Sometimes a little attention can turn a lagging apartment property into a hot commodity.

Sawbranch in Summerville would be a shining example. Built in the late 1970s, the apartment village managed by locally based Darby Development drew a 77 percent occupancy rate last year. Then the apartment complex added a fitness center. Seemingly overnight, the share of filled units soared to 94 percent.

Victoria Cowart, vice president of property management with Darby Development, says the opening of the new amenity center played a role in the higher occupancy count. New fitness centers at Sawbranch and a few other complexes seem to have sparked interest in Darby Development properties, she says. For instance, Woodlocke in Moncks Corner witnessed a jump from 82 percent to 95 percent in the rate of leased out units, she says. At the same time, Cowart says Sawbranch's standing as a "more affordable product" was a factor in the leasing increase.

North Charleston-based Darby Development oversees 14 communities - including one in North Carolina - totaling 1,654 apartment homes, most framed in the late '70s and '80s.

The overall rental market, she says, "has definitely improved. "We're a couple of percent higher this year." Still, some communities' occupancy rates, she says, have risen "dramatically." Factoring out ups and downs, the average rent has increased $12-$20 a month since before the housing slump in the early- to mid-2000s.

Across the Charleston area, renters are finding a rapidly expanding market offering brand new mid rises with trendy retailers and upper floor courtyards as well as established communities relying on lower prices and convenient locales but not afraid of upgrades such as with the Darby properties. indicated rates are climbing in greater Charleston-North Charleston but the pace depends on the size of the units.

According to a company survey, two-bedroom apartment rentals shot up 11.8 percent this year to $1,023 a month from $915 a month in 2013. The surge compared with a 9.7 percent increase in 2013 from the year before.

Meanwhile, multifamily website is projecting the Charleston area's apartment construction will grow 8 percent from 2013 - the highest growth in the nation this year, The Post and Courier reports. The website says the region's multifamily construction growth is due in-part to job creation by big name companies such as Boeing.

A Sept. 2013 report by multifamily research firm Real Data counted about 3,700 apartment units in various stages of development in the Charleston region, according to the article by business reporter Tyrone Richardson. said other metro areas projected for strong apartment growth include Boston and Birmingham, Ala., predicted to grow 5 percent each from 2013.

Pricewise, the biggest change at least for Darby Development involves the elimination of rent concessions, Cowart says. They started in the late 2000s to lure in tenants during the unprecedented drop in the housing market.

"It really wasn't until August 2012 that we were rolling off those concessions," she says.

Cowart, for one, believes the recent jump in apartment business won't likely be a market blip; it should last awhile.

"With the (expanding) economy and jobs in Charleston, I think we will see success in the rental market, and home buying," she says.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or