Q: We are worried sick. We recently signed a contract to sell our house, and settlement will take place within the next few weeks. However, we have been looking high and low for the deed that we received when we bought the property, but we cannot find it anywhere.

What do we do? Is there any other protection or precaution we should take before or during the settlement?

A: Don't worry about the deed. Once it has been recorded in the land records of the jurisdiction in which your property sits, the deed, for all practical purposes, becomes an unimportant piece of paper.

While you should keep your deed and other similar legal documents in a safe place for future reference, you will not be called upon to produce the actual deed to the property when you sell your house.

With respect to your question of other protections and precautions at settlement, here are some suggestions:

1. If you have a mortgage on your property that will be paid off at settlement, it is a good idea to double check, in advance of settlement, exactly what the pay-out amount will be. Although the settlement attorney will handle the actual payment of your mortgage, you should assure yourself that those figures are correct.

2. Are there any prorations to be considered? If there is oil in your tank, it is advisable to have the oil company give you a written statement as to what the tank contains on the day of settlement. With the cost of oil rising rapidly, you certainly don't want to give away oil in your tank.

3. Are the taxes paid for the current tax period? Bring your cancelled checks to settlement if you paid your taxes yourself. Often a question arises as to whether these taxes have been paid and posted, and the availability of your cancelled checks will avoid unnecessary delay.

4. Try to avoid surprises at the settlement. If you anticipate any unusual occurrences -- such as having to stay in the house a day or two longer, alert all of the parties to the settlement transaction well in advance of the actual date of settlement. Although the settlement is in effect, the beginning and the end of the process, too many settlements can "fall apart" because the parties have sprung surprises at the last minute.

5. Arrange to cancel the existing utilities as of the date you vacate the property. Don't have the utility companies turn off the gas or electricity without alerting your buyer, insofar as there may be a charge to your buyer for reinstating the service. The best way to deal with this is for both the buyer and the seller to alert the utility companies of the change in name and to have a final meter reading obtained on the date of settlement.

6. If you want your attorney to review the papers in advance of settlement (so that you can perhaps avoid the necessity of having the attorney present at settlement) make the necessary arrangements well in advance. Settlement companies and title attorneys are often overworked, and unless you give them advance notice, the papers may not be ready on time.

7. Confirm with the settlement attorney when payment will be made to you. Is this a "dry" settlement or will the settlement check be available at settlement or shortly thereafter? If you are buying a house and need the settlement proceeds shortly, a letter of assignment of funds may be worked out -- but all of these items should be accomplished well in advance of the actual settlement date.