With the economy picking back up, renovators are shaking off the cobwebs and diving back into upgrading units, as renters are willing to pay more for something shiny and new.

JRK Property Holdings settled in at No. 3 on the list, making a mad dash up from No. 15 last year. The company attributes its uptick in renovations to restarting work on units that were stopped when the economy tanked, president and chief operating officer Robert Lee says. 

The Los Angeles–based company halted many renovations during the economic pinch in 2009 and 2010. However, when the economy began to revive in 2011, its pipeline of renovations did too. In fact, the company boosted its staffing levels last year, with an eye on future growth.

“We significantly increased our renovation team because we don’t expect this to slow down right now,” Lee says.

In addition to doing the usual appliance upgrades, the JRK team also tweaked its approach to cut costs. 

For instance, the company adopted a different technique to finish cabinetry. In past years, the cabinets were stripped down to the original box and painted white. But now, JRK renovators are focusing on using a wrap over the original boxes to give them a wood-style finish in deep brown colors.

“You can make any color cabinet as long as the box is in good condition,” Lee said. “So, as opposed to spending a couple thousand [dollars per] unit on cabinets, you can spend a quarter of that.”

Another company making moves in 2012 was Ann Arbor, Mich.–based McKinley. The firm crept up three slots, to No. 8, with a booming year of renovations.

One project CEO Albert Berriz was particularly proud of was a building in the company’s hometown of Ann Arbor, on which the company spent about $12,000 per unit. The 120-unit project was one of three significant acquisitions for the company last year. The other two include a building in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan and a 323-unit renovation in Gainsville, Fla. 

Berriz says all three properties were underperforming, and had great potential to catch up to similar properties in their corresponding markets.

“They’re all in extraordinary markets,” he says. “[They had] great locations and great physical plans. They just needed some modernizing.”

The company plans to continue growing by acquiring more renovation projects in 2013. “We’re going to do it again in ‘13,” Berriz says.

Rank Company Units Renovated in 2012
1. Home Properties 5,650
2. Lincoln Properties 5,128
3. JRK Property Holdings 4,662
4. Dominium 4,522
5. Avesta Homes 3,533
6. IMT Residential 3,380
7. AvalonBay Communities 3,347
8. McKinley 3,000
9. Bell Partners 2,623
10. Greystar Real Estate Partners 1,700