Howard Wisman Sharpe, 71, a general contractor and real estate developer in Northern Virginia for many years, died Sunday at Arlington Hospital. He had cancer.

Mr. Sharpe was was born in Atlanta. His family moved to Arlington in 1910 and he graduated from old Devitt preparatory school in Washington.

He worked in advertising in the 1920s and began his real estate and building career in the 1930s. During World War II he was a project manager for the Blair construction company and worked on defense installations in the United States.

In 1946, Mr. Sharpe became a founder of Sharpe & Hamaker Inc., a general contracting and architectural firm in Arlington of which he become president. The company built numerous commerical and industrial projects in Northern Virginia.

The company was liquidated about a year ago. At the time of his death, Mr. Sharpe was a partner in Sharpe & Hamaker, an outgrowth of the contracting company. He also was president and chairman of P&H Investments, a real estate investment firm, a vice president and director of the Metropolitan Savings and Loan Association of Arlington, and a member of the advisory board of the First American Bank of Virginia.

Mr. Sharpe was a founder and former president of the Northern Virginia Builders Association.

He was a founder of the old Courthouse Country Club, now the Fairfax Country Club, and a member of the Washington Golf and Country Club. He was a member of the Arlington Rotary Club.

Survivors include his wife, the former Helen Robertshaw, whom he married in 1933, of the home in Arlington; a son, Howard W. Jr., of Fairfax; a daughter, Marilyn S. Collom, of Milford, Mich., and two grandchildren. CAPTION: Picture, HOWARD W. SHARPE