Interested in purchasing masterpiece furniture at slightly better than bargain-basement prices? You can, if you aren't afraid of a little footwork and extra driving.

When my husband first suggested spending several days of our vacation in the North Carolina furniture marts, I agreed readily. We had heard from others how they have saved 50-65 percent by shopping the Carolina outlets; we were determined to do the same.

In this spirit (and armed with pad and pencil to note prices and style numbers), we first visited several large Northern Virginia showrooms. These forays finally rewarded us with a choice, which would retail for upwards of $5,000, including delivery and setup.

If the Virginia showrooms overwhelmed us, the North Carolina furniture marts defied comprehension: seemingly endless offerings of styles and colors. Four different dealers in North Carolina offered us our original choice, ranging in price from $2,732 to $3,200, including delivery and setup.

We added travel costs of about $200 (gasoline, hotel accommodations, and restaurant meals). Next we subtracted the cost of eating at home and running the air conditioner. Finally, we calculated that we could save a good $2,000 on a roomful of masterpiece furniture. (One dealer told us we could have saved even more, had we bought a suite manufactured by a larger company.)

Because even the outlet prices can vary by close to $500, the crucial first question to ask, of course, is basic price. Follow-up questions should deal with additional costs, responsibility for furniture in transit, length of time until delivery, payment terms, and form of payment acceptable.

We discovered a variety of terms:

50 percent down and 50 percent before the furniture leaves the store, with safe delivery depending on the reliability of the transporter.

50 percent down, and the remainder upon satisfactory delivery.

20 percent down and 80 percent to the driver after a guaranteed safe delivery.

Some dealers accept credit cards; others demand cash or check.

One misconception -- that we could purchase furniture directly from a factory -- was discarded during our visit to North Carolina. You buy from outlets, separate from the factories.

If you do not have style numbers -- vital for valid price comparisons -- you can get them by calling or writing the factory, which will also provide names and addresses of dealers selling their furniture. Factory locations are listed in the Standard Industrial Classification and the Thomas Directory, reference works owned by most libraries.

North Carolina is to furniture shoppers what Mecca is to a Moslem. More than one furniture dealer confided proudly that over 600 furniture makers exist within a 150-mile radius of High Point, N.C., manufacturing 90 percent of all dining-room and bedroom furniture made in America.

Some other savings we heard about:

A complete suite of Baker's 18th-century mahogany, priced at $4,600 in a Northern Virginia showroom and selling for slightly over $2,900 in a North Carolina outlet.

A six-piece suite of Heritage furniture, retailing in this area for $4,800, and selling in North Carolina for about $2,800.

If you're in the market for fine furniture, it's worth the trip.