Valuations, Identification & Human Perception

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When I was 20 years old, I received some specialized training on how to study fingerprints. The class started with about 20 people and by the end, only four of us graduated. Myself and two others were hired by the Denver Police Department as fingerprint examiners. Why such a low graduation rate? It’s not rocket science. But it does take a person that posses an ‘eye’ for identifying specific characteristics of finger prints.


At the time, I was trained to use the Henry Classification System. This is a system in which the specific characteristics of each fingerprint are used to create a class or code. (Arches, loops, whorls and ridge counts as well as bifurcation points) Once the class for each finger print is made, it can assist a fingerprint examiner in narrowing down the search for comparable fingerprints in the police department’s fingerprint filing system.

Here is a picture of a typical fingerprint card with the Henry Class

When a person is arrested, their fingerprints are taken and sent to a fingerprint examiner. If the person was lying about their identity, and had been arrested before, hopefully the fingerprint examiner would be able to find the person in the system using the prints.  If no fingerprints were found to match, the finger print card would be filed so that, if the person was ever arrested again, their prints would be there to be searched.

I was sometimes amazed at how many aliases one person might have due to giving a different name every time they were arrested, only to have their identity revealed by a fingerprint examiner, and their new fake name being added to the list.

The Henry system helps to narrow down the number of fingerprint cards that an examiner has to search through in order to try to find a match. But it still takes a human eye to pinpoint an exact match. The more common the prints, the more difficult it is to find an exact match. Sometimes the only difference between one person’s prints and another person’s, is a line (or ridge as we called them) or a bifurcation in the ridges of the print. The more unique the prints, the easier it is to identify a match.


Around that time, back in the mid 90’s, the FBI had a digital system that was relatively new, in which prints could be scanned into their system, called AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Then a search could be made for potential prints in the FBI’s database. However, it still took a human eye to identify an exact match.

What does this have to do with appraising?


There are some similarities. Like fingerprint examiners, appraisers also try to make identifications. Appraisers work hard to identify sales that are as comparable to the property being appraised as possible. It sounds easy. Sometimes it is. At other times, it can be very difficult and takes a trained ‘eye’.

Appraisers will start with a larger pool of sales.  When searching for comparable sales, the appraiser will make a search of a neighborhood to find what might be considered to be relatively and potentially comparable sales. This is done by searching by certain criteria. For instance, a search for homes built between such and such a year, with gross living areas of between this amount and that amount, that have sold within six months, a year or even more of the effective date of the appraisal. The search can also be more specific.

It is up to the appraiser to make a careful examination in order to determine which homes are truly comparable. On paper, a home might appear to be comparable during the initial search process. But when the MLS notes and pictures are examined, along with other data available to the appraiser, it may be discovered that the home is not really comparable.


As mentioned earlier, in examining fingerprints, if a person has a set of prints that are all fairly common for the general public, it is much more difficult to identify a person, because there are not a lot of differences in the prints. The picture of the prints above is a good example of what a more common looking finger print looks like.

In appraising it’s just the opposite. The more similar a property is, in comparison to other properties in its neighborhood, the easier it is to identify comparable sales. The more unique a home is, the more difficult it can be to find comparable sales.

Not everyone has an eye for fingerprint identification. Likewise, not everyone has an ‘eye’ for identifying sales that are truly comparable and acceptable as indicators of market value. Sometimes it’s just a matter of perception and training.

In fingerprint examination, there are times when an examiner might miss finding an existing finger print card, usually due to human error. This would create what was called a ‘double number’ because the person would be assigned a second identification number in the police records. That was never a good thing because that meant that an identification was missed.

Sometimes, in real estate appraising, we appraisers may miss a good comparable sale. What are some of the reasons why this might happen? Human error. Sometimes we might make the parameters of our search so narrow that we miss a sale that might be comparable. I have found it helpful to not make the search too narrow because we might eliminate comparable sales. Like in examining fingerprints, sometimes the best way to really narrow down sales that are truly comparable is to use good old human observation and perception.

Another reason appraisers may miss a good comparable sale is that the information about that property is missing or inaccurately documented in the MLS. The biggest culprit I see, in this scenario, is with gross living area. Sometimes it is left blank. Other times, it includes the finished basement areas or other areas that should not be included in the GLA. Yet another reason why narrowing our search criteria may make us missing a comparable sale.


Like in fingerprint examination and classification, a human eye is also usually needed in order to properly identify comparable sales. In appraising, a human eye is generally the best way to more precisely determine whether or not a property is truly comparable. AVMs (automated valuation models) can do well in some cases in which there are a lot sales, that have sold in subject’s neighborhood area, and that are comparable to the subject in terms of building characteristics.However, the more unique the property is, generally, the less likely that the AVM’s results are going to be accurate.

While technology has made some impressive strides in some valuation estimates, in my opinion, nothing compares to the human eye and human perception. Computers compute, humans perceive. That difference can make a huge impact on estimating market value.

By the way, you may wonder why I am not examining finger prints now? It’s simply a matter of economics. It doesn’t pay enough to support a family. (Or at least it didn’t back in the day.) I did love working for the Denver PD. I hope all of my old fellow examiners and the police officers I worked with are doing well! Many are probably retired by now.

One of my favorite parts of the job was taking ‘ride-alongs’ with police officers. I was able to spend a shift riding along with different officers in the field. I saw and experienced some pretty crazy things on those ride-alongs. It helped to give me a much better perspective of how hard-working police officers are. It is not an easy job and seems to be increasingly under-appreciated. I have a huge amount of respect for law enforcement officers and I greatly appreciate their hard work in keeping us all safe!

Just as law enforcement officers are under-appreciated by some, appraisers are also under-appreciated by some. I think that if people took ‘ride-alongs’ with appraisers, shadowing us for a day or two, they might understand what a tremendous amount of work goes into each appraisal report. I assure you, it’s a lot more work than most people realize!

Both police officers and appraisers are protecting the public. Just in different ways. And honestly, the police officers have a much tougher job!

So, the next time you are watching your favorite criminal justice show, you will be armed with some information about how fingerprints can be used to identify people. And whilst thinking of that, perhaps it will bring to your mind some of the similarities in how appraisers search for comparable sales. Thanks for allowing me to reminisce and for taking the journey with me!

Here are some other articles and videos I enjoyed this week! I hope you will also…

Flying Ahead Of Ourselves in Housing – Housing Notes by Jonathan Miller

Is a blue kitchen all the range or too much? –  Sacramento Appraisal Blog

Alternative Valuations – Avoid The PitfallsNational Association of Appraisers

Dear USPAP Instructor – Disaster Inspections and Sex Offenders – The Appraiser Coach Video Podcast

The Role of State and National Appraisal Groups – The Apprisal Report – Appraiser eLearning

What is Actionable Education – George Dell’s Analogue Blog

October Newsletter – DW Slater Company Appraisal Blog

2 thoughts on “Valuations, Identification & Human Perception”

    1. Thanks so much Ryan! I hope it wan’t too much of a stretch. I’m always thing of similarities between things. I guess it’s the appraiser in me.😃 It was interesting work. Some days I miss it, even though it was a relatively long time ago.

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