When the Tribune Co. was sold last December in an $8.2 billion buyout led by Sam Zell, the 66-year-old real estate magnate was quietly placing a bet on seniors housing, too.

The same week the Tribune deal closed, Zell's Equity International invested $75 million in two companies that own and operate retirement communities overseas. The move is Zell's first foray into the seniors housing sector.

“We like the macro fundamentals of the market,” says Christopher Fiegen, chief investment officer for Equity International based in Chicago.

Equity International purchased a 28% interest in Renaissance LifeCare PLC and Sanctuary Residences. Headquartered in London and New Zealand respectively, the companies were founded in 2005 and 2007 by Cliff Cook. He was the founder and former CEO of Metlifecare Ltd., a leading publicly traded retirement village owner/operator in New Zealand.

Renaissance and Sanctuary focus on the development of upscale seniors projects that feature condominiums for sale and services such as healthcare and activities. Twelve projects are on the drawing board in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Equity International, which only buys assets outside the United States, has invested $1 billion in 15 companies since 1999. Net returns have averaged 15% to 20%. Some of the greatest successes, Fiegen says, come from investing in homebuilders that focus on housing in Mexico, Brazil and China.

Seniors housing is another play in the international homebuilding market, Fiegen explains. Equity International will target mature markets where the population is aging rapidly and seniors-only condos are scarce. “We think that's where the greatest liquidity is,” says Fiegen.

From an investment standpoint, seniors housing provides portfolio diversification, Fiegen notes. Risks are low because projects are located in politically stable areas. The properties are expected to generate returns of around 25%.

Industry observers say the plan could work. “If Zell's track record is any indication, he's probably found a pretty good investment,” says Matthew Whitlock, vice president at MMA Realty Capital, a Salem, Mass. real estate finance firm.

The new projects will be located in areas where potential customers live. The idea is to provide an alternative type of housing for seniors who don't want to leave their neighborhood.

Condos will be priced from about $300,000 to $700,000. A senior would typically make a cash purchase using the proceeds from the sale of a home. In the U.K., Fiegen says few operators offer for-sale condos with services.

On the Thames River in London, Renaissance LifeCare is developing a mid-rise project with 45 to 50 units. A project in Southampton will be built on a 20-acre site, formerly a girl's school.

Fiegen hopes to bring the seniors housing model to China., whose one-child-only policy has left fewer adults to care for aging parents. Growing wealth offers more options for parental care.

Equity International is in talks with a Chinese partner to develop seniors buildings in Chin, says Fiegen. “Smart providers and homebuilders are thinking ahead about the parents of their home buyers.”