Gerald R. Ford returned to the White House as an ex-President yesterday and was graciously received by the man who defeated him in November.

"You got me off to a good start," Carter said after Ford had thanked him for inviting him to a private meeting in the Oval Office.

Before Ford arrived, Carter told reporters that he wanted to discuss foreign affairs with the former President and would "certainly welcome his advice."

For his part, Ford said that he enjoyed "a personal, friendly relationship" with Carter and didn't want to engage in "partisan political nitpicking."

When Ford was asked, during a visit to the American Enterprise Institute, how long he expected Carter's political honeymoon to continue, he replied: "I'm not going to put any time limit on it. I think the President ought to have the best chance possible to do the best job."

He looked a bit solemn.

Ford, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., was deeply tanned.

"You look so healthy I'm envious," Carter told him.

The former President arrived on a midday flight from New York and inspected his transition office overlooking Lafayette Park. The restored townhouse also has living quarters where Ford and his wife, Betty, will spend two nights before returning to California.

About 200 people were waiting at the park to cheer Ford when he got out of his limousine.

He went from the transition office to his new offices at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy study group that has provided employment for various Ford administration officials. The salary paid Ford has not been specifically disclosed, but a spokesman said it was "a top academic-level salary," believed to be from $35,000 to $40,000 a year.

The former President, who commands a $100,000 a-year pension from his congressional and presidential service and is in demand as a speaker, is well on his way to becoming a wealthy man in his retirement.

Waving to the crowd as he stood with Betty Ford outside the transition office, the former President proclaimed: "We feel good. Thanks for being here."