In spite of expanded powers that allow savings and loan associations to start handing out Visa and other credit cards, starting Thursday, area S&Ls are not likely to jump into the credit card business right away.

Eventually the cost of staying competitive may include issuing credit cards just as banks do, but for the time being S&Ls are busy mastering other new skills such as handling checking accounts.

Earlier this year, Congress moved to broaden the types of services that savings and loans may offer, a move designed to help stem the flow of funds out of the savings institutions. With the changes in the works, ultimately it may be hard for a customer to tell the savings and loans from commercial banks.

Last week the Federal Home Loan Bank Board authorized federally chartered savings and loan associations to issue credit cards unsecured by savings accounts, which puts one more function previously reserved to banks in the hand of the S&Ls.

"I think a lot of people will issue credit cards. I think we will," said Thomas Owen, president of Perpetual, the largest S&L in the area. But Owen said credit cards are not in the immediate future. "We've got to learn first how to issue NOW accounts (negotiable orders of withdrawal, or interest-bearing-checking acounts) and renegotiable rate mortgages."

"We're working on a program at the present time, but we're not ready to do it immediately," said Richard Lawton, president of Washington-Lee Savings and Loan Association in suburban Virginia. Washington-Lee is a state-chartered rather than a federally chartered savings and loan association, but the practice in Virginia has been to extend to state associations the same powers granted the federally chartered institutions.

"In order to be competitive we're going to have to offer some unsecured credit," said Lawton.

Maryland Federal Savings and Loan in Hyattsville will probably launch credit card operations at about the same time it begins offering NOW accounts, said spokesman Bob Halleck. Halleck said he expects the S&L will issue one of the established cards such as Visa or Mastercard.

Halleck said he expects many savings and loans will contract with banks to do the paperwork on credit cards, paying the banks a fee in return for a "piece of the action."

Because the credit card industry itself has been depressed this year, savings and loans can afford to take a leisurely attitude about when they will get into the business.