The General Services Administration plans to spend nearly $2 million this year hiring private real estate companies to lease office space for federal agencies in the Washington area, GSA officials said this week.

Lease agreements signed in the late 1960s and early 1970s for about 22 million square feet of offices will expire during the next five years and must be renegotiated, a task that could overwhelm the GSA's Washington staff of about 30 leasing specialists, according to Paul Chistolini, GSA assistant regional administrator here for real estate and development.

Commercial leasing firms applauded GSA's decision to hire private brokers, and predicted the move will save the government money. "A good broker knows the conditions of the market place, and knows where he can extract the maximum benefit for the tenants," said Brian Connolly, a senior vice president for Smithy Braedon, a leasing company here.

Several brokers said they expect to submit bids but want more details about GSA's terms, particularly those intended to prevent conflicts of interest between the government's interests and the companies' private leasing activities.

The expiring rental agreements represent nearly three-quarters of the 30.2 million square feet of office space occupied by scores of large and small federal agencies in the Washington metropolitan area. GSA, which leases and manages federal property, must also find another 3.2 million square feet of new office space for government workers this year.

Until recently, GSA had the authority to negotiate a new agreement with the current landlord when a lease ended. Now, however, GSA is required to ask for competitive bids when leases expire and when new space is being sought, making the leasing process lengthier and more complicated in some cases.

Private companies who win the GSA contracts will be expected to handle all the work involved in renting offices, from helping define space needs, surveying market conditions and developing negotiating strategies to overseeing the finishing of interior space after the space is leased, Chistolini said. The only thing that must be handled by a GSA staff person is negotiating the costs and terms of the lease, he said.

Chistolini said GSA expects to sign one-year contracts with three "tenant representatives," as the winning companies are to be known, one each for the District, and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The agency will have an option to renew the contracts for two subsequent one-year periods, he said.

The contracts could be worth up to about $650,000 each, with the brokerage firms to be paid for each project as it is completed. GSA expects to give the contract holders in each area "at least two good-sized cases" dealing with leases in the 100,000-square-foot range, said Chistolini. "If it works well" the agency probably will give contractors more projects, he said.

Because many real estate companies do not have architects, engineers and space planners already on their staffs, winning contractors may have to assemble teams of specialists or subcontract part of the work.

Contract provisions intended to prevent conflicts of interest bothered several brokers, who said the GSA's rules were not clear. Agency officials said they will answer questions brokers submitted after a recent meeting at which GSA officials described their plans to more than 100 real estate professionals.

The government wants "full disclosure" of any potential conflict of interest before contracts are awarded, said Arthur M. Turowski, GSA contracting officer. "Under no circumstances can a contractor receive double payments," he said.

Real estate brokers often have "exclusive" agreements to find tenants for property owners and receive commissions from the owners when leases are signed. GSA has made it clear that members of a contract holder's firm cannot receive commissions for a GSA lease from a property owner, and must sever exclusive agreements with a landlord offering property for rent that meets the description of office space being sought by GSA, Turowski said.

The plan to award contracts to private firms "is a great idea," although dealing with the conflict of interest rules will be difficult, said Joel Cannon, executive vice president of Leggat McCall/Grubb & Ellis Inc. in Washington. "We don't want to lose an exclusive {agreement with a landlord} but there has to be some way" to keep the GSA contract and agreements with property owners, he said.

The Washington and Fort Worth GSA offices are the first to hire private companies to do part of their leasing work, Chistolini said. Although an unusually heavy workload expected in the next few years is the major reason for seeking help from private companies, the plan also conforms to the administration's objective of turning over government activity to the private sector whenever possible, he said.

Efforts to buy office buildings instead of renting space have not been abandoned, but "with the amount of money we get to buy buildings we could only buy about 500,000 to 600,000 square feet a year," said Chistolini. The government owns about half the space its agencies occupy and hopes to own 80 percent by the year 2000.

GSA leases 84.9 million square feet of space in about 4,775 privately owned buildings throughout the country, using just over 80 percent of the space for white-collar office workers. Nearly half of the Washington area space now occupied by federal workers, 14.3 million square feet, is located in the District of Columbia. The government uses another 11.4 million square feet of office space in the Virginia suburbs and 5.19 million square feet in the Maryland suburbs. Average rents paid are $13.44 per square foot in the District, $11.31 in Virginia and $8.10 in Maryland, according to figures compiled by Michael Sumichrast, an economist and commercial real estate expert.