President Carter welcomed Reagan to the White House yesterday, capping Reagan's inspection tour of the city he will dominate as president starting Jan. 20.

"I think you'll like the place," Carter said as he and Rosalynn Carter greeted the president-elect and Nancy Reagan.

Carter's words were warm as though Reagan were a longtime associate instead of a man who the president suggested during the campaign would be a danger to the future of the nation. "We're very glad to have you here," Carter said to the man who defeated him Nov. 4.

The visit got off to an awkward start. Reagan arrived about one minute early and a White House usher was on hand to open his limousine door. No one else was on hand, however.

The Reagans waved to reporters and photographers, turned and walked under an awning toward the open door. There was no sign of a host and hostess.

Just as the Reagans reached the threshold, the Carters came running to meet them. There was much checking of watches and the president remarked that his guests were early. Then the president led the foursome back outside to pose for photographers.

A few minutes later, Carter and Reagan emerged from the Oval Office and walked slowly along a path to a slight rise from which they could view the White House grounds. Carter talked and gestured, just like anyone explaining the layout of a place to a new resident.

Rosalynn Carter escorted Nancy Reagan through the White House while their husbands met in the Oval Office for 85 minutes, more than twice as long as had been anticipated by White House aides.

Reagan described the meeting as a "briefing" by Carter. "I must say the president was most gracious and most helpful." Reagan said. "I think it was a rather complete briefing . . . most beneficial."

Carter was, if anything, more enthusiastic. "We have a very good working relationship personally and also a very fine transition commitment that has been in effect for several weeks," he said.

"I'm very grateful to Gov. Reagan for having come this afternoon, permitted me to share with him some of the common commitments we have as president and future president of our nation," Carter said, adding his voice to the chorus of Washingtonians who have been pelting Reagan with kind words since his arrival Monday. Carter called the meeting a "delightful experience."

While the president and president-elect met, their senior aides also conferred. Carter aides described the several ways they have organized and reorganized the White House staff. The Reagan aides had few questions and did little talking, participants from each side said.

Presidential press secretary Jody Powell said Carter concentrated on topics likely to be on the Oval Office desk when Reagan takes over on the afternoon of Jan. 20. Powell declined to name the chief topics.

Earlier this week, Carter told associates that there were three topics he wanted to raise with Reagan.

He said he would ask the president-elect to embrace publicly the Camp David peace process. Carter said he wanted to explain to Reagan his view that the Camp David framework is the only hope for peace in the Middle East.

The president also said he would convey his concern about the "superfund" proposal to pay for cleaning up hazardous chemical waste dumps. Carter has been urging speedy creation of a fund, but the proposal has become a controversial issue in Congress.

Finally, Carter said he wanted to impress upon Reagan how important he thinks foreign aid is to the nation's foreign policy.

The manner of the two men's departures from the White House made it clear, in case anyone was confused, where the spotlight shines.

The Reagans walked from the West Wing of the White House to the government-owned townhouse on Jackson Place Nw where they are staying. On the path to the White House gate, on the sidewalk, on Pennsylvania Avenue where traffic was halted by police, and on Jackson Place, the Reagans were surrounded by a mass of photographers.

A short time later, the Carters left by helicopter for a long weekend at Camp David. A few cameras recorded the scene.

In saying goodbye to Reagan, Carter said: "Good luck. "I'll be seeing you in the future -- often." When reporters asked Powell what the president had meant, he paused and a reporter jokingly suggested "more debates." Powell grinned and said: "Yes, he wants a rematch." Carter and Reagan last met in Cleveland at their debate last month, which aided Reagan toward his Election Day triumph.

Reagan began his workday by receiving National Security Council briefings at Jackson Place, and followed his visit to the White House by receiving West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the first foreign leader the president-elect has agreed to meet. Schmidt sought an invitation and finally got one despite earlier indications from Reagan and his aides that the president-elect would avoid meeting foreign leaders until after his inauguration in order not to confuse anyone about the nation's foreign policy.

Reagan also met with members of Congress who were early supporters of his campaign, and lunched with members of his team that is planning the inaugural.

He dined last night at the house of columnist George Will and is to conclude his week in Washington by meeting with workers at his transition office this morning. Then he will return to Los Angeles.