A growing number of the Washington area's older apartment complexes are getting a new lease on life by changing their names.

The Hamlet Apartments in Gaithersburg changed its name in May to Cider Mill Apartments as part of a $4.5 million renovation at the 864-unit complex, according to James Kospyk, residential management director for JBG Properties Inc., a management company that purchased the property in October.

The name change was necessary, Kospyk said, to counteract a tarnished reputation the Hamlet had gotten as a result of persistent crime and maintenance problems the complex had under the previous owners, Columbia Residential Management Inc. and Paine Webber Inc.

Greenbelt's Greenway Village is another apartment complex that had a name change. That community was called Goddard Space Village until 1 1/2 years ago when Asher Investments Inc., a Colorado real estate company, bought the complex, according to Carol Weaver, Asher's vice president of property management.

Cider Mill and Greenway Village are but two of the rapidly growing number of apartment complexes built between the 1950s and early 1970s that are changing their names, often after being sold.

John Adler, president of Adler Publishing and Communications, which publishes apartment guides, estimated that as many as 50 complexes in the Washington area changed names last year, up from about 20 the year before. While some apartment complexes get new names to fit the corporate image of a new owner, others switch for economic reasons.

The new names often are viewed as necessary because renovations, usually done in conjunction with the name changes, are not sufficient to remove the stigma that many of these older, deteriorating communities have acquired.

Those reputations usually prevent landlords from charging higher rents and competing with newer complexes for higher-income tenants, Adler said. He said he expects as many as 75 more apartment communities to change names in 1988.

"It's a trend that's been happening over the last two years and it's something that will happen more over the next 10" as older complexes become rundown and need new images to remain competitive, Adler said.

"We wanted a new mental image as well as a physical image," said Weaver of her company's decision to change the name of Goddard Space Village to Greenway Village. She said Asher Investment is spending $1 million on interior improvements and landscaping at the apartment complex, which Weaver described as being a "distressed property" when Asher bought it.

"You can do physical renovations. But if you still keep the old name, you still have the old reputation to fight. It's a lot easier if you change the name," she said.

Jeanne Hendricks, a vice president of Oxford Management Co., said "most people looking for an apartment are new to the area and don't know an apartment's name. But if they ask a friend about a community, if it still has the old name and it has a bad reputation, it won't get a good recommendation."

But if a prospective tenant asks about an existing community with a new name, no one will be able to say anything negative about it because they will not associate the new name with the old community, she said.

A new name "starts to create a new image," she said.

Adler said that some of the most popular names for apartment complexes have "something to do with a tree, like Cypress, Chestnut, Oak." But he also said that names with water in them and those with a color also are the choice of many apartment owners trying to project an image that appeals to higher-income tenants.

The strategy seems to work. At Cider Mill, which is spending $100,000 on radio ads to promote the complex, vacancies have dropped from as high as 15 percent to 5 percent, Kospyk said.

A Cider Mill rental agent who requested anonymity said she is seeing a "lot more traffic" and that apartments are leasing faster than they did before the name change.

"Last week we had 24 rentals... . We used to rent just 12 units a week," she said.

Linda Roth, a prospective tenant at Cider Mill, said she didn't know that the complex had been called the Hamlet. She said she heard about the community on the radio.

Donald MacDonnell, vice president of Cathedral Management Services Inc., said the three complexes at which his firm switched names and made "cosmetic" renovations were able to charge as much as 25 percent more rent than before the changes.

Kay Harrison-Nicholson, resident manager of Cathedral Management's Westgate of Laurel complex, which used to be called Gorman Manor, said a two-bedroom apartment now rents for $610 a month. Before the changes the rent was $450. And, she said, all the apartments are leased.

JBG Properties also has raised its income requirements since Cider Mill's transformation. Prospective tenants once needed to earn $21,000 a year to qualify for a one-bedroom apartment, but now must earn $23,500, a leasing agent said. But Kospyk said that "just by changing a name, you can't achieve all that you're trying to do. It takes other things as well."

Richard Ferrara, director of Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Development, said some management companies upgrade an apartment's image not only by changing its name, but by enforcing strict occupancy standards that allow them to evict less desirable tenants for violating rules, which opens these units for higher-income tenants.

Kospyk said JBG Properties is enforcing rules more strictly and evicting tenants who break them as part of its effort to clean up Cider Mill's image, but he denied that his company is trying to force out existing tenants to make room for new ones.