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Michael Turcotte and his wife began looking at homes near Research Boulevard early in the pandemic. "Before we could even put an offer on (a house), there'd be three offers," he told Austonia. "It's gone before you even get to counter-offer."
After experiencing this a few times, the couple decided to build their own house in a cul-de-sac off of I-35, near the Austin-Buda line. Between June, when their builder began work on the house, and August, the property value increased by $30,000, he said.
Turcotte, who manages a chiropractic and massage clinic at the airport, was dealing with a temporary shutdown due to the pandemic and worried that it would affect his ability to secure a loan for the home. He likened the purchasing process to a root canal.
"It's supposed to be a happy time to buy a house," he said. "But it's overshadowed by the lack of empathy and COVID and everything."
Turcotte is hardly the only homebuyer to have faced rejections in the wake of a record-breaking year for the Austin housing market.
Michael Turcott and his wife decided to build a home in the South Austin-Buda area. (Michael Turcott)
The median sales price in the city of Austin rose nearly 19%, to $461,000, in December alone, and residential home sales increased 16.4% year-over-year, exceeding expectations despite—or more likely because of—the pandemic, according to the Austin Board of Realtors' year-end report. Meanwhile, an ongoing housing shortage and reluctance from sellers have pushed inventory to record-low levels. All this equals a hot housing market, but many prospective first-time homebuyers are left feeling burned.
The pandemic effect
The Austin housing market has been strong for years, and realtors and market analysts anticipated 2020 would follow suit given continued job creation and low mortgage rates.
"Austin was already kind of teed up for a good year," said Vaike O'Grady, Austin regional director for the housing market research firm Zonda.
When the pandemic began, things looked bleak for a couple of months. But the Austin housing market quickly rebounded.
"The growth in 2020 was exponential compared to what it was in '17, '18 and even into '19," ABoR President Susan Horton said.
This recovery was due to multiple factors: continued job creation, especially in the tech and professional services sectors; a healthy rate of relocations; and a millennial-heavy population, with many members starting families and looking for more space at home.
"Parents were literally going crazy," Horton said, adding that many families living in apartments or smaller homes were pushed by the pandemic and virtual learning to seek out a new home with more space.
Although the pandemic stoked demand, it had a dampening effect on supply.
Potential sellers, worried about the risk of exposure to COVID-19, held off on listing their homes. "People don't want strangers traipsing through their home in an open-house scenario," O'Grady said.
Some may also have been deterred by the challenge of finding a new home to move into given the competitiveness of the market—or just wanting to see how much their home would continue to appreciate.
"People that live in an area that they really like decided, 'I'm going to remodel,'" Horton said, which allowed more space—and more equity.
A perfect storm
Prospective first-time homeowners, looking for more space and a good investment, are caught in this squeeze.
"It's already scary and stressful," said Mark Strüb, owner of the local real estate firm Strüb Residential. "Now they're literally walking into a war."
@tolstoshev yeah, I already have a realtor and she's great but the housing market in Austin is awful right now hou… https://t.co/TIwkTrF6yE— Brittany (@Brittany)1611692663.0
When someone posted on the Austin subreddit lamenting the competitiveness of the local housing market, it had a thousand comments within 24 hours.
"I was asking my realtor about a house that had been on the market one day in the Brushy Creek area of (Round Rock) west of (I-35)," one person wrote on Thursday. "He laughed and said it literally had 78 offers that day and was already off the market."
Such high offer counts used to be gossip fodder among realtors. "Then it became almost normalized," Strüb said.
Alex Gilmore is an agent at Pauly Presley Realty and an Austin resident looking to buy her first home. So she's very familiar with the local housing market.
Gilmore and her clients are typically competing against 15 or 20 hopeful buyers when making an offer, and homes often go for tens of thousands of dollars above their asking price. "It has been very, very hard," she said.
Gilmore and her colleagues are advising clients to reconsider their search criteria to include new locations, different house sizes and new builds. "You kind of have to be more flexible than you originally wanted to be," she said.
In addition to the challenges the current market presents to buyers, it's also difficult for sellers.
"People are like, 'Oh, it must be a good time to be a seller,'" Strüb said. But he disputes this idea. "Who wants to sift through 90 offers … and break hearts all day long?"
Despite the current challenges, Strüb said there are some benefits to buying now, such as low interest rates and the potential to build equity quickly.
"If you can crack this nut that is Austin real estate right now, you will build wealth," Strüb said. "It will pay off in the end."
Turcotte feels this way.
"It kind of makes this a home a little more special, in a different way," he said of the bumpy road to homeownership. "We're happy to have just got through it."
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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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