More foreign-owned companies have chosen to put their U.S. headquarters in the Washington area, swelling their ranks to about 176 as of last fall, according to a survey.

Twelve of the companies moved here in 1989, the study by KPMG Peat Marwick found. The study, released last week, does not list companies by name, but says that total investment by the 176 in the region over the years is about $1.4 billion and employment about 17,870, most of them Americans.

Of the newcomers in 1989, Maryland got the most: three went to Howard County, two to Anne Arundel County, and three to Montgomery County. In Virginia, one went to Alexandria, one to Arlington County and two to Fairfax County. None went to the District.

In 1989, the 176 as a group invested about $221 million in the Washington area and estimated they would invest an additional $412 million through the end of 1990.

In the past, foreign firms have tended to stress proximity to the federal government in explaining why they chose this area. "When we asked the same question to the 12 new ones," said Michael Henderson, a senior tax manager at KPMG Peat Marwick, "they cited transportation and proximity to key markets" more frequently.

Since the 1980s, foreign capital has taken a key role in the U.S. economy. The survey is new evidence that the Washington area is also feeling the effects, although the foreign headquarters still form a small part of the local economy.

Conducted last fall, the study counted only companies that were present at the end of 1989. However, the numbers changed in 1990 as new companies came in and a few dropped out of the foreign-owned ranks due to sales.

For instance, People's Drug Store Inc., formerly owned by the Canadian conglomerate Imasco Ltd., left the list in 1990 after it was bought by Melville Corp. of Harrison, N.Y. for $330 million.

British companies had the largest share of investment of the 176, about $556 million, the survey found. Dutch companies were next with $351 million, followed by Canadian at $237 million. Japanese firms ranked sixth, with $60 million.

About 6,050 of the jobs at foreign companies with headquarters in the area were in manufacturing, 4,700 were in services and 7,120 in sales and distribution.