree on the price of your new car, start to write the check, then mention you have a trade… it becomes a secondary transaction, and you can leverage it (I will walk out without a new car if you don’t give me… Read more »

Edward
Edward
12 years ago

I am a car salesman and let me say that the don’t come on to the lot during business hours is true. We are paid on commission, but our sales managers ride us to make sure that every customer is attended to. If we let someone leave without atleast a introduction to a sales manager, we can be let go for lack of aggressiveness. I personally believe that no one will ever buy my product if they don’t ever come to see my product, but I don’t want to look for a new job because everyone is “Just Looking”

Ev
Ev
6 years ago
Reply to  Edward

For some personalities it is that aggressiveness(forced by managers) that annoys or scares people away. Salesmen could give some breathing room. Be ready to assist, near, but not always hounding. I mean no offense, just an opinion. Thanks for your post.

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