Q: I responded to a newspaper ad for a condominium in a new development project in Virginia. I called the number listed in the ad and asked where the property is located. The real estate agent who answered the phone said, "I cannot pinpoint it; we have so many." She then asked me for my annual income. I asked her to give me a description of the specific unit that was advertised, and if interested I would give her information about my income.

I was then told, "I can discuss nothing unless you tell me your income first." I did not give her this information and she hung up. Is this a proper approach on the part of a real estate agent, and what right does anyone have to information about my income?

A: The first part of your question is easy. The real estate agent should have been more cooperative, and given you additional information pertaining to the advertised condominium unit. Clearly, if she wanted to sell something to you, she would have been helpful.

But you raised a more basic question, which should be explored a little further.

Privacy is a very important right. Each of us has different viewpoints about the extent of privacy we desire. For example, the politician who enters public life knows full well that he or she will be subjected to intense scrutiny on all phases of life, including personal and financial. Others of us are extremely sensitive about divulging such items as income or net worth.

Indeed, there have been many congressional hearings on the subject of invasion of privacy, whereby governmental agencies and private companies maintain extensive dossiers on people, releasing them to anyone for a fee.

Thus, it is safe to say that most of us do not want to divulge voluntarily our income to anyone, let alone an unknown real estate agent.

But, you must consider the other side of this coin. If you are a seller of property, and you are about to sign a contract, you would like know something about your potential purchaser. Can he or she afford to buy? Will he or she be able to meet the monthly payments - including principal, interest, taxes, insurance and maintenance?

You certainly do not want to take your house off of the market for even one day if the potential purchaser is absolutely unqualified.

Thus, it is important for sellers - or their real estate agents - to determine with some degree of certainty the income and assets of the potential purchaser. All financial institutions that make mortgage loans insist on a detailed credit application form to be filed out before a decision is made to commit the mortgage.

Needless to say, mortgage lending institutions do not want to be in the business of foreclosing on properties because the borrower was unable to continue the monthly payments.

A trade-off thus becomes important. In effect, privacy is our own right, and we can give up as much or as little of our privacy as we deem necessary. If we want to buy a house, the trade-off is to part with a little of our privacy.

This does not mean to say that you have to divulge all aspects of your personal and financial life to every real estate agent and every seller you meet.

Certainly you should determine whether you like the house before having to be asked about your credit standing.

Before you begin looking for a house, contact your bank, a savings and loan association and a mortgage banker. Ask these lending institutions what they will be looking for when you apply for a mortgage loan. Different lending institutions have different requirements, depending on the amount borrowed, the value of the property, and the terms and conditions of the loan.

Try to prequalify yourself. Some lending institutions are willing to cooperate with borrowers even before they sign a contract to buy a house. Thus, you may know well in advance how much money you can borrow, and will thus be guided as you shop around for the best house to buy. In fact, some lenders are willing to give you a statement that you can show to a prospective seller indicating that a loan will be committed, subject to a house appraisal.

Finally, when you are sitting down to write a contract for purchase of a house (with or without a real estate agent) you may want to take the position that your income is your personal business, and you will divulge it only to the potential mortgage lender.