A couple of weeks ago we received a press release from a company called Equifax who are a data analysis company that specialises in credit checks, among other things.
Those “other things” include being asked by the NSW state government to establish its proposed ratings system for apartment developers which is, we probably all agree, a good thing.
The main thrust of the press release was that Equifax’s National Tenancy Database (NTD) could do a lot of the tenant checks that rental agents currently do “manually” i.e. calling up your references, employers and previous landlords or agents.
But it goes further than that. Their checks would include tenants’ credit ratings, criminal records, company directorships, bankruptcies and even, it seems at first glance, whether or not they have taken their landlords or their owners corporations to a state tribunal with any kind of claim.
Since we recorded the podcast, Equifax have assured as that they only mentioned tenants rights and claims as an example of how the burden on rental agents has increased – something they claim would be reduced by using their database.
They have no plans to include tenants’ assertion of their rights on the National Tenancy Database reports.
We have to take them at their word but the information on claims against landlords and owners’ corporations is out there, on the record somewhere, so it’s an area worth watching
In any case, if you’re a property investor, you may think this is a good thing. But we are pretty uneasy about how data mining could play out for tenants who, after all, make up half the residents of strata schemes in Australia.
By the way, we’re still digging and this will be the topic of an upcoming column in the AFR.
Elsewhere on the pod, we discuss why developers have been pushing hard to have some of the hard-won and well-thought-out environmentally responsible planning controls scrapped.
As is always the way these days, no sooner had we talked about it than the government asked “how high?” when the developers said “jump!”
We also look at why apartment purchasers are drifting back to lifestyle developments, rather than low-cost, no-frills blocks.
And we discover a point of NSW strata law that seems to mean that if your owners corp loses a case against you at the tribunal, they can’t pay their expenses out of the admin fund but instead have to raise a special levy from all the other owners except you.
That’s all in this week’s podcast.
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TRANSCRIPT IN FULL
We’ve got a stack of stuff to get through today… A new process for assessing tenants, a thing about how your owners corporation can’t charge you for what it costs them to take you to NCAT. You’ve got a couple of stories as well?
Yes, about new proposed planning laws, and how developers are really arching up against those, and also, how apartments with lots of facilities are suddenly back in fashion again.
Right. I’m Jimmy Thomson. I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue Williams and I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
So, what’s this new scheme about landlords, trying to check up on tenants?
Okay, so this arrives (as so many press releases do these days), as a survey of property managers. It’s quite interesting. They say that property managers are being overworked, unnecessarily.
What’s a property manager, is that a strata manager or building manager?
No, it’s an agent, a rental agent.
Oh, I see.
So, property rental agents are being overworked, because of the pandemic, partly; because of tenant’s loss of income and impacting their ability to make rental payments. A higher volume of tenancy applications, compared to properties available for rent.
Yes, huge supply shortages.
Increased adoption of pets. More tenants wanting to terminate their leases early, tenants refusing to pay rent and refusing to leave the premises upon eviction, and refusing to reimburse for repairs and maintenance; 7%. Tenants who wish to terminate leases early are 36%, refusing to pay rent was 23% and refusing to leave the premises was 11%. Despite this, this survey said that 67% of agents said they’d rather contact the applicants, employers, previous agents and personal references, as that’s the most effective way of checking whether somebody is going to be a good tenant or not, rather than going to screening services like Equifax’s national tenancy database. Now, Equifax may ring a bell with you.
No, I don’t remember Equifax; what’s that?
Equifax is a credit-checking company.
Oh, and now they’re doing checks on tenants?
They do have a database that contains a lot of information about tenants, like criminal records and bankruptcy and previous evictions and whatnot. They’re also the company that Fair Trading in New South Wales have brought in to… You know that they were going to do that assessment of the 100 top developers; they were going to have a kind of star rating system?
Equifax are the people who are going to be doing that. A different area; a different branch, obviously, but quite clearly they have friends in government, who think that they’re okay. As for this national tenancy database… I don’t know; it just doesn’t feel right. I mean, especially when you hear or read some of the justifications that they have. This is funny; I quote from Scott Mason, the general manager (commercial), of Equifax… “Property managers have to wade through a lot of detail about a prospective tenant’s identity, financial and legal history, before giving their tick of approval. While this is an integral part of their day to day, it can come with a significant drain on time, resources, and even the mental capacity needed to steer towards more complex tenant matters.”
Their mental capacity?!
That’s not very flattering, is it?
I’m tearing up here! I feel really sorry for these poor tenancy rental managers. I feel compelled to give the strata view of rental managers… They cause more problems than they solve, in my view. That’s a gross generalisation, but the number of times that we get people saying “I’ve complained and complained and complained; absolutely valid complaints to the rental manager and they say ‘oh, the the landlord isn’t interested.”‘ You find out later, that the landlord has never been told about these things. Because the rental manager’s job; they see their job as being to keep the landlord happy and the way you keep the landlord happy, is by not telling them about any problems, unless you really, really have to.
Because it would incur an expense, to fix the problems, like if a dishwasher breaks down.
A dishwasher breaking down is something that they would probably have to go in and fix, but a tenant saying “I’ve rented this property for a year, and there’s a guy next door who’s playing the drums every night until midnight, and the owners corporation won’t do anything; can you get the landlord to call them?” That’s the kind of thing that rental agents will go “oh, yeah, they’re not really interested.”
And also (talking about too-hard baskets); you have people who go to the owners corporation and say “I’ve got a problem with this,” and the owners corporation or the strata committee says “oh, you need to talk to your rental manager.” The rental manager says “oh, it’s a strata problem; you need to talk to the strata committee.” What neither of these people are saying (and what a lot of tenants don’t realise), is that they can go to Fair Trading. As an interested party, they can say “there’s a problem in this building.” Most of the things that owners can do at Fair Trading, and at the tribunal, tenants can also do. You don’t have to go through the rental manager, every time. But, this thing about national tenancy… It just worries me. I mean, it’s gathering all this information from people…
So this company, Equifax, saying that they will do the job of rental managers for them; they will check…
They’ll do the checks.
They’ll check the tenant’s financial situation, their legal standing, what the previous tenancies have done… They’ll do all that for the rental manage and you’re saying that’s really not very good idea? Isn’t there a privacy problem?
They were challenged on this, by a tenant’s union, because we asked the tenant’s union people what they thought of this and they said well, what’s happening to all this information? Tenants are having to give far too much information, as it is and now they’re being asked to give all sorts of information that they wouldn’t normally have to give. Where does that end up? Well, it ends up on the Equifax database and that’s how this has to work. You go for a rental, and you have to fill in a form and it’s got all sorts of detail, that you might not otherwise have to give…That goes on their database. Now, the idea is, that the next time you go for a rental, because you’re squeaky clean and you’ve never done anything bad in your life, then you will immediately get the big green tick. That’s okay, for you, but for people who have (for whatever reason), slipped up in some way, maybe financially, in their lives before; they don’t get the big green tick. They might find themselves barred from certain rentals. And, it’s an effective blacklist. One of the things they complain about…
How do you get off a blacklist? That’s always a problem, once you’re on it.
Well, this is one of the things they’ve complained about, that the blacklist only lasts for three years, and the Tenants Union people say well, where’s the blacklist of bad landlords, to tell tenants to avoid them? That would be one way of getting bad landlords out of the market and this is really relevant to strata, because 50% of the people living in strata, are tenants. There’s something about this…
Getting other companies involved.
Yes. You’re giving all that information and it is a kind of negative blacklist; a reverse blacklist, if you only put forward people who are squeaky clean, then everybody else on the planet is kind of on the backfoot, really. I just want to read a couple of things…. These are the things that alarm me, showing the kind of focus coming from Equifax. It says here ‘property managers also made note of emerging issues relating to tenant’s lifestyles. As many people spent more time working from home, or staying indoors, more tenants adopted pets 15.8%, racked up higher energy bills 9.89%, increased subletting and caused parking issues 9.54%, or increased noise pollution for neighbouring properties 6.85%, during 2021.’ It was a pandemic; everybody was stuck at home for the first time.
It would be exactly the same for owner/occupiers as well. They’d be at home more and causing more noise.
And this is a cracker… ‘As people have spent more time at home, this has encouraged tenants to familiarise themselves with and challenge the terms of their rental agreements, because they become more knowledgeable about renter’s rights in their states, and put forward more strata and maintenance requests to their landlords.’
And that’s a bad thing?
That’s apparently, a bad thing.
Wow! As an owner, you want to know, when there are maintenance issues in your apartment, because you want to fix them.
Mr. Mason says ‘understanding how to manage these tenant’s requests, alongside keeping up with a high standard of tenant checks, will help property managers to effectively navigate the evolving rental landscape and find the right tenants for their properties.’ Does this mean, that if you have complained about damp in your apartment, or if you’ve gone to Fair Trading and said “hey, the landlord isn’t doing the right thing, or the owners corporation isn’t doing the right thing; here are my rights,” then that goes on your record?
I don’t like the sound of that, at all.
The last thing he says here; ‘over 3/4’s of property managers believe that an applicant’s absence from tenant’s blacklist is not a guarantee they will make a good tenant, as tenants can only be blacklisted for three years. However, over 1/4 of property managers did observe that there was an increase in applications that were rejected in 2021, due to tenants appearing on a blacklist.’ What’s their problem? They’re trying to create a solution to a problem, that I don’t think exists, and if there is a problem there, it’s because of an uneven level of information, that you’ve got to give. Here endeth my rant! I’ll be writing about this, this weekend.
We’ll see sparks flying.
Okay. When we come back Sue, what will we be talking about?
We’ll be talking about the Draft Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy, which read extremely well and seemed to be a major step forward in reaching 2030…
Well, looking to the future really, wasn’t it?
Well, yes. Carbon net-zero and now, property developers are kind of ganging up against it.
So, our friend, Anthony Roberts; I say he’s our friend, because Minister Roberts was the one who kicked off the reforms of the strata laws that came through in 2016.
Which was pretty good, but it was his predecessor, Planning Minister, Rob Smokes…Stokes.
Rob smokes? Rob Stokes and smokes!
Who has come up with what has been called New South Wales’ first comprehensive design policy. This was a new step, which was the State Environmental Planning Policy, which people said would offer ‘an important opportunity to reshape the look and feel of the places we live in.’ That meant things like apartment blocks would be built with electric vehicle charging stations and there would be minimum tree cover for developments. There’d be proper landscaping, as well. Also, it would stop developers developing buildings in areas which were prone to floods or bushfires; those kinds of traumas. You think, well, this looks like a really good thing; it addresses all these issues. It became one of the government’s planks to achieve the state’s 2030 target, cutting carbon emissions by 50%, from 2005 levels. But now, developers are amping up against this.
Can I just say something here? The developers were not ‘stoked.’
Oh, god, Jimmy! That’s right, so when Anthony Roberts replaced Stokes, he… We don’t quite know what he thinks yet, but we think he will possibly be on the side of the developers and the developers are certainly claiming his allegiance there. They’re kind of saying “oh, no, no! This will inhibit our ability to build more apartments and build more houses and it will mean there’ll be fewer jobs for tradespeople.” You know, these kind of silly arguments.
Their usual whining.
Yes, because we really want a housing stock for the future, that’s going to be resilient to these kind of climate problems. We’ve seen the chaos that the floods are causing, and they’re saying that there might be a third La Nina event coming up, in the coming weeks. You know, the place is sodden; it’s just awful and then, when the water finally dries up, there’s probably going to be an amazing bushfire season, again, because there’s going to be so much new growth. So, why are we still building apartments in these risky areas?
I do not think that’s going to be the issue. I think that will be one of the things. Whenever politicians do a major policy change, they always hang on to something; they always keep something and they say “look, we’re being sensible here.” The sensible thing to be doing right now, is to not let people build in flood-prone and fire-prone areas. However, electric car charging being compulsory for buildings; nah, that’s gone. Solar energy; all the environmental designing of buildings, so that they are self-cooling and better-insulated (certainly, better-insulated would cost more money in the build; that could go). They will hang onto the flood stuff and the fire stuff, because then they can say “look, we’re still doing the right thing; we’re just tweaking it at the edges.” And of course, those edges are the things that cause the floods and the fires, in the first place!
Yes, but all the experts have taken a long, long time to draw up this change. It kind of really hardened the feelings of people like architects… People involved in designing well -built buildings, and environmentalists realising that maybe, this is going to be the start of a new resilience in our housing stock. Suddenly, everything looks really shaky again, and yes, they might save a couple of things, but that’s not good enough! The crisis in climate is urgent, and we need to make major changes, to offset the possible annihilation of us all. We need to do some really radical steps, now and so it’s not good enough if they say “okay, we’re going to strip away 80% of this, but we’ll keep 20%.” That’s crazy!
Matt Kean was a great champion of the environment and he’s now in finance, so he’s still very influential.
But even finance; I mean, they did a cost-benefit analysis on this new setup and they said the policy would add on costs of $2.3 billion over 30 years. That’s quite a lot, $2.3 billion, but it will be outweighed by savings of $3.3 billion, in benefits.
Developers do not see savings. Developers only see cost. Developers say “the way we save things, is by not spending that money,” rather than looking at the benefits of that money. For god’s sake, the property prices; whatever anybody says… “Ooh, the property boom is over!” Prices have gone down .08% in Sydney, in some areas, though not all areas; by any manner of means.
Most prices are still rising, but just a lower rate. The rate that we’ve seen over the past few years, has been simply extraordinary and that couldn’t be sustained, long-term. So no, it’s cooling down, certainly.
It’s not stopping and it’s not reversing. These developers; all they have to do is put up some half-decent buildings. I’ll tell you what, if they put up buildings that are better insulated, and have electric car charging and all that stuff, they can charge more, and people will pay for it, because people want that stuff.
And, they know that their bills will be less, if they’ve got solar panels, if they’ve got batteries, they know they’re going to be spending less on electricity. If they have all -electric kitchens, they know they’re going to be spending a lot less on their bills, without gas and all those kinds of things, as well. If they have well-built houses, they’re going to be well-insulated. They’re going to have insulation in the roofs, they’re going to have decent windows, with good double-glazed glass, which is going to be great for keeping the heat in, in winter. Their heating bills are going to be less, as well.
That kind of brings us into that area that you were talking about earlier… The vertical suburbs booming, because people are making choices about their lifestyle.
That’s right and I think COVID has been a big factor in that, really. It’s given us all the time to sit back, away from the kind of frenzy of our normal lives. We’ve been starting to think about our lifestyles and the way we want to live and apparently, a national agency, Upside Realty, has found that a lot of people now are really wanting to live in apartments, and especially, apartments with facilities, because they’re working from home, then they want to have a break… They start work maybe, at nine o’clock and then they want a break at 10:30, so they want to go to the gym, do half-an-hour’s work -out, then they work again. Then, they want to go to a cafe, down the bottom of their apartment building, or just next door. So, they want to live in those kind of more densely populated areas and then they want to do a bit of work, in a different area. Maybe, they have a library, or they maybe have a rooftop, or they have a garden. They can go and sit there and do their work on their laptop. You know, it makes perfect sense, really. People are really looking for this now.
It’s true. I think some people do want that lifestyle change. I mean, there was a drive a few years ago, where they were building apartment blocks with no facilities; no gym, no swimming pool, in areas where there was a public pool, and lots of commercial gyms. I wonder how strong the reverse trend is?
I mean, COVID has just changed so many things. I go to the gym every day. I went from the first day the gyms reopened their doors, but many of my classes used to have maybe 40 people in them. They still have maybe, 10,15,20 people and some of those people were still wearing masks. Many of those people still haven’t come back to the gyms, so I wonder if they will? Some of the people have said no; they’re not going to come back to gyms now. They’ve taken up other activities; they go cycling, they go walking, they go running… They might have a gym in their own building and they use that much more often now, so they don’t go to the commercial gyms. I don’t know; life has gotten a bit smaller, for a lot of people.
And if any of them, who happen to be listening, who desperately need some hand weights.
We’ve got lots to spare!
We’ve got lots, because we’ve gone back to the gym, and now we don’t need all the stuff that we used to have. But, we’re not giving it away. We’re not selling it, because you never know what’s around the corner, in this ever-changing world.
Hopefully, we’re going to be fine.
Yes, I’m sure we will.
But in the meantime, they’ve found a 75% month-on-month increase in inquiries about apartment buildings, with facilities.
What do you think are some facilities that people look for, first?
I reckon a gym, actually, because even though I go to a commercial gym all the time (because I love going to classes), I will still occasionally use the gym in our building and I know you use the gym in our building, and lots of people do. I think that’s the most popular facility we have. The pool is great to use, but how many times have you been in that pool, Jimmy? Never!
I’ve been in the pool!
I used to do pool-walking. It’s actually the perfect swimming pool for me, because it doesn’t go down in the middle. It only comes up to chest height. I can’t swim folks, because I’m Scottish. We have a spa. Well, we had, until some idiot took some glassware down there and ignored the signs that said ‘don’t have glassware next to the spa.’ Now, there’s glass in the bottom of the spa and it has to be drained.
An increasing number of buildings now have rooftop gardens and I think they often get used really, really well, especially by residents in smaller apartments down close to the bottom of the building, where they don’t have great views. You can go up there and if there’s seating up there as well, it’s a nice, pleasant space… That’s a great place to be able to sit and work, or work out, or just watch the view and have a drink and something to eat. We’ve got a building near us, where we can see their rooftop and that’s often used. We also have another building close to us, that have fantastic gardens and they’re actually not used very much. I’m always surprised when I go in there, because they’ve got tables; they’ve got chairs, and I always think wow, I could sit here and work for a bit. It’s really lovely. There’s shade and there’s places in the sun, but not many people use it, really.
I wonder if someday, we should do a survey, of all the promises that were made when buildings were being developed, that were just pie-in-the-sky, almost literally. I remember one building was going to have a rooftop cinema. Did that ever happen?
Yes, it did. That’s over in Green Square.
And do people use it?
I don’t know, but it does exist.
One of them was going to have a ‘silent disco.’
It’s a good idea; that’s a great idea. I mean, lots of buildings now, are getting built with fantastic facilities…A lot of them now have movie rooms, with maybe 12 chairs and you can book that and you and your friends can come in and watch a movie, which I think sounds like a really good idea. Or, if you’ve got a family, you can have an afternoon there with the kids. Some of them have table tennis. I’m really envious, about table tennis, because I love table tennis. I’d love to play that. Some have billiard rooms; I don’t know how often they get used. Some have libraries and it would be nice, to be able to go and work there, as well.
A lot of buildings have a book exchange… That’s usually just a bookshelf.
Yes, absolutely, but it’s kind of a nice community service, really.
And after 18 months, the whole shelves are full of old copies of ‘The Da Vinci Code.’
And a lot of the Crown buildings (Crown Group), the CEO is from Malaysia, and he’s really keen on meditation and yoga and things like that. Lots of those have yoga rooms and meditation rooms. They also have music rooms. Look, I’m not musical at all, as you know and it always startles me; it just seems a bit of a waste of space, but maybe they’re used? I think I’ve seen a picture, with a piano in and maybe, people go there and practice their violin.
If you’ve got a kid…A lot of people; if they’re not bullying their kids into becoming sports stars, they’re blackmailing them into becoming musicians. If you’ve got a kid who has to do an hour’s practice on their trumpet or saxophone every night, you want to send them down to the music room, which is soundproof.
Oh, good idea! Or, if they’re a budding opera singer. We have a neighbour who plays piano; he’s got a piano in his place.
We hear him tinkling, but fortunately, he is very good. I don’t mind. I feel like sending him requests. “Can we get a bit of Satie this afternoon? I feel like I need to relax. I need something more contemplative. A bit of Chopin; any chance of that?”
One building I was told, was planning a badminton court and I thought, fantastic, because as you know, Jimmy, I’m a very keen badminton player.
You played at an international level.
Yes, but unfortunately, in Australia, people don’t really play badminton very much. I actually phoned the developer and said “wow, this sounds really interesting!” It turned out it was just a net.
In the garden.
That’s not a badminton court; a badminton court has to be indoors. That was a major disappointment. I don’t know what happened with that.
That’s why we’re not living there. Well, when you think about it Sue, the height that you need in a badminton court, you’d have to take out about two apartments above it. That’s not gonna happen!
It would be interesting, though. I mean, lots of people from Asia are really keen on badminton and also, Scandinavia. If we had an Asian developer with a passion for that… You never know Jimmy!
Well, if you can find a space that’s multi-functional, that requires height?
Well, there was a building over in, I think, Zetland and they planned to have a conference centre, underneath. That would give the building a bit of an income. A conference centre would probably be quite high. It could be used for church groups; I suppose they could come and rent it. Or, badminton clubs.
Somebody will call us; they’ll tell us if anybody’s heard of it. If any clubs out there are looking for a senior badminton club, highly-experienced, played internationally; you’ve got our address. Okay, we have to crack on. When we come back, something has come up on the forum and it’s a really interesting wrinkle on what happens if you get taken to NCAT and you win.
This is a little thing that came up and it took me by surprise (as many things do in the forum)… Basically, somebody had written and said, I went to NCAT; I took the strata scheme to NCAT. When I got there, the strata manager was online. He was on the phone, listening to proceedings, which went on for three hours. There was a whole sort of grumbling, about “how much did this cost us,” and blah, blah, blah. It turned out, the strata manager charged $880 for this, and this person was saying “well, the strata manager had nothing to do with the case. It wasn’t a case I was bringing against them; I was bringing it against members of the committee.” Somebody wrote in and said “well, look, if you won your case, they cannot charge you, as a member of the owners corporation, a share of the strata manager’s fees for being at the meeting.”
Yes and that was exactly, my response.
Because usually, when people take a case against an owners corporation, it’s really galling, that they’re having to pay the costs of the owners corporation, to defend themselves and that’s a big thing.
This is what section 104 of the Strata Schemes Management Act says, regarding restrictions on payment of expenses incurred in tribunal proceedings. ‘1: an owners corporation cannot, in respect of its costs and expenses in proceedings brought by or against it for an order by the tribunal, levy a contribution on another party, who is successful in the proceedings.’
And then it goes on to say ‘an owners corporation that is unsuccessful in proceedings brought by or against it for an order by the tribunal, cannot pay as any part of its costs and expenses in the proceedings from its administrative fund, or capital works fund, but may make a levy for the purpose.’
Wow! So, that’s a levy for everybody else?
Yes, so the owners corporation here, take me to NCAT (for one of the many bad things that I do), and I win the case… They have to then set a special levy that excludes me, to pay the costs of…
How about the other people who voted with you, to not to take action against you?
I don’t know. I bet it doesn’t cover that. They’re still a part of the owners corporation, but I guess if they had joined with me in the defence…
They could have saved their money.
They could have saved their money by saying “hey, we’re with him on this.”
I’d never realised that before. I’m sure many people don’t realise that, because I remember talking to somebody who was taking an action against her owners corporation. She keeps winning, but she says it’s really hard, because it’s costing me so much money. It costs me money, and then it costs me money, to contribute to their costs.
See, I’ve always thought that it was a case of, if NCAT awards costs against one party or another, then that party (if it’s an owner), wouldn’t have to pay those costs; they have to be paid by a levy. This doesn’t make any mention of the tribunal awarding costs. This is about costs and expenses. She should be going back and saying “hey, you should not have charged me for that money, so you need to raise a special levy, so that I can get all that money back.”
Wow! I wonder how often that’s used?
I have never heard of it being used before. Maybe some lawyer somewhere, will be saying “well, look, it says costs and expenses and that implies costs, as awarded.” But, the number of times that the tribunal awards costs and the number of situations that the award goes, is very, very limited and it’s not contingent on who wins and loses. One of the bases that they will give for awarding costs, is if one side or another has made it difficult; like, they’ve haven’t provided information, or have been misleading. They’ve been doing delays. They can win the case and still have costs awarded against them. But, this is different… This is just about cost and expenses. That should be a real deterrent for these bullying committees, who try and force people. They say “I’m going to take you to NCAT.” You can say “alright, explain that to all the owners, when they all have to pay your bills, and I don’t.”
How delicious would that be?
Happy Day! Oh my god, we’re on a marathon session here! That’s a record-breaking Flat Chat podcast today. We’ll see how much of it survives, once I get hacked into it. Chop out off some of the nonsense that I’ve been talking. Sue, thank you for coming so well-prepared today.
No problem, Jimmy.
And thank you all for listening. We’ll talk to you again soon.
Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website flat chat.com.au If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite pod-catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe, and you’ll get this podcast every week without even trying. Thanks again. Talk to you again next week.