The Commerce Department says builders started just 606,900 homes in 2011. That's up slightly from 587,000 in 2010 and 554,000 in 2009 - the worst year on records dating back 50 years. In a healthy market, economists say, about 1.2 million homes are started each year.
In December, builders broke ground on a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000 homes, down 4 percent from the previous month.
Last year was the worst on records dating back a half-century for single-family home construction, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the market. Builders started just 428,600. In a good economy, builders break ground on about 840,000.