One reason home prices have rebounded sharply in Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities hard-hit by the housing bust is because large institutional investors swooped into those markets, bought up foreclosed or underwater homes and then rented them out.

But investors in single-family rentals, like Blackstone Group's Invitation Homes, have largely curtailed their buying, and may even be ready to start selling off more properties to profit from the run-up in home prices. It won't happen quickly; the last thing Blackstone wants to do is flood the market with inventory and depress prices. But observers say that even a slow, methodical exit from these markets is likely to be good news for first-time buyers because it will add to the housing stock and at least slow the rapid rise in home values.

"They are going to drip these properties back on to the market in a very controlled way and exit," said Clem Ziroli, the president of First Mortgage Corp. in Ontario, Calif. "The good news was institutional investors helped shore up some of the worst housing markets during the downturn. The bad news is they took the place of first-time homebuyers."

According to a RealtyTrac, the top four investors — Invitation Homes, American Homes 4 Rent, Colony American Homes and Fundamental REO — accounted for 10% to 20% of home purchases since 2012 in Atlanta, Charlotte and Tampa. They also have been big purchasers of homes in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle, Memphis and Sarasota, Fla., among others

Home prices nationwide have risen 35% since bottoming out in the first quarter of 2012. But home prices have rebounded more dramatically in those markets where institutional investors bought up distressed homes, and turned them into rentals, essentially taking inventory off the market, according to RealtyTrac's report released Thursday. Since early 2012, home prices have jumped 81% in Memphis, 71% in Atlanta, 66% in Phoenix, 60% in Las Vegas, and 56% in Tampa, said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac.

Institutional investors began buying up properties in the second quarter of 2012 and retreated in the second half of 2014. Their retreat is good news for home buyers because there's "less competition…and potentially more inventory," Blomquist said.

The largest four investors purchased 45,747 single-family homes from January 2012 to October 2014, or roughly 9% of the nearly 500,000 homes bought by all institutional investors in that period, RealtyTrac found.

Banks and mortgage lenders could also benefit from a sell-off of single-family rentals. Institutional investors largely paid cash for distressed and foreclosed properties, but the next round of buyers — individuals and families — will likely need financing.

"The thing about these investors is they are not using traditional lending, if any lending at all, and as the market transitions to one more reliant on traditional buyers that could be good for banks and mortgage lenders," Blomquist said.

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