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House Calls: Tenant Selection

Edith Lank on

Dear Ms. Lank: After letting her two-bedroom condo in New Jersey stand unused for many years, my wife has decided to rent it out. She wants to keep that furniture, so she's renting it out furnished.

We really want to be selective in the choice of a tenant. She engaged with a Realtor there, who sent us what the applicants or their agents submitted, along with their National Tenant Network reports, which we have found to be much less than desired.

Is it within our rights to ask applicants for the most recent copy of their tax returns (federal and state) so we can verify their income and relationship of the people who would live with them? They could block out their Social Security number.

Are there more issues we should be aware of to avoid problems? -- C. Y. C.

Answer: The Realtor you've hired should know what questions you're allowed to ask of prospective tenants.

Off-hand, I would have said you could ask for income tax returns -- whether you'd find prospective tenants willing to furnish them is, of course, another matter.

But then I realized you want information on the "relationship of the people living with the applicant." The federal government prohibits rental discrimination on the basis of "familial status" -- the presence of children in the family or domestic partnerships. You're not even allowed to ask about that. None of the few exceptions apply in your wife's situation.

Those National Tenant Network reports should provide her with information about prospective tenants' ability to pay the rent and whether they've done so in the past. That's pretty much all she's supposed to consider to make her decision.

It sounds like you've run into all this already. Perhaps it's time to move those belongings into storage and just rent the condo unfurnished.

Or perhaps it's time to rethink whether you folks really want to become landlords at all.

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