Does the price of a home or apartment generally increase, at least, with the rate of inflation in the United States? Could such a purchase be viewed as effective protection against inflation?
Yes, in 2 ways:
As you mention, the price of a home generally grows with inflation - along with other factors (supply and demand in local markets, etc.).
Through financing. If you finance 80% of your purchase today, in 2014 dollars, you will pay back in future dollars. Those future dollars are worth less, because of inflation.
Even if the price of your home did match inflation or better — and that's a question I'll let the other answers address — I propose that owning a home, by itself, is not a sufficient hedge against inflation.
Inflation will inflate your living expenses. If you're lucky, they'll inflate at the average. If you're unlucky, a change in your spending patterns (perhaps age-related) could result in your expenses rising faster than inflation. (Look at the sub-indexes of the CPI.)
Without income also rising with inflation (or better), how will you cope with rising living expenses? Each passing year, advancing living expenses risk eclipsing a static income.
Your home is an illiquid asset. Generally speaking, it neither generates income for you, nor can you sell only a portion. At best, owning your principal residence helps you avoid a rent expense and inflation in rents — but rent is only one of many living expenses. Some consider a reverse-mortgage an option to tap home equity, but it has a high cost.
In other words: If you don't want to be forced to liquidate [sell] your home, you'll also need to look at ways to ensure your income sources rise with inflation. i.e. look at your cash flow, not just your net worth.
Hence: investing in housing, as in your own principal residence, is not an adequate hedge against inflation.
If you owned additional properties to generate rental income, and you retained pricing power so you could increase the rent charged at least in line with inflation, your situation would be somewhat improved — except you would, perhaps, be adopting another problem: Too high a concentration in a single asset class.
Consequently, I would look at ways other than housing to hedge against inflation. Consider other kinds of investments. "Safe as houses" may be a cliché, but it is no guarantee.
Becoming a landlord is a pretty roundabout way to hedge against inflation. Why don't you research TIPs (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (?))
Over the very long term, a house will just about match inflation, but no more. I observe that it (median home price) has remarkably tight correlation to the mortgage one can buy with a week's worth of median income based on the 30 year rate. In other words, strip out inflation, wage gains, and the effect of the 30 year rate peaking at 18%, then dropping to 4%, and home prices have flatlined for a century.
I agree with mhoran. My answer is for the median, theoretical home. As they say, YMMV, your mileage may vary. As in, you can't have one.
No, there is no linkage to the value of real estate and inflation.
In most of the United States if you bought at the peak of the market in 2006, you still haven't recovered 7+ years later.
Also real estate has a strong local component to the price. Pick the wrong location or the wrong type of real estate and the value of your real estate will be dropping while everybody else sees their values rising. Three properties I have owned near Washington DC, have had three different price patterns since the late 80's. Each had a different starting and ending point for the peak price rise.
You can get lucky and make a lot, but there is no way to guarantee that prices will rise at all during the period you will own it.