The buyer's agent also gets 3% from the seller. On either side of the table, it amounts to a fair chunk of change for what looks like easy work. Houses practically sell themselves these days.
The appeal is heightened by the lingering effects of the dot-com bust. Subscriptions to the local Multiple Listing Service are up 53% since widespread tech cutbacks began in 2001.
"Everybody loves real estate now. It held up when many people were losing money in stocks. People talk about real estate in the grocery stores. That drives interest in the industry," said Janet Case, executive officer of the Silicon Valley Assn. of Realtors and herself a tech refugee.
Lori Kowal didn't think about a career in real estate until she was laid off from Arrow Electronics Inc. four years ago. "The downturn was really tough here, an absolute nightmare. I lived off my savings, my 401(k), and then a friend who worked in real estate said, 'You'd be awesome at this,' " she said.
The high cost of living in the communities south of San Francisco was another factor.
"You ask yourself, where can I make money to survive in this valley?" said Kowal, a 43-year-old divorced mother of a teenage son. "You can't do it on $20,000 to $30,000 a year. So where are the quote-unquote big bucks? People seem to think it's in real estate."
The big bucks are certainly there. The half-dozen top agents in Petralia's office sell more than 30 properties a year and take home more than $500,000 each, branch manager Ed Graziani said. In neighboring Saratoga, which is wealthier, they can make more than $1 million.
But it's not easy to become a top producer. Many people who want to sell their houses either already have an agent they've worked with before or, increasingly, have a friend or a relative with a license.
Agents representing buyers, meanwhile, have to contend with a sellers' market. Many houses draw multiple bids -- a dozen is typical, and 25 is possible. If a would-be buyer doesn't get the house, the buyer's agent doesn't get paid.
"Seventy-five percent of our membership does between zero and one transaction a year," said Jim Myrick, president of the Santa Clara County Assn. of Realtors.
A lot of the new agents have "unrealistic expectations," said Peter Aiello, who manages 67 agents in a Cashin Company Realtors office in San Mateo. "They just see the price of houses going up. But they don't see that there's none to sell."
Two years ago, Aiello said, the number of active listings in San Mateo and the five communities surrounding it was 364. "Last year, when we were crying about low inventory, it was 163," he said. "As of last Sunday, it was 145."
Some new agents have already made a U-turn. Duard Slattery, a former engineer at FMC/United Defense in San Jose, switched to real estate in 2003, joining Coldwell Banker in Los Altos.
"In a year and a half, I wasn't able to get any listings," he said. He recently got another tech job.
The allure of real estate is so powerful that stories like Slattery's aren't much of a deterrent. Neither is the industry's uncertain future.
On one side, the agents are pressed by the rise of Internet firms that skimp on traditional service but charge much lower commissions. On the other side are their own customers, whose houses are frequently in such demand that the owners can insist on a reduced commission.
Yet the new agents keep coming. Six years ago, people gave up good jobs for the excitement -- and stock options -- of Internet start-ups. Now some are leaving good jobs with tech companies because they find more thrills in real estate.
Cheryl Hu, who recently emigrated from China and in one year earned her MBA from San Jose State, said she planned to give up her job in high-tech corporate finance.
"I make about $100,000 a year," she said. "But I had to ask myself, do I want to continue to lead a comfortable life and climb the corporate ladder or do I want something different, something exciting?"
Hu got her license and recently started part time with Coldwell Banker. "Either I'll have negative cash flow, or the sky is no limit. But I'm only 30-something -- I can take a risk and recover if it turns out to be a bad decision."
Petralia has no doubt that becoming an agent is the smartest decision he ever made. He dismisses any competitive threat from the hordes of newcomers.
"They come here, they leave. They come here, they leave," he says. "You've got to treat it like a 9-to-5 job. Most of the agents just show up on the days there's a free lunch."
Last year, as he was breaking into the business, Petralia acted as a buyer's agent for a $1.6-million property. He netted $32,000 -- more, he says, than he had made in the entire previous year stocking auto parts at a Mercedes dealer.
That's the kind of score that brings new agents into the profession, but Petralia confesses that the clients were his sister and her fiance, successful Internet entrepreneurs.