When an early-morning fire tore through the Hampton Oaks Apartments complex in North Charleston last month, more than a dozen families lost their rented homes and in some cases all of their possessions.

The good news was that all the residents escaped unharmed. And they all had renter's insurance.

Renter's insurance can't bring back treasured possessions, of course, but it's an inexpensive way to protect yourself financially if you live in rental housing.

Renter's insurance can cost as little as $10 to $20 a month for a basic policy for someone living in an apartment. Such a policy would typically cover the replacement of all your stuff, along with some liability protection in case someone is injured in your home and decides to sue you.

Odds are, your apartment building or rented home isn't going to burn down, but what if it did? Or what if someone broke in and stole your valuables?

If you own a home, your homeowner's insurance covers the building and the stuff inside. But if you're a tenant, the property owner's insurance policy is only going to cover the building, not your belongings.

Would you have the money to replace the possessions you could lose?

That's the key question to ask yourself, in considering insurance, because you're really choosing to do one of two things. You're either buying insurance, and paying someone to take on risk, or you're self-insuring by keeping all the risk yourself.

Sometimes, renters don't have a choice. Hampton Oaks Apartments, for example, requires tenants to have renter's insurance, and I'll bet some of those tenants are glad they had it.

It's easy to shop for renter's insurance online. Most of the large insurance companies whose names you likely would recognize will give you a free online quote in minutes.

If you already have a relationship with an insurance company, perhaps for car coverage, then you might want to start by calling your local agent for a quote.

Chances are, insurance companies will offer all sorts of add-on coverage that would raise the price of a rent-er's policy. For example, you can buy extra coverage for unusually expensive items, plus identity theft protection, loss-of-use coverage, and so on.

If your primary goal is to get an inexpensive policy to protect you from total loss, you may not want or need additional coverage.

One option that is worth considering is replacement value coverage, which may cost a little extra. You might have a computer, a television, a game system and other electronics that would cost a lot more to replace than they're currently worth. Depending on the coverage, insurance companies will either pay the value of an item - a 3-year-old computer may not be worth much now, for example - or they'll pay the cost of replacing the item with a new, comparable model, which is a big difference when it comes to electronics.

A renter's policy is something you hope you'll never need. But it's worth considering, because bad things do happen.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.