Behringer Harvard, which has interests in or manages more than $10 billion in commercial real estate assets, has made its first seniors housing purchase and is poised to buy more age-restricted properties.

The Dallas-based investment firm recently purchased San Sebastian, a vacant age-restricted condominium project in Orange County, Calif., with plans to turn the 134-unit property into a rental apartment building for independent seniors.

The purchase was made through Behringer Harvard Multifamily REIT I in a joint venture with PGGM Private Real Estate Fund, an investment vehicle for large Dutch pension funds. The REIT has raised $440 million, about half of which comes from PGGM.

“There’s a strong demand for age-restricted housing,” says Jason Mattox, chief administrative officer at Behringer Harvard. The recent credit crisis has slowed the new construction of all types of multifamily housing, which will reduce the supply of seniors apartments, adds Mattox.

That trend should provide significant upside potential for the property. Phoenix-based Alliance Residential will manage the building.

Multifamily property owners historically haven’t been big investors in seniors housing. But that could change because the seniors housing industry is outperforming other commercial real estate sectors.

The strong performance is evident at the property level. Year-over-year rents at independent and assisted living properties, for example, grew by 1.8% in the third quarter of 2009, according to the latest report from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC).

Greg Willett, vice president of research and analysis at M/PF Research in Carrollton, Texas, says that apartment owners find themselves in a paralyzed market with little investment opportunities.

Few apartment buildings are for sale and not much development is taking place because of a lack of financing. “Apartment owners are investigating possibilities in niche sectors like seniors housing,” says Willett.

San Sebastian is located in Laguna Woods, an affluent area about 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The project had been the site of an old administration building for Leisure World, a big retirement community. Newport Beach-based Robert Mayer Corp. originally developed the project, and the builder was Standard Pacific Corp., based in Irvine.

Mayer sold the property to Standard Pacific for an undisclosed amount and the building was finished last year. Standard Pacific received approval from the local city council to lease rather than sell units because of the downturn in the housing market.

Mattox declined to provide the purchase price of San Sebastian. The county assessed the property in 2007 for $19.7 million after the preliminary site work was completed and a building permit was issued.

Behringer Harvard has been on a buying spree lately snapping up apartment properties and failed condo projects at low prices. Last September, Behringer Harvard purchased the Gallery at NoHo Commons, an apartment complex in North Hollywood for $96 million. Two years ago, the NoHo property almost sold for $140 million.

In a deal similar to that of the San Sebastian purchase, Behringer Harvard purchased the Redwood Lofts in Marina del Rey, also built by Standard Pacific as a condo project. Behringer Harvard also recently bought the Calypso Apartments, a 177-unit project in nearby Irvine.

Behringer’s Mattox says the company was interested in the San Sebastian deal for a number of reasons. The building is well located near retail outlets, restaurants, medical facilities and transportation, making it highly desirable. The building also has high-end finishes and a lot of amenities. “The quality of the asset is outstanding,” he says.

The complex features a pool and spa, patios, outdoor barbecues, a fitness center, theater-style media room and rooftop terrace with outdoor lounge. The interior finishes include raised-panel doors, condo-quality kitchens, granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. The property will not offer meals, or other services.

Behringer Harvard is in the process of updating some of the amenities. Work also is being completed on 71 unfinished units with the addition of flooring, blinds and refrigerators.

The city of Laguna Woods has specified that the property must remain age restricted for 45 years. Residents must be age 55 or older. Also, some units must provide affordable rents.

The building has 17 affordable one-bedroom units with rents ranging from $1,267 to $1,452. Rents for two-bedroom market-rate units start at $2,415. Three-bedroom market-rate units are $3,260 a month.

Behringer Harvard is in pursuit of other seniors housing properties, confirms Mattox. “Seniors housing is an important prong in our approach.”